When going home gives you a headache….

When going home gives you a headache.

IMG_9323I caught up with a former colleague recently. We haven’t seen each other in close to 7yrs which was weird to discover. In the manner of these things, we spent some time just filling each other in on lives that diverged wildly when she was smart enough to cut and run from a company we’d both worked for. She’d spent the intervening time in Singapore, Japan and Australia with jaunts throughout the region and into the US. Clearly, I’ve also done the jaunts throughout the region and into the US as well as stints in India, China and back here to Mumbai so we now had that in common as well. It was strange, catching up with someone for whom I had had an enormous amount of respect but hadn’t been able to figure out how to be more than Facebook friends with. In many ways, we no longer knew each other but in others, it was like returning to a cafe in a city you no longer live in, you know the rules and while things have changed, you already have a foundation there. Since she’d spent a considerable amount of time as an expat and I was now one, eventually, that’s where the conversation headed and she said something that has stuck with me ever since because I had felt its grief as well: “going home gave me a headache”.

When she said it, I knew exactly and instantly what she meant.

IMG_9325Sydney, home for both of us, has an amazingly specific light. It’s crystal clear, bright white and razor sharp. The light in Mumbai by contrast is warm, golden and slightly hazy, just enough to ever so slightly smooth out the edges of what can be a highly confronting place, as if the world were softening the edges of that which it demands you see. The light in Shanghai was always grey and almost always weak. In Sydney, I sunburn in less than 5 min. In Shanghai, I never did. The light of a place seems to filter into every aspect of your interaction with it. Shanghai always felt grey, unclear and suffocating to me, even while I knew I had a lifestyle there that I highly valued. Mumbai is somehow a little bit more merciful but clearer. You can’t hide from truth in Mumbai but there’s hope and happiness here. Sydney is a stunning city but also uncompromising and the light is so uniquely blinding that, if you aren’t used to it, you’ll get a headache just staring out the window and this was what my friend had meant. We grew up here, mostly, so it should have been welcoming, stepping back into a place where you feel the familiar just looking around at the ephemera of a city but we’d been away from home so long that going back, literally, gave us a headache.

It’s a somewhat gut wrenching feeling, knowing that you’ve somehow unfit yourself for the place you call home. You know you’ve chosen your life but you want home to stay there for you, to be able to go back when you need an escape and in many ways, you want it to wait exactly as it had been when you left. Friends don’t. Family doesn’t. Life, certainly, doesn’t. You can try hard, and most expats do, to keep in touch. To mend fences damaged by your leaving and to build intercontinental bridges but some day, we all come to the realisation that life is often in the small moments, not the large ones, and we generally miss those. After a few years, it’s harder and harder to get people to meet when you do manage to get home and while you understand, it still hurts. You know people change but when all that starts to crack, you want the places, the buildings and the businesses you knew and frequented to stay there, to remain the same for you. You want to be able to go to the same beaches, ride the same ferries down the same rivers or stare out the window at gum trees and kookaburras and cockatoos…until the day you realise you will need sunglasses to do so because your eyes are used to a city with so much smog that the light dims or more ozone layer than home or are just so much more populated that your near view is shaded by apartment construction or high density housing.

IMG_9328I’m told it wears off, that my friend who has now been Sydney based for a while, no longer needs her sunglasses so much but for a while in Mumbai, we both sat in silence at the loss of something so precious but so strange. Something we didn’t even know we had, until it was gone. We’ve found adventure but we’d also made going home… a headache. It’s a strangely sobering thought.

Supermarkets – it’s a battle.

I’m engaged in guerrilla warfare with my supermarket and its not going well.

Mumbai doesn’t do “supermarkets” per se. It barely and only nominally does “grocery store” in the sense of what I’d understand those words to mean and supermarkets? Not so much, even in a city of 27 million, give or take a few million.

Why?

Well, it’s a developing country, far more so than you’d realise if you travel here or than any of the Incredible India ads would have you believe, not that I can blame them. Australia doesn’t put “come visit the disadvantaged pockets of outer Western Sydney” on our international travel advertising and Mumbai doesn’t shout social disparity from theirs either. My point here is that, because most of the country is not urban and most of the population shops, or has their maid’s shop, at traditional style vegetable markets, there aren’t grocery stores or supermarkets as we’d understand them in a Western sense. There is also not a lot of consumption of pre-packaged food. I have no idea where locals buy washing powder, soap or similar. I’ve asked and no one answered but back to the supermarkets, meaning place I can buy batteries, toilet paper, soap, washing powder etc., all in one place at the same time.

To the best of my knowledge, there are two in Mumbai, one in Powai and one in Lower Parel. The first is more local, a lower cost store that my Australian brain links to a chain called Franklins, known for their “Black and Gold” home brand packaging and the piles of empty boxes in the front of the store. The second is akin to a gourmet food store with one short isle of things like baking paper and zip lock bags. Neither stocks toilet paper because most Indians use this hose thing that I have never managed to figure out. One is an hour north without traffic, 2hrs with. The other is 45min south without traffic, 2hrs with. Neither is easy or convenient and the second is expensive. This presents a huge problem if you are rather wedded to things like soap or toilet paper, which I am.

