7 years ago I start this blog project to record my thoughts about moving to the UK from Shanghai. Notice I haven’t said ‘moving back’ as there’s no going back, the past is not the future, and people change.
So what happened to the repatriation? In short, I moved to Spain! I found it difficult fitting into UK social environments, and also difficult to find work. You see, my years abroad had made me too exotic for small town employers. I signed up at job agencies but invariably the advice given was – Go to London. This I didn´t want to do as I’d had enough of big city living. What happened, however, was much better than not finding work – I found love, got married and moved to Spain with my husband and stepson.
So here I am in sunny Spain, and yes it’s true in this part of Spain it is mostly sunny. The move here was easier than previous moves because not only was I sharing the experience, I was also putting into practice what I do as a life coach to expats. It was fun noticing the ups and downs, enjoying the roller coaster as we discovered differences at a value level.
Nearly 6 years later, we are still here, still enjoying the sunshine. The differences are not there anymore; stereotypes have been broken . In fact, I’d say we’ve absorbed some of the local values into our own way of thinking.
More importantly, for the first time I feel at home., no longer temporary in a foreign land.
Ask me how to find a place to live in Shanghai and I say ‘It’s easy. Just go into any local agent and they’ll set up viewings there and then.’ You can even do it online. The fee is about half a month’s rent and sometimes you don’t pay anything – the landlord pays all the fee.
So how do I find a place to live in the UK? At first I was stumped. I used the Shanghai approached and went into local agencies. However i quickly realised it’s not the same game. Firstly, there’s an identity check for which I have to pay! Then reference letters from current employer, then a month or two’s rent as damage deposit. Also, many flats and houses are unfurnished. I hadn’t thought about that. In Shanghai most places I considered were furnished, complete with microwave and drinking water dispenser.
I’ve chosen to go the shared house route to accommodation which has its own challenges. The biggest challenge is saying yes quickly enough! The Oxford rental market is very buoyant and quick. I lost out on three places last weekend because I wanted to sleep on my decision. The other challenge is the state of some of these properties. I’m used to modern, sparse spaces in Shanghai. Here, the buildings are older and, well, lived in! The older houses are also small! The Victorian terraces and 1930s semis were made for small people I’m sure! And the price!! For the same as I paid in Shanghai for a two bed flat, here I get a 2x3m room in a shared house. The song ‘Back to Reality’ has just hit the internal jukebox.
Actually it’s not back to reality; house hunting in the UK hasn’t been my reality since 1988 when I lived in a back-to-back in Leeds student-land. My reality has been modern and spacious in Shanghai! On the positive side, small and dinky in the UK will mean that my stuff won’t have to expand far to fill the space and I’ll save money by not buying more stuff.
I am looking forward to moving into my own space (albeit a shared house). Six months of living in someone else’s home was enough. I’m also looking forward to eventually buying my own place and creating the home I want with good insulation, low energy appliances and a veggie garden. Ah! the chance to dream and more importantly, the opportunity to realise that dream. Can’t wait!
Only a couple of days left in Malvern before I head off into the distance for the next step in the repatriation journey. Note that this time there’s no count down to D Day. This 6 month break has been the best way for me. I’ve learnt a lot and got a lot of clarity about who I am and what life I want to create. I recognise that I am lucky to be here with no financial or family commitments so I plan to make good use of that.
My achievements over the last 6 months are worth applauding. I successfully looked after a 5-year-old and see her turn 6. She’s still healthy and happy. I also survived! I am now a member and shareholder of a book cooperative in Malvern and gave a talk there about China http://malvernbook.coop/?p=364 I’ve made 3 friends in the area and hope to stay in touch with them. I’ve learnt to dance proper Scottish dancing, not only Strip the Willow and have been complimented on my ability – for a newcomer! I’ve visited several towns in England that I hadn’t been to before and discovered the West Midlands. I’ve been to Paris, Prague and Shanghai. I’ve re-learnt how to drive after 20 years and love it. I’m thinking about getting into rally driving! I’ve been to the theatre and cinema about 10 times and without one mobile phone beep. I’ve read about 10 books as well – more than I used to read in a year. I’ve walked the Malvern Hills from Hereford Beacon to North Hill http://www.malvernhills.org.uk I’ve been to Pilates twice a week since March.
I’ve achieved my goals. One goal was to spend more time with my family, which I’ve done. Last weekend I was in Cambridge catching up with aunties and uncles. They are into allotments and creating energy-efficient homes. Most inspiring! The other goals for this period were to identify a place where I’d like to live and a job that I’d like to do. I’ve identified a place to live: Oxford as it has great communications to major cities and is also close to family. The job is proving more evasive and I’m still unclear on this goal. My challenge at the moment is putting together a pithy and attractive document that sells me (ie a CV) but that doesn’t pigeon-hole me. I’ve had one interview which was great fun but the feedback was about my pace: not fast enough. This is probably due to living and working in environments where English is the second or third language and a slow pace is appreciated.
