Before Jamey and I moved to Shanghai in 2015, we faced a barrage of questions that Americans always seem to ask about China. For example: Isn’t that a communist country? Don’t they eat dog? Will you get to meet Jackie Chan? Do they eat soup with chopsticks?
I pondered these questions as I had a recurring nightmare that I was marching in one of those massive Chinese military parades with the missiles and tanks and ten bazillion soldiers marching in lockstep. Except I couldn’t get the beat, and everyone was looking at me like a traitor. In reality, I could never be one of those soldiers, mostly because they wear this hat that would make my head look huuuuge. Plus, I discovered that Chinese soldiers stick straight pins in their collars pointing toward their neck as a means of keeping their head up. Ouch.
Much to my relief, there was nothing scary awaiting us when we arrived in our new home of Shanghai, no military parades or missiles or dog wontons. To the contrary. There are a bazillion Starbucks (including the largest one in the whole world), flagship stores for Prada, Versace, and Valentino, Shanghai Disneyland, Pop Tarts ($8/box), and scores of fashionable young Chinese staring at iPhones and filling the hip cafes in the very hip Former French Concession where we live. And none of them have pins sticking from their collars because they already walk very upright and purposefully like models on a Gucci runway.
But even though Shanghai looks quite Western in many respects, their government doesn’t exactly operate like those in the West. But trying to explain the government of China is complicated. It’s been labeled many things: communist, socialist, authoritarian, corporatist, a democratic dictatorship, socialism with Chinese characteristics, Marxism adapted to Chinese circumstances, and a socialist market economy. I mean seriously, you need to take a poli-sci course just to explain it (which I did not, hence my reliance on Wikipedia).
Suffice to say the government here operates differently than those in the USA. I mean, one man basically runs the show like a dictator, and his cowering minions follow suit, no matter how outrageous his words or actions are. Then there’s China.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for President Xi Jinping to tweet either, though that would be fun (“Hippo-neck Trump threatens us with a trade war? Maybe windmills have fried his brain. Sad!”). There is a guy in Beijing who, as a hobby, tries to translate Trump’s tweets into Chinese, but is challenged by the bad grammar, spelling errors, and slang. He translates
“Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer to “Chuck the Weeper.” Trump’s “Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt“ phrase becomes “Manipulated and nauseating political persecution.” Hard to believe his tweets can be even more incoherent than we find them ourselves.
Surprisingly, you don’t see much in the way of government intrusion here in Shanghai. There are lots of rumors, like how the government shuts down coal-burning factories when an important international event is held so that the abysmal air quality instantly improves. Or how they can seed clouds to make it snow on certain days. Or how they can slow down the Internet if they feel like it. Or how they’ve created an army of robots that look like the Kardashians, poised to take over the world. Well, that last one is not any rumor I actually heard, but you never know. Kim looks awfully animatronic.
Actually, we live a fairly Western-style life here in Shanghai (“Western” as in European/American, not as in chaps/spurs, though I’m sure there are some late night clubs that offer that as well). There are Western grocery stores that sell most American products, from Nestles Chocolate Chips to Honey Nut Cheerios to Heinz Ketchup to, yes, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pop Tarts. Even the local Chinese grocery stores sell Tide with Lavender, and L’Oreal Shampoo and conditioner for color treated hair (not that I need that, mind you—this is just for informational purposes).
The tricky part is that the labels on the Western products in the local stores are completely in Chinese, so it can be confusing for a struggling Chinese speaker like me. And when I say “struggling,” I mean a completely non-Chinese speaker who totally gave up on Rosetta Stone Chinese like five times now, and whose own 9-year-old students told him his Chinese sounds like an old grandma speaking.
We do have an app on our phone that scans and translates Chinese characters, but the results aren’t always crystal clear. For example, I can never figure out which is the L’Oreal shampoo and which is the L’Oreal conditioner–hence the 12 bottles of L’Oreal shampoo in our cabinet that represent the 11 times we thought it was conditioner. So, we always scan the L’Oreal bottles for clues. But the last time we scanned the front label on the bottle, the translation read, “Mushrooms best feature.” Is L’Oreal making pasta sauce now? Do fungi miraculously repair split ends? Is portabello the latest hot scent?
And it’s not just conditioner that causes me problems. For a month I wondered why the clothes I was washing didn’t have that freshly laundered scent. Then, after a quick scan with the app, I discovered that the Purex lavender-scented liquid detergent I was using was, in fact, lavender-scented fabric softener. Nothing like wearing really soft, static-free, filthy clothes for four weeks. Other parts of the label translated to: “New Pretend,” “Clean Smoked,” and “Temple No Remain.” Always an adventure in Shanghai.
But, alas, this particular adventure is nearing the end and we will soon leave the $8 Pop Tarts and cloud seeding and Kardashian robot armies behind. Because we made the big decision to leave China at the end of this school year and move on to a new place!