Giving me hope (and soap!), however is the fact that Mumbai has leapfrogged the bricks and mortar store concept and gone straight to online shopping. This is fantastic because it means Ha! Toilet Paper! But it’s still Mumbai. There are a few of these but only one delivers toilet paper to our area. They aren’t bad but the groceries are always filthy, there’s almost always something wrong with the order, we can’t order chips etc. because they, without fail, pack them underneath canned goods or UTH milk and … delivery slots. They cannot, will not, respect delivery slots. I have had to interrupt conference calls because a driver turned up 4hrs early. I’ve had to apologise to guests or stop working because they’ve just randomly turned up, also hours early. I’ve complained 7 times and counting. When I did finally demand an answer of the person in front of me last week, the (actually very nice) delivery guy explained that because someone else in my building complex also had an order but wanted an earlier time slot, this was easier.

Today, I refused. I hit the proverbial wall and just refused to accept the early delivery.

It wasn’t a good morning. I got to sleep sometime after 3am. I was working, time got away from me but I work from home so I can, in theory, do this. I knew they were coming to replace a product that had turned up not only open, but also half eaten but they were supposed to deliver after 9:30am.

At 7:45am, the doorbell rang. I ignored it. It rang again. I ignored it again, then thought perhaps it was a real emergency so I grabbed my dressing gown, walked to the camera, saw who it was…and went back to bed. I know it was it was petty but part of me also knows they need to not assume I’ll always be here, because I won’t and no, we don’t have a maid. I need to know that I’ll be able to put in orders for days I’m working elsewhere and that they won’t just dump my stuff in the fire stairs or say I refused the delivery because they don’t want to come back. Part of it was sheer exhaustion and part of it was existential irritation. This is a business. I’m a stickler for the rules and have a line from the 2006 Miami Vice on loop in my head: “If you say you will do a thing, you must do exactly that thing”. It fails 97% of the time here but I still think it. To me, if you have delivery slots, then you deliver to the one your consumer selects. If they don’t commercially work, you change the slots. If you can’t actually supply at those times, don’t have those slots.

Back to this morning. My brain, sleep deprived and annoyed, went back to bed. Yes, petty but come ON. You delivered HALF EATEN FOOD. Then screwed up the replacement and you rang my doorbell outside your own earliest delivery times for my area. The guy leaned on the bell for a full 10min. I ignored him. He then called. I said I was out. 20min later, he called back. I told him the delivery slot was 9:30-12:30. He demanded I allow my maid to accept the delivery then hung up on me when I said I didn’t have one. At 9:15am, someone called who spoke only Marathi, which I don’t. At 9:32am, now inside the actual delivery time, a woman with excellent English diction called and asked to know why I wasn’t home. I lodged another complaint about early delivery. She started to get very annoyed, then looked at the time, and the times they were claiming they’d tried to deliver, and their call logs, apologised and took the complaint. A new, very nice delivery guy just arrived. I was very nice to him. I now have non-eaten food….and a headache.

The pyric stalemate of the exhausted expat.

The thing is, they have no competition, and they know it. I can’t find anywhere else to buy toilet paper or soap or cat food without having to wipe out a day traipsing all over Mumbai to small speciality stores. There’s no point expressing my irritation to the delivery guy, he’s just under orders. I call and complain each time but it’s obviously cheaper to give me a percentage refund and deliver early than it is to actually stick to their delivery slots. I can’t loose my sh*t completely because I need them more than they need me.

Shopping in Mumbai is an existential battle, and I think I’m loosing.

Nothing in China prepares you for India… #thethingsyouapparentlydoneedtolearn

To say its been a rough landing is an understatement of, well, Indian proportions. I knew that nothing in China prepares you for being in India. I’d been here a few years ago and then went to Beijing for the first, and hopefully last, time in my life. It was NOT a good trip and I left swearing I’d never go back to China again (sometimes the universe’s sense of humour could use an overhaul). Back on point, that whole ‘never going back” thing didn’t quite work out but it turns out that I had learnt one true thing: while India will inure you to a lot of the things that punch you in the face when you first get to China, nothing in China prepares you for India.

I’m not sure why we think it should but I’d heard that refrain from a number of smart, well travelled people in Shanghai who’d holidayed here because it was so closed and came back with a sort of shell shock. They’d get this look, their eyes would widen and they’d almost whisper: I thought I’d be prepared, you know? And I did. The other way around, India to China, does somehow buffer you from parts of the China chaos but China to India just doesn’t prepare you at all.