What I’m finding, bizarrely, is project work in China! There are now 4 projects coming up which I’ve agreed to. This will see me being a regular visitor to the place I’ve just left! Actually, this is preferable than living there and I’m curious to see if this can be a way forward – live in the UK, work in China!
The next couple of days will see me packing AGAIN and marvelling at the amount of stuff I have after only 6 months. Where did it all come from? I’m ready to move on and excited about the future. I’m sure the next 6 months will be challenging and different issues will appear primarily in the area of different values and beliefs. It’s going to be fun!
And there it is, the Krupps Stainless Steel factory rising up as you go round the bend to approach the Lupu Bridge. Ah! a sight of home. There are several sites like this for me. One is in Hampshire as you hurtle down the A303 towards the Stockbridge turn off. On the left as you go over the hill are the Plannies – a place where youngsters have tested their motocross skills for many, many years – then the Hampshire rolling downs spread out and Danbury Hill is there in the distance. Another (new) sight is the Malvern Hills. As you turn onto the A449 the hills appear and loom up. I get a thrill each time I see them as I remind myself I’ve been on the top on them there hills. So I was a little surprised by my reaction to the Krupps Stainless Steel plant in Shanghai! In away I think this sums up China!
I had an expectation that I would witness great changes since last being there and truth be told I was disappointed. The Shanghai Tower isn’t finished yet (slackers), nor is the new development on Nanjing West Road. What have these guys been doing? Having a holiday?? The only major change I noticed was the new Gucci store near Jing’an Temple. I noticed it because it struck me as odd; there’s a giant flagship store about 200m down the road. Who’s buying this stuff?
I wrote down some first reactions on arrival. It was the senses that reacted first, of course. The noise, the smells, the sights and the weather! Noise-wise I’d forgotten how noisy the place is what with techno music seeping out from all over the place (taxi adverts, hairdressers, shops…). I smiled as I heard the chatter of the women in the lanes in the early morning. That sound is the first I have of Shanghai back in May 2000 on my first morning in the city. I only heard one person clear their throat and launch a large…well you can imagine. The smells hit me hard. I was surprised that the main smell was exhaust fumes and not the drains. The other smell that seem to permeate was a sort of rotting and stuffy vegetable smell but still no lavatorial odours. Sights as I mentioned hadn’t changed much but the sun seemed really bright although it wasn’t that hot. I’ve always thought the light in Shanghai is yellowish and harsh on my eyes. The light in the UK is blueish and gentler for me. The light in New Zealand is crystal clear and in Tuscany, well just think burnt Sienna. I had forgotten the humidity in Shanghai! My hair sprung into curls within 2 hours. Although it wasn’t too hot, I was nonetheless feeling a little sticky. I really don’t like the summer in the city.
The other sense that got teased was my sense of taste. The first meal was an explosion of forgotten flavours – garlic, oil, salt and MSG! Scrambled egg and enormous prawns, kongxingcai with garlic, Shanghai pork chop, good rice, turbot, razor clams, scallops bigger than a £2 coin. Lots of veg. And the vinegar! Oh so good to have the variety of food and flavours. Delicious. And the 80p noodles from the lane noodle shop were just right.
Everything was familiar and felt good; easy to navigate. I knew what to do without wondering if I was committing a social gaff. You may be thinking I’m going to move back. Alas no. It was great to be there for those few days but I was ready to come back to the peace and quiet of Malvern. I also felt a little alone. I did get to see many friends and on a one to one basis which was great – quality not quantity. However, the group of people I used to hang out with the most have mostly left. Because of my ambivalent attitude before the trip, I hadn’t made many plans. Many people had prior engagements and – surprise, surprise – couldn’t drop everything for me! What was I thinking? I found myself on Thursday night by myself with no one to have dinner with and felt alone! Poor planning.
So I’m now back in Malvern with the cold and rain, the fresh smells and gentle birdsong. Shanghai is a nice place to visit and the UK is where I want to live. The decision to leave was the right one for me. The original idea of these past 6 months was to see if I liked the UK and if I could live here. The 6 months are over and the clear answer to both questions is: Yes. The next stage of my repatriation is home making and job hunting. I’m leaving the bubble of Malvern to experience the shared reality of most Britains: making a living to get by.
Elder brother told me Sir Paul once said when asked about The Beatles reforming – You can’t reheat a souffle. I think this sums up nicely the emotions of returning to Shanghai.
I woke this pre-departure-day morning confused. I’ve been here so many times before, not the confused bit but waking up knowing I’m returning to my home in Shanghai. This time though I was confused because this time I’m not going home. I’m returning to the UK after this short trip. What I’m trying to say is for the first time in 20 years I’m doing the journey the other way round which feels a little strange. My habitual thought patterns have kicked in but then I have to remind myself ‘Hang on, you’re not staying; you’re coming back.’ Yesterday I did the usual shopping trip for supplies – Boots the Chemist, tea, face cream, pet shop. In Boots I was almost about to pay for a basket of stuff when I remembered I was coming back to the land of Boots and didn’t need to stock up.
