Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In my DNA

I come from a family of travelers. My grandparents have circled the globe. I have an uncle who completed his graduate work in London and a cousin who worked on a baboon refuge in Africa. But I thought for sure I was the first of my family to live in Asia.


A few months after moving here, my aunt sent me an email. Since her retirement, she has spent a great deal of time working on our family's genealogy. And guess what she found during her research?

My great grand aunt just so happened to live in Japan. In 1921.

1921.07.11 - Helen Blake Wise

The glamorous Helen Blake moved to Japan with her new husband immediately following their honeymoon. Her husband was hired as an English teacher at the Imperial College and Helen came along as a trailing spouse. This sounds oddly familiar.

My aunt was even able to find this article clipping from the local newspaper detailing their travel plans.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 2.48.42 PM

As if this information wasn't enough to blow my mind, my aunt also uncovered an application for an emergency passport, filed at the US Consulate in Japan. The reason they desired this passport? Sight-seeing in CHINA.

It's entirely likely that my great grand aunt not only visited Shanghai, but walked along some of the same streets that I do today. 

I guess being an expat was in my DNA.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Friends Every Expat Should Have

Friends are important at any stage of life. As an expat, your friends become the family you don't have nearby and your constant support system. But picking who to spend your time with is also important. Yes, you should seek out people who have similar interests as you but you should also look for those who bring a unique set of skills to your friendship. In order to best enjoy the time you have in your new country, I suggest you seek out each of the following people.

The Adventurous One
When you first move to a new place, it can be overwhelming. The places, smells, and perhaps even the language are all new and intimidating. This is why it is helpful to meet someone who isn't held back by insecurities. My first friend in Shanghai, J, was great at forcing me to go new places. Sure, riding the metro to a new neighborhood seems rudimentary now, but I was terrified the first time she suggested we meet for lunch. She also taught me that it was okay not to understand what the waiter was saying to us or vice versa. She happily pointed at other tables and used hand gestures to order. She fearlessness made me feel more comfortable doing the same. Even now, she's always game to try new restaurants or wander down unmarked alleyways.

The Social Planner
This person is great to have around. They will organize nights out at KTV as well as make sure you have reservations for Thanksgiving dinner. They always know what is going on around the city and are able to constantly introduce you to new people. My friend C can organize a raging party with 15 minutes notice and she is guaranteed to always be on time for social events. Your Social Planner will make sure you never find yourself bored or alone.

The Local
This one can be a bit tricky for many expats at first. Different customs, traditions, and languages often hamper the ability to cultivate this friendship early on. But once you are able to break through those barriers, you'll be happy you made the effect. The Local can help you with everyone from translating text messages to serving as your point of contact in an emergency. They will give you tips on the best local restaurants and can tell someone off for you in their native tongue. And no, your ayi doesn't count, even if she can do all of the things I've just mentioned.

The Newbie
Yes, you read the correctly. Every expat should be friends with someone new to the country they are living in. Why? First, they are bound to think you are the smartest person ever. You know tricks like how to pay your bills at Family Mart and where to buy recharge cards for your phone. You can introduce them to your favorite local haunts and they tend to think your language skills are amazing (even when they aren't). But more importantly, you have the chance to see your city through their eyes. Fresh eyes. They aren't jaded yet by the surroundings and see each day as a new adventure. The Newbie will remind you of all the things you love about your city and help renew that passion you felt when first starting your own adventure.

Now, I'm not saying you need to go out and find a new group of friends. You likely already know someone who represents each of these categories. Use their innate characteristics to your advantage. Exploit their talents. You'll be glad you did.

Need some tips for meeting people in Shanghai? Check out our post on how to make friends.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Accidental Tai Tai

When Matthew and I decided to move to China, it was a joint decision. We said yes fairly quickly to the opportunity, but then spent the next few months figuring out the details. One of those details was my job.
A photo from our house hunting trip over 2 years ago

I have worked since I was 14 years old. I held jobs throughout high school, college, and graduate school. I've been a thrifty saver all my life and have always had a bank account, well padded with hard earned cash. I remember my mother instilling in me from a young age that I needed to be able to take care of myself and that I should never rely on a man or anyone else for money.

Which is why moving to China was a challenge for me. Matthew and I looked at our finances before moving and discovered that thanks to our savings, the profit from selling our house, and the benefits that came along with an expat package, I didn't have to work. Financially, we were fine.

