Tag Archives: China

Letting go and finding new


scary dudes Arch Sept 2012


Coming home from China, after three years as an expat resident in Suzhou, was one of the most difficult periods in my life. If I thought I experienced culture shock going over, it was nothing compared to coming back. China is a vibrant, noisy, exciting, boisterous, energetic world where life is lived out on the footpath and in large groups of extended family and friends. Suburban Brisbane couldn’t be more different. When we are out on the streets here, we are alone or in nuclear family groups, quickly attending to the busyness of our day. Come sunset, we close our gates and lock our doors. We eat behind closed doors, we love, argue and raise our children in the privacy of our own homes. We have space, lots of it, and we prickle when someone enters ours uninvited. Coming home was hard. The silence was one of the hardest things to get used to. Quiet evenings, no incessant beeping of bike and car horns, quiet, civilised supermarkets where everyone waits patiently in line. And no nightly fireworks outside my bedroom window.

I had to let go of so many things during that time, and it was a pruning that left me bare and raw; a sad little twig trying to come back to life after a dry winter. If I’m honest, there was a material shock in coming from a place where I was a relative affluent with disposable income up to my eyeballs, to Australia, a regular on the highest cost of living in the world lists. On one salary. We went from two international holidays a year to budgeting to the last twenty bucks in our fortnightly coffers. It was humbling and necessary, and it forced me to reflect on what happiness really was and what my family really needed.

I had to let go of a concept that I had of myself that I was competent, educated, valued and skilled. I came out of the best professional experience of my career, to staying at home with my toddler, failing at the job day after day and wondering who the hell I was. Suddenly I couldn’t do anything well. It was a new experience of hating myself and how badly I thought I was at mothering. It was a dangerous cycle that escalated over the next few years. So much of my identity had ben wrapped up in my profession, that when that was gone, I was lost.

Possibly the hardest part though, was letting go of friends. Not the friends I left behind in China, for those, despite the distance, stuck close by (electronically) and are close still. It was the friends I returned to. After a while, I realised it was time to loosen my grip. I knew that being the returning traveller was nothing special to those who hung around. We have all been away, come home, gone again, returned. It’s the job of the returnee to reconnect, I get that. So, despite being an introvert to the core, I committed myself to making the effort to reconnect with my friends. I phoned, I emailed, I Facebooked, I called again. It was an incredible shock to me to find that a few of my long term friends had simply moved on. I had to, for my own sanity, just give up.

I should add that this was all during the worst phase of my depression, when I was sad but didn’t realise, I just thought I was failing. So everything was sadder, more black and white, less logical and more tragic. I was just desperately looking for a safety net and found it not in old friends, but in new ones. I vividly recall one very very sad day, I was walking around with my toddler, six months pregnant with twins and just killing time as I seemed to do day after day. Heading toward home I considered stopping at the park for a while, to kill another half hour or so. I almost didn’t, but did. I was sad to the point of holding back tears. A woman came along, newborn in pram and toddler on foot. We talked. I found that I hadn’t totally given up because I had the courage to suggest we swap phone numbers. A little over a year later, I ran my first half marathon with her. We now babysit each other’s kids. She cooked for me when I moved house. She saved me. She never even knew it.

It was a painful pruning, but the spring came, as it always does, and the new has replaced the old. It took a really long time, several years in fact, to recover from reverse culture shock. I feel like China was a juncture in my life. There is before-China and after-China. My life BC after couldn’t be more different to my life AC. My work life, home life, social life, all of them are totally not what they were before. Many spring buds have blossomed into full bouquets that have brought me such happiness. Too much with the spring metaphor? I’m thinking too much. Yep, much too much…I feel a little ill….just threw up a bit in my mouth.

A post about nothing




This photo was taken on my couch when my first little man was about two months old. We were living in Suzhou, China. It was early January 2008 and it was snowing and hovering around or below zero. It was an amazing time. I don’t think snow ever gets old for Australians. I feel like a kid, every time. Just walking in it and listening to it crunch and squeak under your feet. I remember visiting my neighbour that winter, she lived in the same building as me, but in the adjacent tower, so there was a 10 meter walk outside between our front doors. I took the pram and the snow was so heavy I got bogged in that short little walk. I still thought it was awesome. Bogged in the snow with my pram. How cool.

My baby boy was at that wonderful baby age where you can take them anywhere and they will just eat and sleep. I remember a magic afternoon when my husband and me went into town to a bookstore/cafe/bar with more character in the door knob than all of old Shanghai put together. Well, maybe a slight touch of hyperbole there, but look, I thought it was a special place and I was high on new baby happy so I can’t be held responsible for my adjectives. I keenly recall looking out the snowy window, warm and happy, baby beside me, husband there, warm drink and I think even a game of scrabble or something. It was a perfect moment in my life. In that moment, I knew I’d never forget it.