The other trouble I’m having is packing for 5 days in Shanghai! First time I’ve had to do this!! I have a very empty suitcase that needs bulking up as I’m collecting things that I left with friends in Shanghai, along with all my summer clothes. Luckily, Britain’s summer doesn’t start until…well sometimes it never starts!
I’m looking forward to seeing friends and catching up but I’m not looking forward to the crush of people, the noise and smells. I’m not looking forward to smoke in the pubs and restaurants, nor to the hawking. I’m not looking forward to the intensity of frenzy and the undercurrents of unexpressed frustration that have been growing for 3 years now.
I am looking forward to a massage, to eating xiaolongbao, to speaking Chinese and to enjoying a beer with good friends. Keep smiling!
The final part of a circle is when the two ends of the line meet up again. Taking a trip to places you’ve lived before is a bit like closing the circle; that’s why they say ‘getting closure.’ I’m off to Shanghai next week for a brief visit (only 5 days!) after 5 months of living in the UK. At this moment of writing, I am ambivalent about this trip to Shanghai. I don’t miss the city and the city life. Dare I say I don’t miss my cats either. I do miss my circle of friends. And therein lies one of the reasons I’m ambivalent. Returning to old stomping grounds is often tinged with disappointment because the place and people will have changed. The nostalgic memory isn’t always ready for this reality. I know I will experience a feeling of disappointment going back but knowing doesn’t help! Nostalgia is excited at seeing old friends again but 4 of those close friends no longer live there so it won’t be the same. Something will be missing. I may also experience flashbacks to loved ones passed away as I walk by a favourite restaurant or bar. I may even feel as though I’m in another city, one I’ve never travelled to before.
I went through these emotions on a return trip to Paris a few years back. I walked around my old stomping grounds looking for the places where I used to hang out. Some were there, some weren’t. It was weird to sit in a cafe where I’d sat 20 years before, fresh-faced and full of excitement for the new adventure. As I walked around that day, I noticed I had no emotions of loss or nostalgia. I felt nothing except I knew I didn’t want to be 24 again! This January I went to Paris again and this time I called upon my favourite museums and artists. It was marvellous to get re-acquainted with Manet and Monet. I felt replenished.
Another issue with going back is fitting in time to see everyone. I’m there for 5 days and 2 of those are work days. I prefer to do quality instead of quantity but this trip is going to be quantity all the way. I’m worried that my excitement at seeing friends again will not match theirs, that we will not connect and I’ll get overwhelmed and emotional. Or perhaps I’ll feel at home and not want to come back to the challenges facing me in the UK – namely gainful employment in a double-dip economy.
I hear a voice: it hasn’t happened yet! I get to choose my response to this situation. Isn’t that powerful. I can choose my attitude to the situation. And suddenly I feel more upbeat and in control.
Have I been out of the UK climate too long? Or am I just a neurotic hypochondriac? (Please don’t send in your answers – the second question is purely rhetorical). I am currently wearing, from top to toe, a vest, a long-sleeve t-shirt, a cashmere sweater, a heavy knitted jacket, jeans and socks. I’m considering putting on my sheepskin slippers as my toes are cold.
This morning at 9am I saw a 30-ish year old man wearing shorts, t-shirt and man-sandals. His son was in school trousers and short-sleeved shirt. I wondered to myself if we three people, separated by 2 metres were actually in the same space. I’ve heard that the Brits tend to strip off at the slightness bit of sunshine and this morning the sun was in full shine mode but it was 10C. 10C!!
Or is it just me? I’m used to warmer weather. 10C for a Shanghailander is cold. Very cold. In fact I didn’t used to uncover my toes until it was at least 23C. The Chinese that I knew tended to stay wrapped up until after the season change and for good reason. The chance of getting a cold or flu during spring is higher especially as the weather is more changeable. And we all know that you can get damp and wind inside which causes colds and dis-ease of the body. The French have a saying: ‘ne dévoile un fil jusqu’à le fin d’avril’ and when I lived there I tended to follow the good advice of the locals and wait until May 1 to ‘dévoile’ my body to the sun and elements.
Ne’er cast a cloot til Mey’s oot’ is what the Scots say. The English say ‘Ne’er cast a clout til May is out’ – until the end of MAY! So what’s happened to going with the flow of seasons? I can only conclude that Britain has changed and no longer do we need to bother with the old sayings. As you can see though, after 20 years of living in cultures that adhere to this ‘common sense’ I am staying well and truly wrapped up until the end of May. Or until I get my suitcase of summer clothes which is current in storage at Boxroom, Shanghai 😉