If I’m telling the truth, I was actually a little obnoxious when I first went to China but in my defence, I didn’t mean to be and I did try hard to repress it once I realised. I was coming off a secondment in India and decided to take a holiday in China on the way because, in the strange manner of international flight routes to Australia, China happened to be mid-way between my company regional head office and home. Mr GaD, who hadn’t been to India, joined me for the China leg and off we went to find our friends. They were transplanted Australians. We were some of their first visitors and they really, desperately, wanted to share their awe at the chaos. They wanted us to be wide eyed and awe struck, as they’d been, for this to become a commonality of experience between us all that we would tuck away into our history and look back on with wry smiles in later years.

It didn’t take me long before I realised I was depriving my friends of their fun. I didn’t mean to but I wasn’t an Australian coming to Beijing from the relative calm of Sydney, I had India too fresh in mind. When they were trying to wow me with the chaos of Chinese roads, I was thinking “buses, cars, scooters, bikes. Hu. Where are the rickshaws, the cows, the hand carts, the painted trucks, the hawkers and the people just randomly walking down the road?”. When they were trying to feed me new and exotic dumplings and glorious street foods, all I could think of were the punch you in the head scents and tastes of masala. Even the glory of the Forbidden City paled next to the Taj Mahal and irritated me because it had been so comprehensively rebuilt, polished, repainted and buffed that virtually nothing of the original seemed to remain. Red flags against grey walls and grey buildings in a smog grey sky and khaki uniforms seemed so dull and lifeless next to the sari’s and riot of colours on Indian streets and for me, most of Beijing was like that. I’ve got no idea what I’d have thought of it coming in blind but after India, I found they city to be grey, pretentious, bad tempered and rude.

In spite of all that, I did indeed go back to China. I lived there for two and a half years and in that time, I forgot, comprehensibly that nothing in China prepares you for India, nothing.

Where am I going with this? Today has been a long and trying day. To my complete horror, I’m comparing China and India and realising that in many many day to day ways, it was so much easier to live in China that it is to live here. It’s safer in almost all daily interactional ways. It’s easier to get around. WeChat Wallet really is the way of the future. The number of expats and the desire for “aspirational” (or just safe) foreign foods grown to export food standards meant that by the time we left, you can get just about anything you want including imported fruits and vegetables (Black cherries! Nectarines! Bowan Mangos!). There are footpaths. Absent actual disaster, the electricity works. Water supply is likewise basically constant. There are supermarkets and shopping centres and you can get to them easily. Did I mention the footpaths?

Why this flash of nostalgia for a place I really did not want to live? Because in my eagerness to return to the colour and the people and everything I had loved here, I forgot what I knew. I left China thinking everything would be better in India and now reality is slapping me in the face with glee. It’s so different, “Better” or “Worse” are close to unquantifiable but it’s certainly harder in so many ways. Today, water is leaking down my walls because the apartment was built with uncovered holes in the walls “for ventilation” and someone in an apartment above ours is doing something with what I hope is water. The maintenance guy turned up, said “Leaking” and left again. I have no hope of him returning or the leak stopping. Our internet connection has failed “because fibre” (?). I’m having a running battle with couriers because my building won’t accept packages but they won’t deliver a private parcel to a work address without trying to charge commercial import duty. I’d really like to be able to go get choc chips and bake comfort food cookies but it’s India so it’s a minimum hour round trip to get to any of the 2 “supermarkets” and I use the term loosely, or single “dry goods store” that might sell choc chips and I don’t have an oven anyhow. Because I’ve just had a conversation that went “Chaana Daal, are those lentils or chickpeas? Yes!”. Because I need a bookcase and furniture stores just don’t exist here outside the “better be solid gold” price range. I’m missing IKEA and I’d just like to walk somewhere. Its all making me nostalgic for a place I never wanted to live, even while I lived there which is making me very very cranky.

If you’ll excuse me, the building has just sprayed insecticide fogging under my doorway and throughout the common area’s so thickly it’s setting off the fire alarms. I need to go stuff towels under the door and move an air purifier to the foyer. I’m going to be grumbling all the while “This never happened in China”.

Expat leaving gifts…think before you give (please).

This post started life in the “Tips for leaving” post but the more I thought about it and remembered various leavings, the more I wanted to make it its own creature.

You’re leaving a place you’ve called home for quite a while, a few years at least. You’ve acquired things you want to take home and someone is paying for the privileged. Everything you own has to be scrutinised and assessed. Do you like it well enough to pay to move it to another country? What on earth are you going to do with it if not? If you’re lucky, sometime close to your departure date and possible after your shipment has already gone, people might like you enough to throw you a farewell party. These are usually lovely, happy and sad, a mix of highly complicated emotions already… and then someone comes along and gives you a present.

Cards on the table – I adore presents. I love giving them, I love receiving them. I am horrible at waiting for whatever occasion I’ve bought something for and only moving to a different hemisphere, manic list making and reviewing the contents of the present cupboard before I leave for any form of reunion holiday (yes, I have a presents cupboard) actually stops me from perpetually doubling up on presents for loved ones. The point here is that I’m not one to ever turn down the opportunity to give or receive a gift. That said, even I’ve been baffled by some of the leaving presents I’ve seen.