No doubt this new locale will be as unusual and foreign to us as Mali or China, a location that will require some time for us to adjust to an interesting, novel culture we aren’t used to. Like in our previous travels, we do have concerns about this new post. The actual city where we will reside is a picturesque, safe place with lovely people that I’m sure will welcome us with open arms. But it lies within a country plagued by violence and a somewhat shaky government led by an unstable leader.
Yes, we are moving to America.
Jamey and I will soon be residents of a town that is 625 times smaller in population and 153 times smaller in land area than Shanghai. Quincy, Illinois is a town of 40,000 people covering 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) on the Mississippi River, smack dab in the heart of the Midwest. First inhabited by the Illiniwek tribe and officially named in 1825, its riverfront location made it a major trading hub in the 1800s, and once the state’s second largest city. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a senatorial debate in the downtown park, and it’s the birthplace of Academy Award-winning actress Mary Astor (the Maltese Falcon), and the fabulous, Emmy Award-nominated Jonathan Van Ness who currently stars in Netflix’s “Queer Eye” (he lived just three houses away from our new home, and I went to high school with his mom).
It’s always been a welcoming town, sheltering 6,000 Mormon refugees in 1838 who fled persecution in Missouri (Quincy had about 2,000 people at the time), sheltering members of the Pottawatomie tribe in 1838 as they were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government from Indiana to Kansas along the “Trail of Death,” and becoming a major stop on the Underground Railroad. There was also a huge influx of German immigrants fleeing revolutions and conflicts in Europe who found peace and quiet and good farmland in Quincy in the mid 1800s. Thanks to them, Quincy has a long history of breweries and a plethora of taverns. Nothing says “welcome” like a bar on every corner!
Despite the fuddy-duddy stereotype the Midwest sometimes evokes, Quincy actually has
strong roots as a progressive city. The first immigrants came from New England and brought with them their progressive values, such as abolitionism and public education. That continued into modern times when, in 1975, Time magazine called Quincy “an educational mecca” as educators from around the country flocked to its schools to see cutting edge approaches to instruction.
But I’m not naïve; I realize that today’s Quincy may not be the same progressive burg it once was. For example, in the last presidential election here, 70.6 percent of the vote went to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (hint: When he hears the word “stormy” he’s not thinking about the weather). And despite the fact that Illinois is a blue state, Quincy sits within a very red county. While I’ve never been a member of any political party, I am frightened by the ones who shun science and think that gay conversation therapy is a thing. But this is where those bars on every corner can come in handy, because after a few cocktails I always think the president is Lady Gaga and then I feel great.
There are healthier distractions, though. Quincy is a town rich in the arts and culture. Named to Expedia’s list of America’s Most Artistic Towns in 2017 and 2018, it’s home to America’s very first arts council, a community theatre in its 82nd season, a symphony orchestra, opera company, museums, 1,000 acres of parks, and over 3,500 architecturally significant buildings contributing to four National Historic Register Districts. And there are a couple of gay bars!
Quincy is also my hometown.
Yep, and it’s a place where I haven’t lived since I was 18 years old. I’ll be teaching in the same school system where I learned to read, write, and love show tunes. Jamey will be teaching just across the river in Hannibal, MO, home of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.
I’ll be living in the same town where I spent Friday nights TP-ing homes, where I avoided paying admission to the drive-in theatre by hiding in a car trunk (while wearing trendy white painter’s pants, no less), and where I once saw a ghostlike apparition as I regularly explored haunted houses way before those TV shows like Paranormal Witness and Ghost Hunters were on TV. If I get famous, I’ll probably apply to be on Celebrity Ghost Stories. My story will certainly be better than those of Downtown Julie Brown or that dweeb Scott Baio.
Sure, it’s an unconventional path from South Florida to West Africa to China to the Heartland,
where life might be more laid back. But at this point in my life, I’ve lived and worked (or gone to school) on five continents where I’ve tried my best to speak Spanish, German, French, Bambara, and Chinese just so I could find a toilet or tell a server that I’m allergic to garlic (often the garlic question wasn’t understood so the toilet question became much more urgent). I’ve taught in schools on three continents, and in one country I taught the prime minister’s son who came to parent conferences with armed soldiers.
I’ve experienced life across the globe, from Ethiopia to Easter Island, from Uzbekistan to the UK, even having to add pages to my passport because it was too filled with entry stamps. I’ve seen 70 countries. I’ve hiked an ancient Incan trail for days to Machu Picchu in Peru, climbed inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo, looked at the temples in Cambodia from a hot air balloon, sat with a tribal chief in a remote village in Mali, experienced the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle in Finland, stood on a smoking volcano in Nicaragua, floated down the river on a traditional Mekong Delta riverboat in Laos, spent the night with a hill tribe in Thailand, stood too close to wild baboons in Ethiopia, floated in a rowboat in an iceberg-filled bay in Greenland, had the flu in North Korea and food poisoning in Serbia, and even greeted King Wangchuck of Bhutan in a monastery. Jamey and I never needed a bucket list because we just ended up doing the things we would have listed anyway.
