The Familiar

Posted by on March 28, 2011

Many folks back in the states seem to react in shock at times about our decision to move to China. I still meet people here (at work) who are visiting from the States :

  • “Hey what are you doing here? (Cause they expect to see me in Seattle not Beijing)
  • “I live here.”
  • “You do?”
  • “Yup”
  • “Did you bring your family?” (incredulously)

Living in Asia can be a huge adjustment for some people.  Just leaving your home environment, your home culture can be overwhelming. Too much for some people to even consider.  Stac and I had both lived in Asia twice before in our trips to Taiwan. This made it easier but not without an understanding at the same time of what we were getting ourselves into.  When we lived in Taiwan we went with basically nothing. While we did have Kiah the second time we went she was only 18 months and didn’t attend school. We slept on mattresses donated or given to us on the floor; we drove around on scooters without helmets; we ate food purchased off the street and never cooked; we lived out of suitcases with our things stacked on the floor and in plastic “toy” closets.  Things were much different this time around and being in a more secure and comfortable environment was much more important with our family.

Some of our key considerations were : where our kids would go to school and where we’d live.   You can read more about what we looked for in housing here, but having a place that was close to work and school was the primary requirements.   Not just the where, but how we’d live was also important.  Based on our relocation budget we also wanted to feel comfortable.  In a situation like Beijing when you have so much that is different or less convenient it was important to have a haven, a place that is your refuge from all the crazy and inconvenient.  Having a nice place with our own art hanging on the walls, and a few nicks and things makes a huge difference.

Living as an expat in Beijing is a very different experience from coming here as a student, just like traveling on a company business account is different from traveling as a student. Amazon has a very strict rule about frugality which I really appreciate. And yet at times the entire expat experience feels like its set up a little bit like a racket. Most of the international schools coincidentally charge around the same yearly tuition. The relocation companies and the real estate agents steer you towards apartment complexes that are western oriented and are not a “local product”. Granted there is good reason for some of this. The apartment where we live has a management staff that speaks English, and its amazingly reassuring to be able to call them up and get help in your own language.

Most all of this is possible otherwise, we did it in Taiwan many years ago but you end up relying on friends and a lot more pantomime and dictionary hunting to get your meaning across. (I still know how to say water pressure from an incident in Taiwan were our water tank on the roof was broken).  As noted with a family it was important to to have a place of comfort, a place to be able to call home. Your shelter from the storm. Your refuge from the pollution, the traffic and the people.

And so I sit in an apartment on the 29th floor that is larger than 90% of the population in China. I am comfortable and yet conflicted at the same time.  I am close to work, around 70 minutes closer than most of the people I work with.  We have hired an Ayi to help clean, and run errands. All of this can seem egregious and and exploitative, and yet the Ayi is not that expensive relative to our income and she is very grateful for the job.  I remember a quote from an economics professor once : “The only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited”  Meaning that we can criticize the exploitation of workers in foreign lands by foreign companies, such as Nike opening a plant in Vietnam, and yet the wage while not what they’d pay in the US, raises the base income in an impoverished situation and improves peoples lives.  I suppose its the attitude with which we approach individuals and treat them that is a key differentiator.  Some other time I’ll cover a host of thing that are different and balance things out. In the meantime I do appreciate the familiar and the comfort it brings among all that is not normal.  I hope I can remain always grateful and keep the proper perspective on the experience.

6 Responses to The Familiar

  1. Stacey griffith

    I really enjoyed this. Very honest.

  2. Tom

    I talked with the Mexican guys doing the drywall on the new house next door. They were using Grabber screws which my father invented. I had 4 gold screw pins left from when I worked for Grabber so I gave him and his crew the pins and thanked them for buying Grabber screws. I asked the boss, a young, very intelligent person but of course someone who had no chance at a formal education, how business was going in this difficult home building environment. He said they were being paid just enough to get by and not making any profit. He said he has a lot of bills. He said his wife nearly died from a serious infection and she spent 10 months in the hospital and the bill is $250,000.00. At one point they had to cut her abdomen open and remove her organs to clean them and her insides to try and get rid of the poison in a 12 hour procedure. He showed me picture on his cell phone of the massive scar . The doctors saved his wife and he is so glad. He said he may never be able to pay the money back but he will try. He said he may never have any money now but he has his family and that is what he cares about. He works very hard and has almost nothing to show for it but he is happy that his wife is alive. What an example to follow. What a great attitude. I thought how can I help this young man when I want so many things for myself and my family. I don’t have any drywall that I can hire him to do. I want to save my money for retirement and I don’t have enough to put a dent in his massive medical bill. Why should I be so fortunate and he be in such dire straights monetarily? But his attitude is amazing.
    Our daughter lay dying a month ago in the hospital and the doctors saved her and we are so grateful. Kate and her husband are fortunate to have some medical insurance which will help pay most of the medical bills. When Kate had the triplets the insurance paid for almost all of the $90,000.00 in medical bills. Gilberto the mexican drywall installer couldn’t buy insurance and now he faces such an uphill monetary battle.
    Yesterday we went to Las Vegas and while at our friends the neighbor lady came over and needed help jumping the battery in their old car. She needed to take her 16 year old son to his doctors appointments. He was in a wheel chair. I greeted him and told him I hoped he would have an enjoyable day. After helping her get the car started I went back to our friends house and our friend told me their son was dying of cancer which he contracted at 8 years old but now it had spread to his brain. Life is not fair and can be so cruel. How extremely sad he won’t get to experience life on earth much longer.
    My son in law’s friend was back country skiing last weekend and was buried and died in an avalanche. We read about all kinds of car accidents, shootings and other deaths in the paper. Our friend in California lost her brother 20 years ago in a car accident. Her only other brother was accidentally shot and killed by his 11 year old son while hunting 4 months ago. Very sad.
    But there is much good to more than balance out the bad news. Helping Kate take care of her triplets has been amazing. It is a lot of work but the joy that comes from watching them grow, their first smile, their first giggle, rokcing them in your arms to help them sleep, watching their first teeth grow, is just heaven on earth.
    Good people do what they can where they can to the ability they can. Life is not fair but good people can try to spread goodness and love mixed in with the fact money must be made and spent and hopefully we make enough and live to a standard where we have money left over to help others. We all must draw our own lines as to what is acceptable.
    I hope people make good decisions and work hard and live to a standard where money is left to be able to help those less fortunate. With all the challenges people face in this life we can’t help them all but we can do what we can and hope it makes a difference.


    • mbg

      Well said Tom. “The rain falleth on the just and unjust.” I just hope I can keep perspective; remain grateful for all I’ve been given and never believe I am entitled.

      • Tom

        I have learned so much from you and Staci and your examples and wisdom. I hope your experience continues to unfold positively as it has so far.

  3. Stacey Griffith

    Tom, I didn’t realize that Kate was that sick last month. I am so sorry for the scare all of you must have had. I’m glad she is doing better. Send her our love. Thank you for your poetic response to Mark’s post. While there is much sadness and also selfish people in the world, it’s true that there is much good and also caring people. your family has always been very caring to ours and we appreciate it. Tell Jodi hello from me.

  4. btezra

    refreshingly honest and open post

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