It’s such a hard situation. You are leaving the country and space is limited. Clearly people have gone out of their way to try and do something nice and you want to be gracious and respect the effort but so many times, I’ve looked at presents and wondered what on earth had possessed the people giving them, especially when the people going home have been doing so on their own dime. Don’t get me wrong, the presents in question have, often, been stunningly beautiful and sometimes weirdly expensive gifts. Someone’s put a lot of time and money into choosing them but size, weight, delicacy and timing are very real and crucial considerations to anyone heading home. We’re going to have to pay to get this thing home, one way or another, and that often just serves to make the situation more bizarre.

Luckily, I haven’t had to be the one graciously hiding my “Well WTF do I do with THIS” thoughts from an eager and well meaning friend or colleague but I’ve watched it so many times, I just couldn’t help but write this. The strangest gifts I’ve ever seen people give expats leaving a country, and in no particular order, are:

 

  • A beautiful, delicately carved porcelain Chinese tea set in a wooden box that had itself been carved to be a specialist tea stand. It was gorgeous, extremely breakable and very, very, very heavy. It was the sort of thing that might have been okay on an expat package with fully paid shipping but for a student paying to send herself home with very little extra money, it was, well, awkward.

 

  • A bottle of extraordinarily expensive snake wine. If you haven’t come across this, it’s a eastern Asian thing that involves a bottle of “wine” (usually spirits) and snakes that were either dead before they entered the bottle and had wine poured over them or woke up in the bottle to drown in very bad temper in the “wine”. It’s said to have all sorts of mythological benefits. It’s also illegal to take across most borders and loathed by quarantine and animal welfare officers the world over. That this bottle was given to an Australian about to head to the airport by someone who should have been familiar with Australian import laws was the most mind-boggling aspect of this present. We still don’t know if the giver wanted the recipient jailed or had just lost his mind but the bottle met a very inauspicious end in a garbage bin.

 

  • A wooden vase made from knotty and burred Indonesian wood. This is another Australian thing. Wood going into Australian is heavily scrutinised, especially something like knotty or burred wood that might contain bugs. Since a relative had made it by hand and presented it at the airport with great ceremony, the poor recipient just had to deal with the Quarantine fury that descended on his head when his bags were inspected at home (he got the vase back but it had to be x-ray treated at considerable expense).

 

  • Multiple pieces of large artwork, all packed for travel. This one is fraught because the friend in question had always wanted these paintings and decided he just couldn’t justify them. His team surprised him on his last day with them but hauling a reinforced canvas poster tube four and a half feet tall up to an airline check in desk along with all your emigration luggage basically requires that you also bring a blank cheque to pay for the fees you know they’re going to charge you.

 

  • A delicate, fine paper cutting in a red damask box lined in gold silk that also happened to be well over 3 feet long (the box). The paper cutting itself was two and a half feet wide, proclaimed long life for the recipient and didn’t fit into a single suitcase or poster tube that he could buy. The whole thing was too delicate to wrap in cardboard and send oversized baggage or post. I don’t actually know what happened to it and haven’t been game to ask.

 

  • A pure gold necklace from a distant work colleague, with weight value certificate included. The type of thing you can’t really thank someone for in any manner that feels appropriate and think “well, now what?” when Customs asks you to certify that you aren’t bringing in gifts, including jewellery, over a certain value.

 

  • A fine, delicately carved, jade handled silk fan of indeterminate age purporting to be an antique. Another odd moment. You can’t take anything made before 1966 out of China without a permission certificate saying its not of cultural value and you can’t legally take anything older than 1946 out of the country at all, regardless of where it was made. No one knew if it was an antique of the genuine type or of the “we made it last week at the antiques market” type. The baffled recipient toyed with leaving it then spent their entire trip home wondering if they were actually going to be allowed leave China and if their shipment would be allowed to follow.

 

  • Throwing stars, those star shaped knives that ninjas throw at each other in B grade action movies and which abound at Chinese fakes markets. I’m hoping it was a joke but since both giver and receiver were of the “frat boy who never grew up” school of Chinese expat, I’m not so sure. Neither is in jail though so the stars can’t have gone home (not even the most provincial airport is going to miss throwing stars on a security scan).

 

  • A pressure cooker. This one was actually me and I was elated. It took me about a week to realise it wasn’t actually a sensible or practical gift from a friend who remains a good friend. I was at the end of a quarter long secondment and madly trying to ship home a cherry red pressure cooker really confused DHL. Since it’s gone from Mumbai to Sydney, moved a few times there, moved to Shanghai, is now back in Mumbai and has been used in all of those places, it was clearly a great gift but I had moments trying to get it home during which I was less than enamoured with it.

If I had to offer gift giving advice, I’d say post it wherever they are going, they’ll appreciate it so much you wouldn’t believe it. If you absolutely, positively have to give it in person, know if a person has a shipment going and give gifts before it leaves. Avoid things that are hugely heavy or exquisitely breakable, antiques including fake antiques, items of significant value unless you know the person well enough to actually justify it and things that will have them jailed wherever they are going (snake wine and throwing stars, I’m looking at you) unless, of course, you don’t really like them all that much and that’s the point, in which case, gift on.

