From mystique to mystification – an expat mother’s sad Nanjing life made good

From afar China seems like a land of infinite wander. And for expats, it holds a certain mystique over other destinations – something which shapes our expectations before we arrive.

Once we get here, setting foot on this vast and sprawling country one can feel a range of emotions – excitement at the start of a new adventure, amazement, shock, fear, curiosity, amusement and exhaustion.

For most, the first few weeks in China fly by quickly, and any negative feelings are generally drowned out by the sheer adrenaline of living in a massive, bustling place with strikingly different habits to one’s home country. These will seem fascinating and even quaint at first. Perhaps amusement will be your reaction to things like, old people in the parks walking backwards as a form of exercise, the chaotic behaviour of road users, or, if you are in a more remote area, the constant staring at you, if you don’t have a Chinese face. This is the experience that greeted Julie, a 35-year-old British expat mother who lives in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, when she arrived with her two young kids and husband, two years ago.

“When I first came to China it was amazing – everything was a novelty and the things which would later become annoying were charming at first,” says Julie,. “But after a few months I didn’t find the shouts of “hello!” uttered in a comic tone so amusing anymore, nor did I find jumping into the fray and pushing and shoving to get a seat on the metro as liberating as it was initially.”

In the initial period, even if you don’t have Chinese language skills, it’s surprisingly easy to interact with Chinese people. Many have an inherent friendliness towards strangers and their mix of curiosity and geniality makes first contact less cumbersome than you might think. You may have read a lot about the concept of “face” – that in social and business interactions Chinese like to feel that both parties are respected though small compliments and gestures to uphold one’s feeling of personal value or integrity.

In the beginning this results in lots of nice things being done or said to try to make you feel good. Of course, it’s the done thing to reciprocate as best you can in a mild manner without going over the top or appearing insincere. And it’s in these first exchanges you will find a very important lesson to be learned which will shape your entire China experience – that communication style is very different which leads to all sorts of issues and frustration.

“A lot of the time in China, even when I was speaking with a local person who spoke excellent English, I got the impression they were saying what I wanted to hear,” said Julie, “This made me doubt that what they said wasn’t what they meant, and it was very difficult to know one way or another. They might have been telling the truth sometimes, but I felt mystified most of the time.”

Mystified – it’s a word which ties in nicely with the feeling we have when we first arrive in China. Mystique, a positive word with implications of wonder and charm, turns to mystified – where you feel bamboozled by a constant stream of not knowing what’s going on and become powerless. It’s a feeling which is hard to shake. We may feel it when we wake up first thing in the morning and it’s still with us when we step out of the door.

“For a while, I relied on our Ayi [the Chinese word for aunty, commonly used by expats to describe a housekeeper] to do everything from hanging out the washing to going to the local store to buy water or snacks for the kids,” said Julie, “My husband would take the kids out at the weekend but if he fancied staying in, I felt I couldn’t go out without him, so it became a strain on our whole family because I had lost all independence since I came to China.”

Julie relied on her husband when going out during the day at the weekend, but during the week, it was different.

“I didn’t have much to do, I had too much time on my hands and I probably over-thought everything. We lived in a six-storey high block on the 3rd floor with a big balcony so I spent most of my time out there just watching the neighbours going about their business – it was enough to keep me entertained and not force me out through sheer boredom,” Julie admitted.

She would get used to China and be able to cope more on her own. But after six months, the sights of the city, with its bustling downtown, vibrant university area, and historic city walls, were still largely unknown to her. After reading some expat websites online, she became aware of the need to find other expat mothers like herself in the same city. One weekend, whilst her husband was away on business, she met up with a pair of mums from Australia she had met online and they all took their kids out for a family outing.

“We took the kids to Purple Mountain, up a cable car. From the top you can see the entire city”, said Julie, “The kids of course loved the ride up there and were so excited to see a view of the whole city at once. In a strange way I felt excited like them as I was getting to see much of the place for the first time without my husband, and that day everything just clicked into place and I realised I had been daft for being too afraid to go out without him.”

By getting together with like-minded expats in her situation, it was enough to compensate for the disappearance of the support network of friends and family we all take for granted back home. “It sounds ridiculous, but I am really an outgoing person back home and I’m never really on the internet that much so I didn’t want to go on it looking for friends, and I ended up being stuck in a rut unable to go out myself,” she said, adding, “I think anyone coming here should understand that living in a foreign country really can knock you out of your stride in ways you can’t imagine, so something as simple as getting together with people in the same boat as you somehow becomes impossible.”

Julie’s tale is one of many we have heard at China Expat Health. So why not build on our experience and give us a call to make sure you are taking care of your family’s most important needs – health and well being. We know how – let us find the most suitable health insurance package for you now by calling now.