My years of travel ignited in me a desire to experience the world on a whole different level. During my countless trips I had met many Americans who lived abroad, some for many years, and I aspired to have a similar experience myself. It never came to pass at FedEx, but when I landed at Microsoft, I saw numerous opportunities around me. While I didn’t immediately seek expatriate assignments, I expressed my interest to anyone who would listen, a persistent habit that eventually paid off.
In October 2007, with Troy barely 15 months old, Tiffany and I packed up the kids and boarded a plane for Beijing to begin a new life as expatriates. Neither of the kids had ever been on a plane ride longer than six hours, and Troy had only flown once in his short life, so we had no idea how he’d handle the 11-hour flight to Tokyo plus another four-hour jaunt to Beijing. To say we were nervous would have been an understatement. We’d been lucky that the kids were good fliers thus far, but we dreaded the thought of being the couple on the plane with the crying baby, especially on such a long flight.
It turned out that Troy handled the flight better than the rest of us. He slept the whole way, stretched out across our laps, while Tiffany and I slowly succumbed to the exhaustion brought on by sleeplessness and the impending jet lag. Being the ever-prepared momma bear, Tiffany had enough food to feed the entire airplane and enough toys and trinkets to entertain them all as well. When they were awake, the kids weren’t bored or hungry. If Troy showed any inclination to becoming the grumpy old man that he sometimes mimicked, Tiffany stuck a cracker in his mouth and he dutifully chewed himself back to sleep.
We landed in Beijing at night to a mostly abandoned airport save for the passengers that snaked their way to the immigration lines near the terminal. I held my sleepy little boy while we waited in line, and he felt all the heavier given the sheer exhaustion that wracked my body. The stress of such a big life change also weighed on Tiffany and me. Neither of us spoke Mandarin. I had only been to Beijing twice in my life; Tiffany had never been. She had trusted my instincts when we made the decision to move there. I knew I’d either regret that decision or be relieved depending on how the following months played out.
Two Chinese men, one who spoke broken English, greeted us at baggage claim. They had been hired by the relocation service to take us to our temporary housing. They marveled at how big our luggage was and tried their best to communicate with us, but we were mostly reduced to gestures and awkward smiles. Tiffany and I lingered in the fog of exhaustion despite the assault of a strange place and strange language on our senses. It was overwhelming being functionally illiterate (even the signs in pinyan were useless to us), but at that moment, we just wanted to sleep.
On the way to the temporary housing, the driver got lost in what would become a recurring theme in our lives in Beijing. It seems no one who lives there knows where anything is, especially taxi drivers. Our driver initially pulled up to a run-down building with a glaring red neon light that looked more like a place you’d procure drugs and hookers than one for a young family to live. After much gesticulation and verbal histrionics, he delivered us to the correct place, a clean, gated high-rise on the east side of the city just inside the Fourth Ring Road.
Although it was late at night, the complex had bell hops who helped us get our luggage from the car and up to our room. Normally, I refused such help, but given how tired I was and the fact I wanted to get the kids and myself to bed quickly, I let them have at it. They, too, remarked on how big our luggage was. I thought it strange, if not a little annoying, but I came to learn that in a country where many people don’t have much, we were wealthy no matter what our actual situation was from our own perspective. It was the first of many perspective-shifting moments that came to define our lives in Beijing.
I started my new job shortly after I got the family settled, leaving Tiffany alone with the kids on the other side of the city for long stretches of the day. Luckily, my job became the one respite for me from the chaos of Beijing. There I met many fellow expatriates and friendly locals who would become dear friends during the course of my three years in Beijing. My Chinese staff dubbed me “Da Wei,” which is a transliteration of my English name. I learned a lot from the ladies on my staff including much of the broken Mandarin I practiced in my time there.
Tiffany and I settled in an expatriate community just outside the Sixth Ring Road northeast of Beijing where she met other moms and spouses who were similarly left behind while their significant others worked in the city. That community in Beijing Riviera made our time there bearable for Tiffany who never really acclimated to the country, but always the trooper, she stuck with it for three years. She formed her routines and became a pro at navigating the community and the city beyond. She loved the shopping experience in the myriad shops that dotted every crack and crevice in Beijing. She could haggle with the best of them exclaiming “tai gui le” (too expensive) with such conviction and melodrama that I often wondered who was this woman I had married.
My experience in China was remarkably different than hers because I traveled around a bit with my job. I made regular trips to Tokyo and Shanghai and several times a year I’d travel to parts unknown in China. Cities like Lijiang, Xiamen, and Tianjin became familiar to me. I saw a side of China that Westerners rarely see. I saw the real people of China and learned about their culture without the filter of Western perspective, which, unfortunately, often hypes the negative stereotypes associated with the Communist regime. What I learned was something that I already knew in my heart of hearts: we’re all the same at our core. We all have hopes and dreams, want to love and be loved, and want to live a fulfilling life in a way that suits us. When you strip away the categorizations we apply to the world around us, that’s all that’s left, and my time in China reinforced that for me.
That’s not to say the authoritarian government can be dismissed. It can’t. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I, someone who had a preternatural disdain for any authority, government or otherwise, ended up living in a Communist country for a short time. I hated the idea that the government controlled what websites I could visit, so I purchased some proxy software and promptly circumvented the controls. The thought that some government bureaucrat could somehow determine what’s best for over a billion people was, and still is, laughable to me, but I have to give China credit where it is due. They got shit done. They fail on a lot of counts (e.g. pollution) like all governments do, but they have pulled over 300 million people out of poverty in three short decades. That is commendable no matter the political philosophy.
There were times when it seemed the assignment would last forever, but in the end, it was so short. I enjoyed the week-long holidays for Chinese New Year and Golden Week (first week of October). Tiffany and I took the kids to Australia and Singapore on a couple of those long weeks. We ventured out into all parts of Beijing becoming de facto tour guides for our family that visited. Some of our proudest moments were when her parents, her brother, and one of my brothers came to visit. We’d been to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace so many times that we knew all the good spots to avoid the ever-present and crushing crowds. We made life-long friends, many of whom we loved like family.
In the end, after we had packed up for the move back, I put the kids in the van as Tiffany trailed behind taking one last look at the house we had lived in for three years. She’d struggled to like living in China, but despite that, she was sentimental at that moment. Tears welled in her eyes. Grace and Troy were practically babies when they came to China. They were moving back as young kids. A lot had transpired in that house. Many happy memories that we both treasured – that first Christmas, so many birthdays, the start of school. China had become part of us as much as we were part of it. The great adventure was ending. She stared at that house for a moment while the kids waited in their car seats excited to be going on another plane ride. I put my arm around her while she looked at the house struggling to keep her composure. She smiled at me, put on her sunglasses, and walked out of the courtyard for the last time.