Expats – a beginners guide to packing

Gird your loins people, this is going to be expensive.

So, you’re on your way to becoming an expat. You are not on holidays, you are not a traveller, you aren’t migrating forever and you won’t be staying wherever you are going but you won’t be home for a while either. If you want to stay sane, it’s going to cost you.

Here’s the thing; travel is generally fun and as every traveller knows, it’s perfectly possible to exist for quite a while on the romance of a destination (or even simply just not being at home). You can stay starry eyed through smoky motels, poor Wi-Fi, GPS that send you well into New Jersey when you’re trying to get to Pittsburgh, odd smelling airBNBs, bugs, 5am flights and weird travelling companions. There’s an almost perpetual Vaseline lens to reality when you’re on holidays that helps you put up with almost anything and somehow stay happy. It is not, however, possible to exist harmoniously as an adult without say antiperspirant deodorant if you’re used to it and, in our case, Berocca, bed sheets or bar soap.

There are people, I know, who will pride themselves on travelling the Yukon armed only with a pocket knife and grit. Wonderful, but that skill set is not going to help you look professional if you have to turn up to work having spent the night in a 3c apartment because the A/C remotes are all in Chinese. Knowing how to order beer in 15 regional dialects likewise won’t help you maintain the romance when you discover that the only solution to buying bed sheets is IKEA or that it will take a specific trip to a specific store in a specific part of town to buy deodorant or that buying normal bread is a basic impossibility.

Some of life is easy. Some of life is fun and some of life is hard. Some of being an expat is fantastic and some of it is so breathtakingly difficult that there are days you’d rather panhandle at home than be where you currently are.

The following are my suggestions to soften the edges as much as you can when you first start out in a new country.

  • Bring EVERYTHING you use on a daily basis, enough for two months at minimum, more if you can carry it. This means face wash, deodorant, vitamins, hairspray, shaving gel, moisturisers. If you use it daily, bring it. Why? This is the routine of your life and it grounds you like nothing else can. If you’ve spent the day looking at apartments with Hello Kitty themed bathrooms, snoopy doorknobs, dungeons or being told by a prepubescent real estate agent that he “knows what housewife like”, getting to the end of the day and using root beer flavoured toothpaste because that’s all you can find will break you like nothing else will. Having to get up the next morning and face the world after using durian scented face wash for the same reason will take a part of your soul you may never get back. Be kind and merciful to yourself. These are things you can control in a world that will be completely and utterly out of your control and realm of experience. Control what you can. I say two months because that’s how long it will take you to find these things, or to realise that you will never find stick deodorant in Shanghai and have someone post you supplies.

  • Bring a set of sheets and a pillow per person. These are remarkably hard to find if you are new in a country and even if you have the luxury of a serviced apartment, there is almost certainly going to be a lag between you arriving and your stuff. You need to be able to sleep.
  • If you are a tea drinker, bring tea. If you are a coffee drinker, bring coffee. Bring a nice mug. It will help, when you want to scream or cry or kill someone, to be able to sit down and drink something hot from a real mug that you know and recognise.
  • Pack presents, for yourself, into your shipment (seriously). Not large and not necessarily expensive but before you send your shipment on its way, put in presents. Buy yourself a few books you really really wanted but haven’t bought. Stunning, beautiful coffee table books or some leather bound classics you meant to read. A ginger jar you have had your eye on or some new slippers. Not a lot and be careful with breakables but at some time during the drudgery of unpacking and figuring out where everything will go and how on earth to work your new microwave, you’ll stumble on these things and they will make you smile. It’s a reprieve and will remind you of good things.
  • Carry in your luggage, if weights and local quarantine allow it, the essentials of your favourite dish. Mine, as an example, is spaghetti. The first time I tried to make this in Shanghai, I found myself wondering if the dried mushrooms I’d had to buy (because I couldn’t find any others) were the type you ate or ah, smoked. They’d been on a shelf next to dried caterpillars (I kid you not) so it was a reasonable concern, I think. I clearly hadn’t bought mushrooms or mince with me but I had bought new, sealed packets of rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and dried garlic. After a month, I could source all of these except the garlic but a week after landing, I didn’t have that capacity and I promise you, that first spaghetti was one of the best things I’ve ever smelt or eaten.
  • An eye mask you can sleep in, light ear plugs and ear plugs heavy enough to cancel out the devil himself (or Chinese war dramas which go, roughly, marching, drum roll, firing squad, screaming, silence, repeat). Constant noise will grind you down, especially in the early days. China uses the car and scooter horn as a language of commuting but if you’re trying to sleep anywhere near a road at virtually any time, the only language you’ll be using or hearing is expletives. Walls are thin and televisions and conversations are loud. If you don’t need them, fantastic but if you do, could you mime face mask with a certainty that wasn’t going to lead you into some sort of odd BDSM moment and would you know where to?
  • Prescription medication. Do I really need to tell you this? Yes there are doctors where you are going and yes, they may be perfectly nice. Conserve your energy for figuring out where to buy edible mushrooms, at least for the first few months.
  • Bring some small prints or postcards and bluetak but be judicious. Do not bring photos of home, they will not help. Bring photos of friends in far flung places and yourself being adventurous or a post card by your favourite artist. Until your stuff arrives, they will help you make “home”, home. Scented candles, if that’s your thing, also work well for this, just pack them carefully in case of temperature fluctuations in the hold.

