A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine, Jim Arpin, and I went with a new Shanghai guy tai named Jon to a place at the far reaches of the city called Thames Town. It was built several years ago as part of the Planning Commission’s “One City, Nine Towns” initiative, whose aim was to build several European-themed towns in the Shanghai suburbs. The initiative eventually tanked, but not before Thames Town, and a Bavarian-style village near Meilan Lake, were built. Thames Town is a desolate, freaky little village, built to resemble an English countryside market town (thamestown.com). There are English style homes and shops along its winding, faux-quaint streets, and red London phone booths scattered throughout the town. There is also an imposing church in its central square that was modeled after an Anglican church in Bristol.
It is the Chinese version of what an English market town would look like. It appears to be mostly abandoned, though I’ve heard Shanghai is in the process of re-marketing it as an artists’ colony. What it does have are lots and lots of Chinese couples getting professional wedding photos taken of themselves in their flowing white gowns and best suits. There is an apparent obsession among Chinese newlyweds to make it appear as if they were married in the West, preferably old England. The couples were taking pictures throughout the village, including alleyways, shop fronts and fountains, and with life-size statues of famous Brits like Winston Churchill. They were also spread, 20 couples deep, across the grassy town square in front of the church, with accompanying photographers and their assistants snapping away, all separated from each other by about 10 feet.
It was a surreal sight in a surreal place, and the three of us meandered through the town hoping they had also built a faux British pub. No such luck, but we did find an open-aired bar with rattan furniture that looked like it would be more at home on a beach in Phuket, Thailand. It served beer so we went in and resumed talking.
Throughout the 50-minute subway ride to Thames Town and the hour or so we spent wandering, the three of us did a lot of talking. I liked Jon. He seemed to be a good guy, a solid father of 2, and a smart techie-type from Silicon Valley. An all-around fine “bloke” (when in Thames Town…), I was confident he and I could be friends. So imagine Jon’s reaction when I interrupted the discussion, looked directly at him, and said: “You seem like a real good guy Jon, and I like you. Unfortunately, I’ve got too many friends here in Shanghai and no room for others right now. Sorry about that — I feel bad — but I’m all full up.”
Arpin started laughing so hard I thought he was going to spit his drink across the cobblestone road. Jon stared at both of us with a mix of confusion and concern, unsure what to make of my comment or Jim’s reaction. Eventually he realized I was being facetious and we both started laughing along with Jim. Then I explained to him what I call the “friend phenomenon” in Shanghai. Here, you develop friendships quickly, and in many cases they are strong and lifelong. There are several reasons for this, including distance from home and the foreignness — language and culture — of China. Assisting the phenomenon is the bad air and water as well as the dicey food quality. For me, the phenomenon translates to the fact that I have made more friends in the last 15 months than I have made in the last 15 years.
It is not that I don’t have good friends in the States. I am fortunate to have made many good friends over the years. It’s just that the dynamics of the trailing spouse life in Shanghai are such that, unless you stay locked in your crazily built, Western-style house for the whole stint, you can’t help but make lots of new, good friends here.
An expat assignment in China is intense because so many aspects of this country are foreign to Westerners, particularly when you first get here. Shanghai is relatively cosmopolitan and Westerners have been in and out of the city in a variety of capacities for a couple of centuries, but it is still very Chinese. I’ve heard that expats in places like Tokyo and Singapore do not experience the same “friendship phenomenon” because those cities are more Western and familiar. You acclimate more quickly and get a sense of being “at home” sooner, thus feeling less pressure to seek out other Western folks.
When you first arrive in Shanghai, you are desperate to meet and know people who are familiar in language and culture, and you pursue opportunities to bond when you find them. After your first year here, when you consider yourself a veteran, you seek out the China newbies, knowing well what they are going through and hoping to make their landing in Shanghai a little less scary. In our development alone, there were almost 70 new families that moved in this year. That’s a lot of new friends.
