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Living Abroad in China: Welcome to China

2006 © Stuart & Barbara Strother, from Moon Living Abroad in China, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Stuart & Barbara Strother, and Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the Middle Kingdom, as China calls itself. This is a land of ancient culture and modern progress, old ways and hip new styles, the proverbial yin and yang of contemporary Chinese life. This is a place where you’ll see fields still plowed by oxen, although look a little closer and you’ll see the farmer chatting on his mobile phone as he works. Executives in Armani suits dash between high-powered business meetings, yet spend their holidays with Nai Nai (grandma) at her village home where she keeps ducks, grows plum trees, and cooks spicy tofu in her kitchen wok over an open fire.

China is a challenging land that is changing unbelievably fast. The poor have next to nothing and the rich can have it all, yet both find their incomes rising every year. Futuristic skyscrapers tower over colorful old Buddhist temples, and bullet trains race past donkeys pulling their carts to market. China’s growing economy is taking the world by storm and making the world notice this giant nation that seemed so backward just a few years ago. Governments are starting to worry about its growing power; educators are hailing Chinese as the language that most needs to be taught to prepare our kids for the truth of their global future. Individuals and businesses from every corner of the globe are coming here in an effort to ride the economic wave of growing prosperity.

Yet despite all their development and modernization, the Chinese are still an enigma to westerners. They wear dress shoes to go hiking and two-piece suits to do construction, but put on pajamas to go shopping. They open the windows on the coldest winter days. They’d rather eat chicken feet than boneless chicken breast. They tell jokes that seem to have no punch line. But it is just this sense of enigmatic mystery, this sense that this is a place so very different from anything you’ve ever known that makes people fall in love with China — and keeps them coming back for more.

When we were offered the opportunity to take jobs in China, we had a comfortable Midwestern American lifestyle: a house in the country with a split rail–fenced yard where our twin two-year-olds chased our fat black cat. But when we got that call, it didn’t take much convincing to decide to trade the monotony of middle management for adventure in the Middle Kingdom.

Although we’d traveled in China on several occasions before, we were apprehensive about our move. We didn’t know what our apartment would look like, what the job would really be like, if we would love living there, or if we would be tempted to beat a hasty retreat. We were fond of our American amenities: central air- conditioning, long hot showers, Maytag washer and dryer, plush carpeted floors, minivan, and local Target store. Of all the modern conveniences we had come to rely on, how many would China be able to offer? And how would we get along without them? We didn’t know if daily life in China would be as difficult to handle as we had always predicted, but we were willing to give it a try.

As we made our preparations for the big move, our excitement grew. The thrill of experiencing a new culture and the opportunity to expose our boys to foreign worlds gradually overtook our fears of the unknown. We put our house on the market, got passports for the kids, and watched the movie Big Bird in China until we could sing along by heart.

We arrived in Shanghai on the eve of the Chinese New Year. Thankfully our employer put us up in a decent modern apartment, but we didn’t know how to operate all the appliance controls labeled in Chinese. In our effort to warm the place up on that chilly night, we had somehow turned all but one of the heating and cooling units to full-blast air-conditioning. The four of us ended up spending our first night huddled together on the kids’ two beds in the only warm room in the apartment, watching exploding fireworks out the window until we all drifted off to sleep.

As we settled into our new life in China, we delightedly found that more often than not, life is actually easier in China. Without the hectic American do-all-you-can-do schedule, life slows down considerably. With this slower pace, we found we could make frequent forays beyond our city to discover the innumerable fascinating spots within China.

And travel we did. We’ve discovered picturesque spots that aren’t listed in any travel guides. We’ve had dusty days in Kashgar chatting with locals over lamb kebabs, muggy days in Hangzhou sweating over cool watermelons and icy green-tea popsicles, and wintery days in Beijing laughing during snowball fights on the Great Wall.

Granted, life in China isn’t all rosy. The language poses an especially difficult hurdle, like the time we didn’t understand the salesclerk’s warning about the bad ice cream until our son vomited in the taxi on the way home, or the time we ended up in the city of Ninghai when we had asked for bus tickets to Linhai. Always getting the foreigner’s markup in prices gets old quickly, as does constantly being stared at and talked about.

But in our opinion the rewards far outweigh the hardships, and nothing is as rewarding as the friendships. We’ll never forget playing mahjong with coworkers until the wee hours of the morning. Or surprising and delighting old men at public parks when we ask to join in their xiangqi (Chinese chess) games. Or spending countless hours on the basketball court with Kevin Garnett, Scotty Pippen, and Vince Carter... not the real stars, of course, just the chosen English names of our basketball-crazed students.

It’s from all these experiences that this book came about, and we hope that it will prepare you for what’s in store and paint a vivid picture of what your life in China may look like. So go ahead, and begin your joyful exploration of the Middle Kingdom. We’ll get you started, but most of all, this is your adventure to create. Enjoy it!

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