  • Something silly, something sentimental. Don’t strip away your life and leave nothing behind, even if you are racing for a fresh start. Bring an old stuffed toy (in your carry on if it’s really sentimental, don’t risk checked luggage or your shipment). Bring a sports jersey or a desk ornament. Americans and Canadians seem to love travelling with flags, bring one if it’s your thing. The point of this thing is to remind you that you’ve had good times and bad times and that life goes on so it probably shouldn’t be a new thing. I have Elliot, the intrepid travelling elephant who has been to India, the US, HK, China and Australia. A friend has a green sheep toy from the story ‘Where is the Green Sheep”, photos of which he used to send to his wife when he was on business trips. Another couple has a polar bear of jaunty name and aspect. This thing helps you laugh at yourself while bringing comfort. Figure out your Elliot and bring it.
  • Clothes. Yes, really. I have a very, very dear friend. He’s a lovely man and very smart and, with his wife, he migrated to China. He lovingly packed his computers (he’s a programmer) and all and sundry pieces of technology then got to Beijing in the middle of winter and realised that he had forgotten to pack pants. He had the jeans he’d worn on the flight and that was it. Trying to buy basic items of clothing, even if you speak the language of your destination country (which he didn’t), is not how you want to spend your first day. Pack pants. Double check that you have, indeed, packed pants.

As I say, it’s going to be expensive. You will not want to pack some, or all of these things. You will feel the money veritably racing out of your wallet and think you can economise. Now is not that time. Being an expat is really hard, especially at first and especially if you don’t have a lot of help landing wherever you’re going. If you can control even just these things, it will help free up your mind and soul for all the other things like bank accounts and mobile phones and internet connections and rental agreements and visas and bread and deodorant and mushrooms and you will need that brain space, especially if they sell the dried mushrooms next to the dried caterpillars.

Typhoons, pets and consulates …just don’t (if you can help it).

I am in the middle of chaos.

The kitten of destruction (Puff), is coming with us to Mumbai (as if there was ever any chance of her not!). Unfortunately, this means navigating the requirements of two of the world’s greatest bureaucracies, China and India which, of course, conflict. Yesterday, they managed to collide with today typhoon’s and I am not amused. I’m also wet, hungry and out of pocket from Uber surge pricing so things are just peachy here in Shanghai.

Clearly, we are leaving Shanghai. As you do when moving countries and along with virtually everything else we owned, we’d shipped the printer. Almost to the identical second that our stuff landed well out of our reach in a Chinese customs yard, the pet agents emailed with an additional 8 different government forms they’d miraculously just discovered and all of which they needed urgently. All were in PDF, all had to be filled in by hand and all had to be filled in in triplicate. One unexpected dash back to the office later, I meticulously filled in all 8 of them, screwed up the spelling of the ashram that constitutes almost all of our serviced apartment’s address four times, finally got it right, scanned the lot, emailed them all back and schlepped home.

Expecting at least thanks if not praise, the responses from the agents were…annoying.

Pet Agent 1, who is handling the Chinese end and coordinating the rest, dryly informed me that the 20min I’d spend madly scrolling through my phone trying to date my travel for the last two years from photos because Immigration has my passport had been poorly spent. Apparently they needed my cats travel itinerary, not mine. Puff had none but apparently there are such jet setting moggies in the world that this section is five lines long.

Her compatriot, Pet Agent 2 who is handling the India end, then informed me that oh, FYI, I needed to have the Indian consulate in Shanghai sign one document and get a scanned version of it back to them by Indian close of business today. If I didn’t, the paperwork wouldn’t be able to be completed on time so Puff couldn’t be imported on those dates which would mean that we’d need to change our flights to flights that were already fully booked on days Air India didn’t fly out of Shanghai and after my China visa had expired.

Basically it translated to: Tomorrow, go to consulate. Beg. A lot. Do not leave without signed form.

pudongi-n-the-rain-typhoons-and-indian-consulates

Oh, and did I mention the typhoon? Shanghai grinds to a soggy halt in the rain. Taxis dissolve, Uber prices spike so high that they enter “start auctioning off your internal organs to pay for this trip” territory and getting anywhere is a royal pain in the a**. Of course, this was the day I had to make it out to Gubei, well into the Shanghai suburbs, twice, or my entire international move was going to be put on hold, except mine wouldn’t be because I’d need to leave the country because my visa would have expired. No pressure at all then.

