A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #6: Fiona Reilly of Life on Nanchang Lu

Welcome to the sixth interview in my infinite series of one sided conversations with expats (and ex-expats) all over the world. I started this series partly out of curiosity and partly out of a need for me to know I wasn’t alone in having mixed feelings about the path I had chosen. Now, with half a dozen down and several more still waiting in a folder on my desk top and still more to arrive in my inbox soon, I know I’m not alone.

Today I bring you the incomparable Fiona Reilly, creator of one of my favourite China blogs, Life on Nanchang Lu. I forget if I found her blog first or if she was the one who tracked me down, but I’ve been following her eloquent writings and beautiful photography since sometime last summer. I thought she was too cool for words. I still do.

Even though she lives practically around the corner from me, I was too intimidated to ask her for coffee– after all, while I was busy moaning about the grey skies and my isolated workplace and my general frustrations with living here, she was actually out doing things. Awesome things. She was delving deeply into Shanghai, into China, in a way that I deeply admired and had failed to do myself (at least, so I thought). She was studying Chinese in a non-half-assed way; she was exploring the local markets and street food stalls and restaurants with great passion; she was talking to people in Chinese and actually having meaningful conversations; she was taking the most beautiful photos; she was out doing stuff, brave stuff, ambitious stuff. I hung my head in shame and vowed to try harder next time and to moan a little less (at least, in public).

It was Fiona who suggested we meet for coffee in the end. About two weeks ago, we finally sat down near the freezing opening-closing door at the Wagas on Donghu lu and talked. And talked. For around three hours. It was a marvellous floodgate of words. I intend to do this again, if she’ll have me.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the lovely Fiona Reilly.

 

The lovely Fiona

Leaving

I live in Shanghai, a maximum city if ever there was one. I had the pleasure of meeting MaryAnne for the first time this week and I can tell you all, she is one cool woman with a head full of great ideas, including this series. But if you’re reading this you knew that already. [Editor’s note: Awwww, shucks]

Good times had by all

About ten years ago I remember a conversation with an English expat living in Australia, who was feeling the urge to move to somewhere bigger and more exciting than Sydney. “I think I’d like to live in London or Hong Kong…” she said. “Or Shanghai!” My reply still haunts me. “Oh my God,” I said, “I could never live in a city the size of Shanghai. I can’t think of anything worse” Eat your words, Fiona, because here you are.

I moved to Shanghai in 2009, with my husband and two children. My husband had won a competition to design outdoor artworks for Shanghai World Expo, and when he asked if I’d be interested in moving to Shanghai for six months, I thought it would be a great short adventure for our family. I didn’t think I’d still be living here two years later, with no immediate prospect of going home.

The decision to leave Australia was motivated entirely by a sense of adventure. Although we had traveled a great deal and at every opportunity in our twenty years together, both before and after our children were born, we had never lived overseas as a family, and China seemed a more interesting destination than pretty much anywhere else on the globe.

Matt had been coming to and from China for over a year, and told enticingly of Shanghai’s energy and vibrancy, and after a while that old traveling restlessness set in. One of our motivations was the reverse of settling down…to live a riskier life for a while and see what happened.

Rewind two years, and back home, our life was comfortable and enjoyable…I was working as an ER specialist, Matt was running his own public art business, we had lovely friends, our children went to a great local school, and we had just finished renovating our 110 year old house. Most normal people would be very happy with that, but in all honesty it was just a bit too comfortable, a little too pedestrian, and it could quite easily have continued uninterrupted for many years. So clearly, it was time to shake things up a bit.

I’ve always been a ‘traveler’, and come from a family of travelers. My father left Scotland at the age of 18 to forge a new life for himself in Australia, and any spare money my parents had was spent on traveling – around Australia, to New Zealand, and frequently back to Scotland. We had a memorable-for-all-the-wrong reasons driving holiday across Europe in a third-hand station wagon when I was thirteen, which Matt and I repeated, this time in a second-hand Scottish Mountain Rescue ambulance, when we were twenty, and we’ve been traveling ever since.

When I was three years old we moved to Scotland, but after two years of perishing cold my mother, the original Australian beach babe, shipped us all home again for some sunshine. I remember precious little of that stay, other than the snow, my Scottish grandparents, and tartan boxes of Edinburgh Rock (a sweet).

Parking under the red star

Our move to China was surprisingly easy to start with, because we all thought we’d be home again in six months. We packed a few suitcases, sent ahead a few boxes of our favorite books, and jumped on a plane.

The difficulties began later….the language, the constant invasion of personal space, the lack of our network of friends and family, and the troublesome internet all compounded into days where my mood was as grey and cold as the weather outside.

These would be interspersed with days of unbridled joy – tooling around back alleys on our $30 bicycles, kids on the back, marveling at the outdoor mahjong games, the laneway badminton, and the budding magnolia blossoms. The food of china has been an incredible joy for me too – the diversity, the wonderful culture of street food, and the national passion for eating. Chinese food has been a great introduction for me into a rich part of Chinese culture.

Staying

I’ve now been here in Shanghai for almost two years. I was so stressed by the difficulty of the decision to stay, or go, or go somewhere else altogether, that I spent two months last year visiting a counselor on a weekly basis to try and resolve the issue. The difficulty was this: my husband loves Shanghai, not so much for the city itself, but because it has given him a huge freedom from the day to day stresses of running a medium-sized business back home. Now someone does that for him, and he is free to pursue public art projects that interest him here in China. He doesn’t need to go back, and he worries that when he does, he will be sucked back into the vortex of seventy hour weeks and constant stress.

