Back in Shanghai after the Christmas holiday, and happy to be here. The time spent with family and friends in America was a true joy, despite the holiday-related insanity. It was great to be back in our house in Grosse Pointe. Through the efforts of our friend Jean, my brother Tim, sister-in-law Soozi, and my beautiful nieces Carly, Lilly and Abigail, we came home to a lit Christmas tree and a festive, fully-decorated house. It took us all of about 10 minutes to feel right at home, in our home. Well, in one of our homes.
Now, I never thought for one minute I would ever have cause to say the words “my other house,” in a sentence. But I have, and we do. We are very fortunate that we have the opportunity to live in 2 houses, even if they are 7,500 miles away from each other. We are also fortunate that together, we have been able to make both houses our home.
Our Grosse Pointe house is a wonderful, red brick French colonial set back nicely from a quiet, leafy street. We have lived there for more than 10 years and have done significant renovations to make the house truly our own. We redid the basement, added hardwood throughout the first floor, and jack-and-jilled the girls’ bathroom. We also built the mother-of-all working kitchens. I had been longing for a real chef’s kitchen for more than a decade, so we finally built one. And you guessed it, about a year later, we left it to move to China. (Look away while I shed a manly tear.)
Anyway, it’s a great house and as a family we live in it very well. Coming back to it for the holidays was good for all of us, and sleeping in our own beds again was a nice reprieve from the torture racks that pass as mattresses in China (but throw on a heavenly Slumbermaax pad like we do — slumbermaax.com — and you sleep in the arms of angels). The time spent at home was great for the girls, who reconnected with friends and engaged in playdates and sleepovers almost immediately. Did I mention that when we first pulled in the driveway, there was an 8×10 foot, flood-lit sign on our front lawn? It was welcoming Cassidy (and family) home and was erected and painted by her knucklehead friends Katie, Zoe, and Meagan. Yep, we were definitely home. Well, one of our homes.
Twelve days later, we left the happiness and wonder of our Grosse Pointe home for Shanghai. Filled with great memories of our loved ones, the girls and I boarded the plane for the hellishly long flight back to China, and our house there. (Karen stayed behind for work.) When we finally got to that house, in the Jinqiao area of the Pudong district of the city of Shanghai, we found ourselves home, again. Inside, we literally flopped in relief on our living room floor, exhausted from jet lag, but happy to be back in our China home. (Heated floors are the key to happiness.)
Our house in Shanghai is interesting, and many have asked us how it compares to our U.S. home. It is in one of the many Western-style developments in Pudong called Green Villas. The house is set close to the road on our 8-house cul-de-sac. When you walk in the front door, you immediately enter a big, somewhat stately space with a 25-foot high cathedral ceiling and a giant chandelier hanging from it. To the left is our living room, which is pretty good-sized, and has very tall front windows and nice wood floors. It also has a fake fireplace, that turns on with a switch, and actually generates heat through a fan system at the bottom. It curiously came with a real set of iron fireplace tools. And outside our house, like all the houses in the development, we have a large, fake stone chimney. We assume the developers believed that all Western homes needed to have at least the appearance of a fireplace and chimney.
Adjacent to the living room is the dining room, and down the hall from that is our family room. That room is part of a larger grouping of rooms, similar to our Grosse Pointe home, that includes a breakfast area, kitchen, and what in China is called an ayi kitchen (where your ayi is supposed to cook, though ours cooks in the big kitchen), where we hide appliances. It’s hard to describe the wackiness of our kitchen. We have an undersized refrigerator and oven (which Karen refers to as our Easy-bake oven), and a 3-burner stove top that only has room for two pans. The island in the middle of the kitchen is installed backwards and slightly askew, and the lighting is best described as Medieval. It’s nothing at all like cooking in Grosse Pointe, but the China kitchen has something that I will never have anywhere else: An ayi to do all the prep and cleanup (sigh).
Our staircase to the second floor looks like something from “Gone with the Wind” and leads to an upstairs hallway that gives a sweeping view of the front entrance and living room. Off the hallway are the girls’ rooms and shared bath, a guest suite, a study, and our master suite. Even though we have no basement (see below), we have lots of room for storage and our realtor, Liza of Savills Property Services (savills.com.cn), claims the entire house is more than 3,500 square feet, which we strongly doubt. Despite its shortcomings in the kitchen, our China house is really pretty comfortable and we enjoy hanging out in it (or out back on the deck). As a family, we have been able to make it as much of a home to us as our Michigan home.
The houses in the many expat developments throughout Shanghai were built to be familiar and comfortable to folks like us from the Western world. And, as to be expected, some things they got right. Others, not so much. The biggest issue here is the quality of construction and materials. We were told by pretty much everyone that newer is better, as houses here begin to degrade after about 5 years. After looking at several houses, we chose a recently built house in a brand new development. Another issue in many homes is that basements are a crapshoot in China. We went through a couple of houses on our pre trip that we needed to leave as soon as we got to the basement because the smell was so horrific. Mold, mildew, formaldehyde (?!?!) and various other bad stuff creep into the basements in China, so most developers don’t build houses with them anymore.
To their credit, the developers in China got much right, particularly after a little trial and error. Our development has cul-de-sacs throughout that make playing out front by children both inviting and safe from traffic. Most Western developments in Shanghai are lush with trees and vegetation – ours is still a work in progress – reminiscent of the tree-lined streets of U.S. suburbs. And man, do the Chinese take clubhouses seriously! We have friends in a nearby development called Vizcaya that has a club house that could have been built for Miami Beach – massive indoor and outdoor pools, spa, gym, salon, store, poolside grilling and eating areas, bakery, and on and on. Our clubhouse is scheduled for completion in March and we have high hopes for it.
So as you can see, our two houses are different, though we live in both pretty much the same way. When we got to Shanghai for the first time 6 months ago, we didn’t know it then, but we were home. When we came back to our Grosse Pointe house for the holidays last month, we also found ourselves home. The life lesson the four of us took from all the back and forth traveling was that no matter how nice, a house is pretty much just shelter. It’s the human content of the house that makes it a home, wherever it’s located.