The consulate opened for document submission at 9:30am. I started trying to get an Uber for what should have been a 20min journey at 8am. By 9:10, after an hour of Uber attempts and 40min worth of standing in the rain in front of my building trying to hail a taxi, I finally managed to get a car to actually turn up and off we went. Thankfully, he was of the brilliant Uber driver category and not only found the building, but dropped me at the correct entrance (of four). Because of course, it couldn’t be that easy, there are no external signs for the Indian consulate, even on the metal board that meticulously lists every other occupant of the building. There are also no signs for the lift that takes you to the floor the Indian consulate isn’t technically on but I was prepared for this and had googled extensively (the VPN Gods had smiled on me). I had three different floors, two different towers and another address entirely and started to work through them.

Attempt one was a failure – the floor was under renovation and there was no one there. Attempt two was not actually a full lift, it only went to a mezzanine. Attempt three was pure accident. I got in what I thought was the wrong lift, pushed what I thought was the wrong button and ended up exactly where I needed to be. How very China.

I signed myself in and told the extraordinarily confused woman I needed paperwork certified for my cat. After confirming three times that yes, I did indeed need paperwork certified for a cat, that was going to Mumbai, I was sent to the waiting room. The room looked like it had been outfitted from the left overs of a 1980’s boardroom complete with black conference table with brown laminate inlay, brown matching chairs with black inlay and some couches of the same vintage. A couple with a small child were there with a colleague to replace the husband’s lost passport. A man was trying to have his divorce decree notarised. I was trying to have someone certify documentation for my cat. The confused receptionist came back another three times to ask me if I was really, positively certain that I was moving from Shanghai to Mumbai and that I did indeed need documentation for a cat (still yes)

I was.

After another 20min, I was called to the counter with a cry of “ah… the cat”, paid my processing fee and was told to come back at 4:30pm. The whole thing had taken about 25 minutes and a taxi appeared as I walked out with a tea from the Costa in the foyer. Home I headed. Puff was not as sympathetic as I thought she really ought to have been and none of my stuff had miraculously packed itself. I still don’t think that was fair.

At 3:00pm, I started the dance of trying to get an Uber again. The typhoon had not miraculously disappeared and a taxi had not miraculously re-appeared. Uber driver number two was unfortunately of the “brand new driver moron” type. He couldn’t find my road (it’s a massive main road), then he couldn’t find my cross street (two massive main roads), then he couldn’t find my building (massive signage), then he wouldn’t turn into the driveway. By the time I managed to get into the car, it was 4:30pm and I needed to be at the consulate before their 5:30 document collection window closed….its a 20min trip that during a typhoon could take infinitely longer but even I was a little taken aback at the anti climax.

I directed the driver and got to the consulate in half an hour. I walked in and was greeted with “Oh, the cat” as the receptionist dove for my form that had been duly signed by the Consul General. In under 5mins, I got in, collected my form and walked back out to the same annoying uber driver who this time wouldn’t turn around and wouldn’t drive the 200m back into the driveway even though it was pouring rain.

My form, signed by the Consul general himself and clearly stamped with “The consul general takes no responsibility for the contents of this form”, was accepted without comment by Pet Agent 2 and I got a petty but satisfying revenge on the Uber driver by comprehensively soaking the inside of his van.

It’s the small things I suppose but Puff still wasn’t very sympathetic and things still weren’t packed.

elevated-road-going-home-typhoons-and-indian-consulates

 

Also published on TBT

6 Hours in Shanghai – Best Layover Itinerary Ever!

(Also published by the author at Travel Blogger Tales – 6 Hours in Shanghai)

It’s a challenge isn’t it? You have friends in town for a layover. They’ve never been to Shanghai and are going to have about six useful hours.

What do you do? 

The utterly bizarre combination of thousands of years of human settlement, the Opium Wars, its life as a treaty port, the Roaring 20’s, the rise of the Nationalists, the Communist Revolution and the almost burning commercial drive of the city has combined to give Shanghai some of the oldest Chinese history you can find, some of the most clearly preserved Art Deco architecture anywhere in the world and a financial district that at just on 20yrs old turns over billions of trading dollars while standing on a proud and ancient past.  How on earth were we going to do justice to the city in 6 hours? We needed a plan….

Glass as Diamonds layover

6:30am: Rendezvous at the Peace Hotel on the Puxi side of the Bund. This was partially necessity; Shanghai is a city that doesn’t sleep but it also does not breakfast early on a Sunday, and partially was the start of our tour. The Peace Hotel is one of the Art Deco landmarks of the city. Built by Victor Sassoon and finished in 1929, it’s a true Deco icon and is consistent throughout. Many of the original features of the building exist today only because of the courage and dedication of the staff. During the Cultural Revolution, they took unbelievable risks like papering over the famous Phoenix and Dragon ceiling in the Chinese restaurant to ensure their survival. It was a staggering risk at a time people were disappearing for far less but having seen that ceiling, I’m extraordinarily glad they did. Today, if you happen to be in Shanghai at sunrise, you can enjoy coffee and breakfast in the Jasmine Lounge, which we did. 