Teaching abroad was the best decision we ever made. There was our first post in memorable Mali. Amazing music! A coup d’état! Fabulous culture! A war! Two new languages to learn! An Ebola outbreak! That experience made our next stop, Shanghai, seem tame. People would say, “Oh, the streets of Shanghai are so crazy with all of those motor scooters,” and I’d think about the streets of Bamako filled with cars, galloping horses, French army trucks, herds of longhorn steer, rickety taxis, vendors weaving through it all selling toilet paper or plastic bags of water, and, oh yes, scooters. But these scooter drivers carry huge sheets of plate glass or several live sheep or six tires. So “crazy” we’ve done, in all its various forms.
We got to teach with fascinating educators and kids from around the world who widened our world view more than we ever thought possible. We got to live an expat life in which a long weekend in Thailand or Tokyo is routine. I once asked my class here in Shanghai if anyone was traveling for spring break, and one American girl frowned and sighed, “Bali AGAIN.”
It’s been a grand adventure, and a rather lucrative one as well because as expats we didn’t have to pay U.S. taxes, and our schools covered all housing costs. So we actually saved money–even with all of the endless traveling we engaged in during our many, many school holidays (mid-autumn festival, National Day break, Thanksgiving, winter break, Chinese New Year, spring break, Tomb Sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Festival). In one particularly active 12-month period we managed to experience China, the Maldives, Singapore, Bhutan, North Korea, the U.S., Cuba, and Bali (Bali AGAIN?). But as much as we’ve savored this whirlwind life around the world, partying at foreign embassies, and having maids and drivers and gardeners, our priorities have changed.
We want nothing more now then to be closer to our families.
I know, I know. I’m talking like a sappy poster someone puts on Facebook (envision a present wrapped with silvery paper and a Tiffany-blue ribbon, nestled under a Christmas tree with a puppy sleeping next to it, and the words “Family is the gift that lasts forever” stretched across the top in a sympathetic font). But for Jamey and me, it’s not so sappy because, for a number of reasons, it’s becoming clear that this is the point in time where we can pitch in, lend a hand, and offer more support to our families than a quick weeklong visit once a year allows.
When I was a teen, I watched the TV show “Big Blue Marble” and dreamed of seeing the unique corners of the world it showcased (“Meet Jess, a 15-year old boy from the Netherlands who wants to join the circus someday!”). But I never thought about how special my own little world was too. In this day and age when our own president is in marriage #3 (with mistresses on the side), having fun, active, normal parents married almost 60 years now is pretty unique too. Having them live five minutes away so I can drop in anytime to eat home baked treats–I mean so I can help them with chores—is a luxury beyond compare, as is building things with nephew Nick, laughing with my sisters until we almost wet ourselves, having a drink with my cousins (well facilitated by the “tavern on every corner” situation), or hopping a short flight to visit my in-laws on the idyllic farm out in the country or my brother in amazing Seattle (I could also say “my amazing brother in Seattle, but I was trying to go for parallelism in this sentence).
All of these experiences will be novel for us, and we look forward to this new life, nestled in our midcentury home full of art from our travels. Also novel will be a working Internet that doesn’t cause me to curse like a sailor, blue skies, and not needing a face mask with charcoal filters in order to protect my lungs from inhaling toxic chemicals. I certainly won’t miss the elderly woman in the apartment above who apparently begins clogging practice at five sharp every morning.
Granted we won’t be a couple of blocks away from the Gucci flagship store like we are here in Shanghai, where we can conveniently pick up a 17” x 17” needlepoint pillow with teddy bear motif for $1,250. However, we’ll be minutes away from the Maid-Rite, a restaurant featured on Alton Brown’s show on the Travel Channel, where for around $3.00 we can buy the best loose meat sandwich in the universe (and I would much rather buy 417 Maid-Rite sandwiches than a single Gucci pillow, just not all at once).
Along with oxygen and water, travel will still be an essential part of our lives as it has always been. After all, we have 120-ish countries we haven’t yet visited, and a few states too (although Idaho is a tough sell for us). And just in case anyone has lingering questions about our big move, I’ve pre-answered them for your convenience:
Q: Will you be living next to a cornfield?
A: While I did live next to a corn field/cabbage field growing up, our new neighborhood is bordered by the very fancy, 100-year old Quincy Country Club and its well-maintained golf course. No farm equipment in sight.
Q: Will you be drinking Budweiser in the back of a pickup truck while watching monster car races?
A: If I’m in the back of a pickup truck, it’s because I’ve just bought a vintage midcentury Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich and I had it delivered, along with two cases of Whitley Neill Blood Orange gin.
Q: Will you feel isolated being in the middle of nowhere?
A: I can take a $50 flight from the Quincy airport to Chicago in less than an hour. I can drive to St. Louis in two hours. I can build a raft like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and float down the Mississippi River to escape Aunt Polly who is whacking me on the head with a thimble and forcing me to abandon my high-spirited ways.
Q: Won’t you go insane with the antics of the current administration at your doorstep?
A: We currently live in a communist (ish) country, previously lived in a country where the government was taken over by drunk junior officers of the army, and have visited countries run by dictators and madmen. We have learned how to manage. Plus, there is a tavern on every corner.