Like many, I come from a line of immigrants. My grandparents, originally from China, immigrated to Malaysia. My parents were born and raised in Malaysia and immigrated to New Zealand when they were both in their 20s.
To get set up in New Zealand my parents tirelessly worked various jobs. I remember when my brothers and I were young, dad coming home from his pharmaceutical sales job to look after us while mum raced to her job teaching Malaysian cooking at night school. My parents moved to New Zealand with dreams of a clean, safe and peaceful life for me and my brothers.
New Zealand; the land of (Anchor) milk and (manuka) honey. Fresh air, blue skies that you can stretch up and touch, natural beauty by the bucketloads. Why would you ever want to leave? This is what I have been asked many times by the Chinese folk I come across who all would give their right arm to be able to live and work in New Zealand. And here I am trying to find a job here that gives me that magical work visa to be able to stay. The irony!
So why do I want to stay in China? I have been asking myself the same question as I have been tossing up whether to head back home to New Zealand or extend my initial one-year plan. The main reason I want to stay on is that I want to continue to improve my Mandarin. A one-year intensive language course will set you up with the basics but you’ll still be quite far from being able to communicate fluently. I can’t wait for the time when I can actually think and dream in Chinese. It’ll happen!
Living in Shanghai is perhaps not the best place for this objective because you can live quite a “Chinese-free” life if you want to. It’s maybe the equivalent of a Chinese person wanting to learn English and planting themselves right in the middle of a city’s Chinatown. But I just love where I live and the people I have met; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Living in Shanghai while on a mission to learn Chinese just means you have to be more disciplined to speak more Chinese at every opportunity. If you’re motivated enough, it’s definitely possible.
Living in China — and particularly when I travel outside my little expat bubble in Shanghai out to the “real” Chinese areas — has also made me confront my own prejudices and judgments of Chinese culture. I’ll be honest; sometimes I still get annoyed being surrounded by the loud talking and coughing and hoiking (being on a flight with a Chinese airline is a good example of this) but I have to remind myself that in their cultural context, it’s normal.
The more I read and study about China, the more I realise I don’t know. It’s a country with a fascinating (at times sad and shocking) history. It is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations! From the various dynasties (the first written history dating back to 3,000 years ago) to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, to the economic reforms focusing on “opening up” China in the 1980s, which continue to dominate its economic regime today, this is a country that has been through a lot. China is still regarded as a developing country yet it holds many “-est” titles. For example: longest tunnel; fastest train; highest bridge; highest glass-bottomed bridge; highest and longest glass-bottomed bridge, etc. (The Chinese are quite competitive).
I understand why for some people China isn’t usually at the top of the bucket list of places to visit. It is still quite a great unknown. I know before I researched into it I didn’t have much interest in visiting. Despite having ancestral ties to China I kind of dismissed it as a dirty place with heaps of buildings. How wrong I was! When you start scratching the surface, China is an incredibly diverse, vast and beautiful country with a really interesting past, and very rich cultures and traditions.
In learning more about the Chinese culture, I guess I am also learning about my own culture. I have never really identified much with my Chinese heritage. In fact, for a good part of my childhood I resented it. This is why I refused to learn Mandarin when I was younger — my brothers and I were extremely anti-Mandarin! Terrible children. Maybe because we already looked different, we didn’t want to act and speak differently to our friends. Our parents always used to say to us “you’ll regret not learning…” Ah parents. Always so annoyingly right. Oh well. Better late than never. ✌️
Here are some pictures of Shanghai that are very far from what I visualised from my first post…