I have met many wonderful people in my short stint in China. I’m talking some lifelong friends. Because we expats are all in this foreign land together, so many of the walls we build around ourselves in our home countries fall down here. We open up to people we otherwise might have missed in life. That is true with me, and now I’m juggling a lot of new friends, mostly expats from a variety of countries, but also some Chinese folks.
So my declaration to Jon had a bit of truth to it in terms of having a hectic life full with new friends. As the trailing spouses, we are constantly busy doing lunches, blogs, workouts, classes, workshops, volunteering, subway and scooter forays throughout the city, and lots of travel planning together. (Yeah, I know. Cry me a river…) It is wild to be doing so many new things with so many new people who are now important in my life. I go out to lunch with different groups of folks two or three times a week, and each meal is a revelation. I always learn something new, or get a cool insight into an issue or situation.
Then there is the “it’s a really small world” aspect of Shanghai, which is always startling, and inevitably adds even more new friends to your life. We live in a mega-city of 24 million people, halfway around the globe, and we still run into people here that we have encountered in our previous lives in the States. Jim Arpin and I went to high school together, and have seen each other exactly one time since then. That is, until we both ended up in Shanghai last year, where we’ve become good friends.
And this kind of stuff doesn’t just happen to the traveling spouses. My daughter Stephanie attended a daycare in Dearborn, Michigan from about 6 weeks of age until she turned three years old, when the center was closed for financial reasons. During those years she had a lot of little friends, but there was one true bestie named Paige. After the center was closed, we lost touch with Paige and her family. Cut to Shanghai six years later. I come out of the girls’ school during a particularly bad day of air pollution and run into a woman with two children wearing the air masks that I had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain for days (totobobo.com). We spoke briefly about how she got the masks, and exchanged cards. Later that night, Karen saw the card and asked me how I knew her fellow Ford co-worker Kevin, who’s name, along with his wife Ann’s, was on the card. I told her I didn’t know him and explained how I got the card from a woman I ran into briefly at school.
The next day, I sent a note to Ann inquiring further about the masks and telling her what a small world it was, as both of our spouses worked at Ford. Her response back was in all caps, asking if I was the father of Stephanie Hampton because, if so, she was her daughter Paige’s very first BFF in life! Ann and I didn’t recognize each other at our school encounter, and Paige was wearing a mask (not that I would recognize her after 6 years), but holy crap, it was Stephanie’s first bestie, Paige from daycare! She and Paige are now friends once again, and do sleepovers and play dates all the time. Plus, now I’ve got another new friend, Paige’s mom Ann, with whom I hang out and do fun lunches as often as possible.
The “friend phenomenon” has changed the lifestyle dynamic I expected to encounter when we moved to Shanghai. The concern (and trust me, this is one of every trailing spouse’s concern) was that I would be puttering around the big house, not knowing anyone in Shanghai, and left alone to deal with the bad-craziness in my head. I thought it would be my wife, the working spouse, who would devour Shanghai and China with work and travel, meeting lots of people through her job, while I idled at home, trying to make coherent conversation with my ayi, or the dog. Instead, the reverse has happened, as I journey throughout this city with my new friends, and then introduce my family to the great discoveries we make almost every week.
I was being funny when I told my new buddy Jon that I was “full up.” I do have a lot of new people in my life now, and what I really juggle is getting enough quality time with each. I expected a lot from our Shanghai adventure, but a boatload of good, lifelong friends wasn’t necessarily one of them. I now have many new reasons to be thankful for Shanghai’s exotic foreignness.
AIR QUALITY MASK UPDATE: We have had some bad AQI readings in the last two weeks and I’m hoping it is just an anomaly. Along with the air mask referenced in this blog post, I have found another good mask that is well tested and proven to deal with 99% of air pollutants, including PM 2.5’s. Also, my kids think they are kind of fashionable and have said they will actually wear these masks. They are called Vogmasks and can be found at vogmask.cn. They can be mailed to your house in Shanghai in about 3-4 days, and I like them so much we each have two.