Ah, beautiful sunny Shanghai

I also love Shanghai, mostly, but while he was off being busy and productive every day, I was trying to buy vegetables, cope with the culture stresses the kids were experiencing, and learn a new language, and somehow reconcile to myself that I was not working, and in my area of medicine, was not likely to be able to work in Shanghai.

The counselor was incredibly helpful, and talked about ‘setting my own curriculum of self development’, which sounds at first like a load of bollocks, but was instrumental in arresting the slide into tai-tai territory, all manicures, mahjong and charity lunches. So I’ve studied a lot of things that interest me, with completely free reign, like Chinese food, and Charles Dickens, and photography. And I now realize what an incredible opportunity that is.

Our decision to stay or leave changes on a weekly basis at the moment –  although I still don’t know how long I’ll be here, I’m learning to be a bit more zen about it, and confine my panic attacks to just two a week. Stop worrying, girl, and enjoy it while it lasts.

It rapidly became apparent to me that Chinese could not be learned by exposure or osmosis. For a start, I’m older and my brain is more rickety, and secondly, it’s a bloody difficult language what with tones and characters and alien forms of grammar. I’m quite persistent though, and gradually my Chinese lessons with a succession of incredibly patient teachers began to pay off. Taxi Chinese came first, followed by market Chinese, then really basic conversations, which go something like this:

‘It’s bad, isn’t it, that middle east thing. That middle east country with that bad man with the funny clothes. You know him? Yes! Gah-da-fee!  Lee-bah-yah!  Bad, very bad.’

What's this in Chinese?

‘Australia? Oh, Australia is big. China is bigger. In Australia there are few people. China has more people. There are many beaches.’

It must be scintillating for the poor Chinese buggers I’m talking to. But they’re awfully polite about it and extremely encouraging, because so few foreigners ever manage to speak more than a few words.

Inevitably, though, all my conversations come grinding to a halt, either because I can’t convey what I want, or I can’t understand what they’re saying. The conversation trails off and we walk away. I’d love to have really deep conversations with Chinese people, and get to know what they really think – about lots of things – their past, their future, their families, their dreams, their food. Those conversations are still a long way off, but I’m working at it.

There is no doubt about it, the first six months in China were really very stressful, with more day-to-day challenges than I’d ever experienced in many years of travel.  I’d actually go so far to say that, given the choice between adapting to a new culture in which I was functionally illiterate, or running a tertiary level Emergency Department, I’d take the latter any day. Shanghai should be easy to live in, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s sophisticated, it’s full of foreigners, and yet…it can be incredibly, surprisingly difficult. Because under the surface, it’s parochial, it’s crude, and the foreigners, many of them, aren’t here by choice and live life with this undercurrent of grumpiness and sort of teeth-gritting ‘getting through it’.

At first I found it really hard to make new friends in Shanghai. I was blindingly naive about the Shanghai Expat Association, The Australian Women’s Group, and all the other friendly societies and clubs of expats where it is easy to find other newcomers and make friends.

Exploring Shanghai

Luckily, when the girls started school I was befriended by a fellow Australian mum who, with her unfailingly optimistic view of Shanghai, and love of a good adventure and a glass of red, has become the centre of my support network. We’ve studied photography together and love nothing better than going on a ‘photo-hunt’ through the back streets of the Old City, followed by a coffee and a gossip.

Despite her friendship though, and the other fantastic women I’ve met, I do feel lonely at times. I don’t make friends easily, and I miss the twenty year friendships I’ve left behind, where I didn’t need to explain anything. But those old friends don’t know what to say to me when I’m in the throes of a culture crisis, because they’ve never lived overseas. So I sometimes feel lost in the wide sea between the new friends and the old ones. And I do miss the intellectual friendships I had at work.

Maintaining Stability

Getting around in Shanghai

It’s different for everyone. Our lives have had patches of instability and frequent travel, then long patch of stability when the girls were born.  Children on the whole crave stability, and you can’t just on a dime decide to move country without really taking heir needs into account. Some things, like being in the one place for high school, from start to graduation, are pretty important, so we’re trying to fit our travels around that.  But when high school is over for both our girls, I can see us living somewhere else overseas.

I’ve gained….well, I had to think long and hard about this. What exactly have I gained?

I can say more clearly what I’ve lost.  I’ve lost the innocence of my outlook on the world, where Australia is at the bottom of the world but we like it that way, unbothered by the global community and a little bit blissfully ignorant.  I’ve lost 2 years of my career, but over the space of a lifetime I guess that’s not so long.

I’ve gained a totally different outlook on the world. I’ve gained a thicker skin. I’ve gained a rare insight into another country’s culture, and I’ve gained a great deal of freedom.  And more stuff that’s Made in China than I could ever use in one lifetime.

I think coming to China was certainly the right choice for us at the time, despite the difficulties.

Home is where your family is, and at times we have all felt more at home in China than in our old home, because we spend much more time together as a family.

The Future

One of the things she does best

I’ve never had a five year plan, and I tend to think of the future in broad blurred brushstrokes rather than minute detail.  Being an ER doctor has taught me never to plan too far ahead, because you never know when it will all change in an instant. So, this week and next, I’m off to Yunnan province to walk through Tiger Leaping Gorge and see some wilderness, and eat as many Yunnanese foods as possible. Beyond that, who can say? Will we still be here in a year or two years? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ m  learning to live with the indecision.

I harbour secret hopes of writing a book about Chinese food and eating. The thought of doing something so different to what I trained for years to do both excites and terrifies me, I mean, I don’t know how to write a book! But two years ago I didn’t know how to write a blog, and one year ago I didn’t know how to write for a magazine (which I now do, for a local publication) so perhaps it’s not so far fetched. It would be great to turn my passion for eating and exploring Chinese food into something tangible.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.