by Nicole Deanne Webb
What’s it like living as an expat in deep dark China?
I get the question a lot so here are what a few typical days look like in Xi’an for this expat.
Brace myself for the mad school run! These days most drivers we have (which is whoever happens to be available from the hotel, where we live) don’t speak any English. Like nada!
This means there’s a lot of nodding, smiling and charades. But at 7:50am, charades can be a bit much so with a “Nihao” we roar off along Xi’an’s roads, swarming with erratic morning traffic. My daughter is strapped into her car seat, but it’s not compulsory. (She could be sitting on the roof for all they care. Yes really!)
Depending on the driver, I’m either listening to blaring talkback radio in Chinese (at least it sounds like it to my oblivious ears), Country and Western (in English) or some big tunes from seventies rock stars like The Eagles. (Don’t ask me about the latest hits. Ed Sheeran who?) Or it’s just the cacophony of horns, with the odd crackling of random fire crackers breaking up the relentless screeching.
Forty minutes later, (at least) 20 near misses with various busses, bikes and trikes (a few expletives under my breath) and we arrive at school.
We stumble out of the car and weave our way through cars coming in all directions to cross the road into school.
In the early days we could be stuck there for who knows how long. I now (smugly) feel quite accomplished at crossing the road. The security guard at the gate greets us with a smiling “Zao shang hao” (Good Morning) and we roll in to what is one of Xi’an’s three international schools. Most of the foreigners here happen to be teachers. They, and their kids, make up a large portion of my new found friends.
Ava’s school is an International Baccalaureate school with students made up largely of Koreans and Chinese, with about two dozen westerners from England to America, Europe, and the Middle East.
At the entrance, a board tells us the temperature for the day and the all important pollution levels. If its over 200, it means the kids won’t be playing outside. For most of the spring/summer months it’s low and we don’t think about it too much. Come winter, it’s a different story. Coal powered heaters are fired up across town and it’s a speedy run through the chilled winter air, up to our necks in puffer jackets, scarves and masks, ready to do battle with a smoggy environment.
A year in China and it’s time for a visa renewal run, so that we can stay another year. Thank God, we are not required to go through the ridiculous rigorous medical we were subjected to last year. Nope this is just a quick sit down in front of a camera for a photo and a smiley (please let us stay) “Nihao” to the lady, who it seems has the power to push this through quickly IF we give the right look (and enough cash.)
Without the hotel’s HR person to fill in countless forms and pass them off to various departments, we would be utterly lost. There is zero English spoken in these departments.
This afternoon, it’s time for my Chinese lesson, which fills me with a mix of dread and determination.
First, I pick Ava up from school (drag her kicking and screaming from the playground.) The driver is asleep as we approach. It seems in China they will take every opportunity for a quick snooze. I have to knock on the window and probably scare him.
At the hotel’s business centre I have my 1.5 hour lesson, and my lao shi (teacher) meets us in the hotel lobby, while our Chinese bao mu (babysitter) takes Ava (which usually involves barbies, Chinese singing, and too many cupcakes.)
In my lesson I’m learning parts of a house: furniture, computers, washing machines, upstairs, downstairs, front garden. I inhale yet another coffee to keep me focused.
International day at school means everyone’s dressing in their local costume and bringing dishes from all over the world. My daughter is dressed as an Australian cow girl in her Akubra.
Most days after school, I let her play for half an hour in the playground with the other kids who aren’t taking the bus. I’m always intrigued by the myriad of different languages that buzz around me while I wait.
It’s interesting to see how birds of a feather flock together. Most of the Chinese parents huddle together in one corner, the Koreans in the other, and the rest of the westerners hang about (usually waiting for the happy or upset screams of their child.)
The lack of mingling is largely due to the language barrier. But for my daughter, having children in her class that don’t speak English is perfectly normal and inspiringly, no obstacle to their communication.
There is a huge Korean population in Xi’an due to Samsung having its largest plant outside of Korea, here. Many of my neighbours are Korean and many of my child’s classmates are Korean. There’s even a Little Korea Town, where I’ve just enjoyed my first authentic Korean BBQ.
Tonight, I arrive home to a new addition to the house! We have a new lounge! I didn’t ask for it, but it’s all part of the original “hotel residence” plans that went on hold. The construction site on my balcony meant I had many random strangers hanging outside my home day in, and day out for several months.
They slept, spit, shouted and smoked and occasionally ate lunch or dinner with their families on my outdoor table. Nice for some!
We have visitors in town all the way from the Land Down Under, and today I accompany them to see the famous Muslim Quarter. It’s Golden Week, so crowds are even more mammoth than usual. We inch through the chaos, shoulder to shoulder. Bikes loaded sky high defy the law of nature and squeeze through the solid crowds, hopefully without running over someone’s toes.
Our visitors’ eyes have a boggled look that says, “Get me the hell out of here!” Smoke is thick in our faces from street food sizzled and seared. We escape down a side alley to the Great Mosque entrance for some tranquility.
Where to eat? We decide on Maccas. For a start they have toilets. The line though is out the door. We wait almost an hour in the queue – the only white people being eye-balled up and down by amused locals. A few are game to take photos and attempt to snuggle next to our kids.
There’s a good reason my first words learnt in Mandarin were “Please don’t touch her!”
We pray there is a western style toilet at our destination, but at the end of the line we find three terribly messy (and believe me, this is being polite) squat toilets, with doors that don’t lock and keep swinging open revealing all and sundry, and those revealed, don’t seem to mind!
We grimace and bear it, and I attempt to give my visitors a quick lesson in the art of squatting, whilst wearing jeans and boots! There’s a lot of shrieking and giggling amongst the undeniable horror.
There’s no denying, those “China moments” take some getting use to. This is my reality. This is China.
Nicole, originally from Australia, lived for four years in Hong Kong with her hotelier husband before they moved to Xi’an, along with their daughter who was born in Hong Kong. Nicole shares her amusing and hair raising tales on her critically acclaimed blog, Mint Mocha Musings: The hotelier’s Wife, an Expat Affair in Asia. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.