Shortly after the bookshop day, we, like most other expats, escaped the winter for warmer shores. It was the Chinese New Year holiday and school was out so we hopped on a plane to Boracay, a small island in the Philippines with a heavenly long white beach. It was the perfect age to travel with a baby. He slept most of the way, fed, slept, fed, slept. It was a 24 hour journey door to door and some of it was a little hair raising, but my just three month old was the perfect travelling companion. We had a small pop up baby tent for the trip and this little gem proved to be the greatest holiday accessory for a couple with such a young baby. Restaurants lined the beach and tables and chairs sat along the sand. At night we were able to pick our spot and put out little guy to sleep in the tent, set on the soft sand. We were free to sit there all night if we wanted to. This kind of freedom, for a couple on holiday with a young baby, was priceless. There was no being confined to our hotel room because of the baby. No stress over should we or shouldn’t we leave him with hotel baby-sitters. No better get home, the baby will be waking soon. Another perfect moment in time that I will be thankful for, always. A footnote, he chose the first night of this holiday to sleep through the night for the first time without waking for a feed. At 6am I sat bolt upright in panic, knowing I hadn’t had to get up in the night, thinking something must be wrong. Wonderful, thoughtful child.



Our boy in his Made in China shirt.

I haven’t sat and absorbed moments in recent years in the way I did back then. There have been a few moments about which I hope to one day develop selective amnesia. But just recently I’ve taken some moments, some lovely long moments, to stroke a soft cheek, memorise the sweet curve of a little mouth, and love the perfect innocence of a wonderful face. I will never wish it back, those long, difficult days of yuk. And no, it hasn’t flown by. But I can feel just enough space now, to begin to burn some perfect moments into my collection. Alongside the bookshop and the beach.

From China to eternity part 2


I felt hellishly smug that I had finally got some value for money out of an insurance company. I figure even with a lifetime of the maddeningly futile ‘private health insurance’ that we are forced to pay for and never use in Australia, I may still yet come out on top. Strangely the insurance company did not feel as happy about their 7 to 1 shortfall. When I enquired about renewing my policy the next year, not only had the premium increased to about $5000USD, maternity had been capped at $18,000 and there was a new clause whereby I had to buy TWO policies (one for my husband also) as maternity was no longer available on a single policy. So I may have been single handedly responsible for screwing international health insurance for the rest of you. Sorry about that.

Anyway, home with Archie, parents visiting from Australia, getting on with finding out how to be a mother. I did suffer from early baby blues, but took some action which really helped me feel better. I invited a friend around for a glass of wine, had a chat to the GP and bought some feel good DVDs (in a shop that may or may not have been legal). Finding Nemo cheered me up so much that it will always have a very special place in my heart. I started to find that motherhood was actually fun. I remember thinking how tiring and exhausting it was at the time. Oh you, I think now. All tired with your one little baby.

Generally speaking, the custom in China is that the mother and newborn baby do not leave the house for the first 30 days. This is mainly to ensure that the baby and mother do not get sick and to help the mother recover from childbirth. It makes sense, on many levels, but it wasn’t something I would consider. I was told by my husband’s boss that because I wasn’t housebound and swaddled in warm clothes that I would suffer from arthritis later in life. Can you imagine the ruckus I caused at the local supermarket when I took Archie out at one week? I had a gaggle of squealing (yes, actual squealing) Ayis (older ladies considered to be about my Mum’s age) flapping their hands to their faces like they were about to faint. Anyone would think Justin Bieber had just swanned in.

This brings me to the curious case of pseudo celebrity. Prior to Archie, we were an anomaly that was worth a good stare whenever we went out in public. After Archie, we were a travelling freak show. I was completely uncomfortable with the almost frenzy to touch, look at, photograph and fuss over my baby. Once, I heard running steps behind me on the street and suddenly a breathless young girl appeared and tried to shove her camera in his pram. Another time, we were standing at a hotel check in counter and the pram was beside me. I noticed too late that the lady standing next to me had reached in under the shade cloth and was gleefully snapping away. Once, while changing Arch in public (partially hidden behind some shrubs, I turned to see a line of women watching. Even young men would go silly in the presence of my mini celebrity. At an art gallery a super cool group of 20 something dudes were giggling and pointing like schoolgirls. At our local shops, next door to our apartments, Archie was known by name. As we’d walk past, a line of Ayis would gather on the verandah above calling out his name as we passed. I could go on and on.

It is important to me that I don’t sound as if I am trashing China. It’s an amazing place with some really incredible sights, people, customs and history. Some of the challenges in living there were hard to overcome, and this was the hardest as it went so much against what I was used to, how my own country operated.  In our own country, we largely close the doors and get on with the business of raising our children alone. Customs, history and the advice of others be dammed. In China, the child is kind of like communal property. You only get one shot at it (for the most part) so it is a hugely exciting thing that everyone wants to share. And with that one shot, why take any chances of infection and illness, especially in brutal winters with no heating in your house. Hence the 30 day confinement. It’s easy as a foreigner to deride antiquated or strange customs. Thinking about where those customs come from and the intent behind them though often reveals that we are the ones doing it strange.

