I count myself fortunate that I never experienced the infamous culture shock “U-curve.” Supposedly, the typical newly arrived expat rollercoasters from a honeymoon high, down through disorientation and adjustment before finally climbing back up to a wiser, more stable place. But I’ve never made it out of the honeymoon stage.
Until now. Imperceptibly, over the past few months something has shifted. It’s been quite a while since I laughed with friends over a bizarre sighting, such as the businessman shaving in a passing taxi. (Are fewer random acts happening, or am I just not noticing it any more?) And I’m definitely missing the pre-Olympic construction fever. Call me perverse, but I actually liked picking my way down roads, side-stepping holes, ducking past welding sparks, and choking on the all-pervading dust. Having something to push against, metaphorically speaking, made me feel alive.
Holidays are always a good time to take stock. Writing this from my brother’s house in Australia, at a 4,000-mile remove, I ponder. Do the pluses of my and Elsa’s life in China still outweigh the minuses? And if not, then where to next? Home to England, across to Canada (I hold a passport thanks to my Canadian mother) – even making a new life Down Under has its temptations.
My brother Chris lives with his wife Sascha and two children, Leia (4) and Eddie (rising 2) in a small beachside village just north of Cairns. The five-minute walk to the local playground is lined with palm trees and assorted brightly colored tropical plants. We meander along under sunny, pollution-free skies, accompanied by a rich chorus of exotic birds (or possibly frogs). It’s all very easy.
But the biggest plus of living here would be that Elsa could grow up with her cousins – as surrogate siblings, almost. In just the few short days they’ve been together, Elsa and Leia have already bonded, to the extent that they insist on sharing Leia’s tiny single bed each night. And Elsa has quickly cottoned on to the big sister role, treating the unfortunate Eddie on a par with the flies that constantly circle. “Go away, Eddie, shoo” she commands, with a dismissive flap of her hand. Making this extended family a more permanent affair is a seductive thought.
It’s clear what we’d gain, but what would we lose? My immediate thought is a selfish one: my freedom. I’m so lucky to be able to go out any evening I please. I’m no party animal, but if I don’t get out two or three times a week, I start entertaining classy fantasies about Tsingtao and pepperoni pizzas. I pace the flat, nose pointed resolutely north-eastward, a human compass with only one destination in mind: The Tree. And every time I visit family or friends it’s brought home to me that parents with real (i.e. non-ayi supported) lives can’t go out – or at least, not without the twin opposing evils – their kids or a hefty babysitting bill.
My pepperoni habit aside, I realize I’m not yet quite ready to throw in the China towel. I traveled more of the country on a three week holiday six years ago than I have since living here with Elsa; there are so many places I’d like to see with her. Elsa has lots of Chinese friends, not to mention an enduring love affair with ayi, but my integration is fairly pitiful. And I’m determined to crack the maddening language. If Elsa can do it, I can. It’s too embarrassing to be outperformed linguistically by a 3-year-old.
Until my characters are up to scratch then, it appears that dreams of cousin proximity or Canadian log cabins must go on hold. As for returning to the UK, in the words of that old Vera Lynn song, “There’ll always be an England.” However, my wistful attitude disappeared two hours after my return home, when Elsa and I toured a courtyard place near Ghost Street. It’s perfect! It looks like my decision to stay has been vindicated – and Elsa can finally have her rabbit.
fulfilled a long-held dream by moving to Beijing when Elsa (3) was 3 months old. Sarah now coaches, runs workshops, writes and speaks about living and working off the beaten path (www.cowsfrommywindow.com).