The problem is that I wasn't. Our first indication that unemployment would be a challenge for me came at the rental car agency a few days before our departure. I had quit my job two weeks prior and was filling out the paperwork for the car we would take to the airport. The kind teenager behind the counter innocently asked, "Can you please provide your employer and position title on this form?" I blankly stared at him for a moment before writing HOUSEWIFE across the paper. I then promptly burst into tears.

The few first months in Shanghai were wonderful. I embraced my retirement, as we came to call it, and enjoyed leisurely lunches with new friends, explored the city, practiced my Chinese, and spent slothful afternoons snuggling my cat in bed. I was happy.

Life as a tai tai

But after a few months, that same unsettling feeling from the rental agency came back to me. Only this time it wasn't quickly squashed by an opportunity to ride first class on an international flight. The feeling was persistent and I found myself having an identity crisis. All the titles I held back in the states (worker, advisor, colleague) and the ones I still held (daughter, sister, friend) seemed as distant as the people who used them in reference to me.

During this time, I began to be addressed by a new title: tai tai. While this word is used throughout China to mean Mrs., in Shanghai it takes on a particular meaning. The assumption here is that a tai tai is a woman who doesn't work and spends her days shopping, getting massages, and generally emptying her husband's bank account. I quickly learned that mentioning I was a Shanghai tai tai would earn me a discount at most stores, because sellers assumed that meant I would be back often for more shopping.

Further complicating the matter was the fact that joint bank accounts are uncommon in China and our bank refused to give us two debit cards for Matthew's account. This meant that not only was I not contributing to our family income, I had to ask my husband for money. As a woman who has always seen herself as independent, having my husband give me an allowance was a tough pill to swallow.

After a year, I found a job. I had spent a few months researching positions but wanted to ensure I found something that made me feel valuable and where I would make a contribution. I contacted a small company that specialized in the field in which I hold my master's degree and was hired shortly after. I also took up a part time job as a cycling instructor at a local spin studio.

Overnight, I felt a renewed sense of self. Suddenly, people were once again looking to me for guidance and treating me as an expert in my field. Suddenly, I was needed.

When you make the sacrifice to allow your partner's career to grow at the detriment of your own, you can find yourself struggling to maintain your identify and sense of self. I didn't know how to be a housewife and frankly I wasn't very good at it (ask Matthew about my ironing skills).

My journey back to the working world isn't for everyone. Many people live extremely fulfilling lives here and abroad as housewives/husbands. But it wasn't the right path for me. I need the stimulation and challenge of a 9-5, even if it does interfere with my social life.

And yes, I still use my tai tai discount when shopping. Only now, it's my money that I spend.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Shanghai Eats: Champagne Brunch at Vue

Guys, I'm so behind on blog posts. I've been logging 35+ hours at my "part-time" job and simply haven't had time to update. I have more to tell you about Harbin, a trip to Cambodia, and of course Shanghai updates to give. The posts are coming, just not in a timely manner. In an attempt to make it up to you however, I am going to post something that I did today. Yes, that's right, this event occurred only a few hours ago. How's that for quick turnaround?

My friend Lesley decided to celebrate her birthday in style with an all you can eat and drink champagne  brunch at Vue Restaurant. The price tag isn't cheap at 688 RMB per person but the incredible food and service were deserving of the cost. Unlike your average buffet, each of the dishes is made to order at stations situated throughout the restaurant. The result is beautifully executed food delivered to your table.


We started off our meal with glasses of Perrier Jouët along with a stop at the Bloody Mary bar.


Next we moved on to poached eggs with polenta and black truffle before hitting the cold bar for oysters, lobster tail, and king crab legs.



After the seafood, it was steak with red wine and bacon sauce, tiger prawns in cream (a personal favorite), and lobster risotto. As a side note, I apologize that all my photos of food look the same. I'm clearly not a food photographer. 




We took our time, noshing on other dishes such as Boston lobster bisque, steak tartar, and a full Sunday roast. And then finally, it was time for dessert. While we enjoyed everything we sampled, the chocolate soufflé stood out as a favorite in our group.



If you feel like treating yourself to a decadent brunch, this is the place to go. I'd recommend coming early and staying late to allow yourself time to savor your dishes. We arrived at 11:30 when the restaurant opened and waddled out left shortly after 4pm (final call for dishes was around 3pm). While not a spot my waist line could handle on a regular basis, I have no doubt I will be back when another special occasion rolls around. Like because it's a Sunday. Or the sun is shining. Those seems like good reasons to celebrate.

Vue Restaurant, 30th Floor
Hyatt on the Bund
199 Huangpu Lu, near Wuchang Lu
黄浦路199号, 外滩茂悦大酒店30楼, 近武昌路
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