From China to eternity part 1


My husband and I really wanted to live somewhere overseas for a few years. This was pre-children of course. We both had a preference for somewhere in Asia. I landed a teaching job in an International School in Suzhou, a lovely canal ‘town’ (of a mere 2.5 million) near Shanghai. My husband took a TESOL course, took leave from his government job and looked forward to not being locked into any particular course of action. Amid visas, packing, shipping and farewelling, we researched a really good international health insurance policy. We knew that there was a very good possibility that we would have a child while we were in China. I didn’t want to take my chances with the public hospital system over there (of which there kind of isn’t one, for a foreigner anyway). We got the kind of policy where ‘covered’ means ‘covered’. 100%. I am not even sure if such a policy would even exist nowadays. For a one year policy with full maternity cover, we paid $1600USD. Our second year of cover cost us $1800USD. This seemingly inconsequential detail will become much more interesting later on in the story.

I fell pregnant in our first year in China and had Archie in 2007. There is nothing quite like an intense experience with the health care system of another country to really highlight that although you may like to think you are over the culture shock, you are most definitely not. My first appointment of a, shall we say, intimate nature, was enough to alert me to the fact that the concept of patient privacy was somewhat different in China. There is no fury like the fury of a woman in stirrups in a room where the nurse keeps going in and out leaving the door wide open. As waiguoren (foreigners) we got stared at wherever we went. Most of the time you could ignore it. Not this time.

Bedside manner was another story. After some early (minor) complications, I had to attend the local emergency department and was given shots of something. No gloves was alarming enough, but the spent sharps all over the floor was quite another matter. What was worse, was when talking to the obstetrician, and having checked that everything was alright, she told me flatly, your baby is alive now but might be dead next week. She took my breath away.

I was also very much in charge in many ways, and used Dr Google to self diagnose a few times. It was hard not having that absolute faith in the medical advice you were getting. One doctor told me to take aspirin for headaches. This advice came after 30 minutes of conferencing with his boss about the question. I was already taking blood thinning medication so to take aspirin would have been quite dangerous. Dr Google said paracetamol so I went with that.

I was able to dictate more than I would have in Australia what happened with the delivery. When told, on day 7 of week 40, that Archie would be at least another 10 days away, I said no, he won’t. I asked to be induced two days later and I doubt that in Australia the doctors would have agreed. We were also camped out in Shanghai at a hotel near the hospital and we didn’t want to be cooling our heels for days. Suzhou on any given day could be up to 4 hours drive from Shanghai and I didn’t want to take that risk of sitting at home waiting. We were actually told that if something were to go wrong NOT to call an ambulance but to call a taxi instead. Ambulances are not paramedics in China and do not come quickly. Knowing the way Chinese taxi drivers drive, I knew a taxi would get me there way faster anyway.

In the end we arrived calmly by taxi in the early evening, ready to be induced overnight. The hospital was one of the (if not the) most expensive in China. Given we had a kick ass insurance policy, it was reassuring we didn’t have to worry about a thing once we’d arrived. Our talented Mr (now) 4 arrived by emergency caesarean the next day just after lunch. Pretty much everyone has caesareans in China, so I wasn’t surprised when my labour went that way, although there was a legitimate reason. Archie had his cord wrapped around his foot and with each contraction his heart rate dipped dangerously low. I was never desperate for natural birth so this seemed fine with me, and a good way to get the whole thing over with.

The hospital was like a 5 star hotel. The best food we’d ever had. On our last night they wheeled in a white draped table with a 3 course dinner and bottle of lovely red to go with it! Being a really private person though, I didn’t like the endless parade of ward assistants who came in and out of my room, keen to help in any way they could. A friend who stayed in a Suzhou hospital actually had the assistants sleep on the couch in her room every night! Then there was the nurse who gave me a needle in the leg muscle (the most painful kind) at 5 am after I’d only finally fallen asleep at about 3. Kinda took me by surprise, you know, being ASLEEP AND ALL!!

Still, I was sad to leave as the whole hospital experience had been wonderful. My Midwife (MK) and Obstetrician (Nini Ji) were simply fabulous and I knew I’d never find food that good anywhere else!! As we left it was a formality to sign the discharge paperwork and the bill even though the insurance company was picking up the tab. I nearly fainted when I saw it. I would have if we’d been paying for it. $24,000USD. You read right. My Archie is the twenty four thousand dollar baby.

It might have been eye opening being pregnant and having a baby in China but actually HAVING a baby in China was a whole new world. To be continued…

I did a blog while living in China and it can be found here: http://nancyshack.blogspot.com.au/