7:30am: After breakfast and a wander through the lobby and open rooms of the hotel, we walked across the road to the Bund, the name for the Puxi side of the HuangPu river. At sunrise, old men still fly kites along the Bund. The kites are huge metallic paper dragons and birds and squares which are breath-taking to see dancing against the Art Deco and Gothic buildings of Puxi. There has to be a metaphor in there about the solidity of the stone buildings that line the waterfront as opposed to the fragility of the paper kites but frankly, I hadn’t had enough coffee to think of it. After the kites, we watched as the sun rose over the financial district of Pudong and froze as we took the ubiquitous tourist photo of our friends with their backs to the river and The Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Shanghai Tower then we headed off.

8:00am: Jade Buddha Temple. Neither the oldest nor the showiest of the temples in Shanghai, this is my favourite. It also caters for a far more normal section of the population that its richer cousin, the Jingan Temple. Here, you’ll see crowds of Shanghainese grannies all yelling over the top of each other. Some will be carrying bags of paper money offerings and others the more idiosyncratic offerings like paper cars and Gucci branded paper suits (all for your deceased relatives). Part of the reason we’d chosen this temple was its early opening and part was its local colour but we’ve been in Shanghai long enough to know that you do NOT want to be stuck behind a crowd of milling grannies. By the time they’d stopped yelling at each other, found their tickets, yelled at each other some more then each stopped to yell at the gate guard, it would be hours before we got in and frankly, the next stop planned was coffee. We shoved our slightly shell shocked friends at the grinning guard who knew exactly what we were doing and managed to get in before the crowd even thought about moving. The Jade Buddha temple is lovely. 

Glass as Diamonds Jade Buddha templeOnce inside, usually even the grannies are quiet. The high walls shut out the noise of Shanghai’s ever present construction and the rooms are varied enough to be interested to even the most jaded temple goer. I particularly love the coins all balanced for luck in the carvings leading to the large sitting Jade Buddha and the reclining jade Buddha. Outside the temple we wandered along the shops selling paper offerings. We wondered if our departed relatives would like the latest iPhone or a helicopter but settled on a velour suit and an La-Z-Boy recliner. Unfortunately one of our friends also asked the shop keepers why they had tortoises in a very small bowl. The truth is lunch but they were very nice and said “luck”.

Glass as Diamonds turtle bucket

9:15am: When the British won the Opium Wars and forced the Chinese to open the Middle Kingdom to foreign trade, the concessions were established. There are still some significant buildings that remain in the British and American Concession (usually referred to as the International Concession) but it’s the former French Concession that must be seen on any trip to Shanghai. The plane trees the French imported and planted along their planned boulevards still grow throughout the city and because the Communists punished Shanghai’s overt commercialism by banning building and the modification of the external structures of buildings, huge swathes of the amazing deco suburb remain intact and as they’d have been seen in 1929. You are still more likely to hear French than any other language spoken while walking through the FFC. It remains a central point for many of the expats of Shanghai and an essential on any visit. Not coincidentally, it also contains good cafes, great coffee and a French boulangerie with some of the best almond croissants I’ve ever eaten. In a true expat moment, we drank coffee, we strolled under plane trees and we ate chocolate pecan muffins from an Australian café. 

Glass as Diamonds coffee

10:30am: The last stop on our whirlwind tour was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre Slightly hidden in the basement of an apartment block on the edge of the FFC, it’s like walking through a picture book on the development of Chinese propaganda art. Posters hang in a chronological display from the late deco period through the rise of Nationalism to Communism and Mao. These segue into posters in support of the anti-Vietnam movement and American civil rights movement, posters of the Gang of Four, then Mao’s death and their fall from grace all the way through to modern militaristic posters proudly displaying the latest in (1990’s era brick) mobile phones. If you’re there at the right time of year, around a corner and behind a screen are some of the only Big Character posters from the Cultural Revolution that still exist (the Cultural Revolution remains an extremely touchy subject in China and they are not displayed around crucial historical dates). 

11:30: Not so much a stop as an experience, after the Propaganda museum, we headed to the Maglev. The Shanghai Maglev Train which links the Longyang Road metro station with Pudong International Airport is the first (and occasionally only) commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation train in the world.  The train can achieve speeds of up to 431kmph (268mph) and it takes less than 2 minutes to reach 350kmph (217mph). This is my favourite way to get to the airport and watching those parts of Pudong that are still living an almost rural life flash by after the Bund and the FFC from the vantage point of such modern science is almost China itself in a nutshell.

Glass as Diamonds Maglev

Noon: By noon, we had our slightly shell shocked but very happy friends back at Pudong International where they checked in for their long flight back to the US. We headed back to the Maglev then home feeling not a little smug. 

With apologies to both our families and anyone else who has ever visited us, this was actually my favourite of all visits. It was Shanghai in an intense and crazy nutshell and though I’m biased and needed rather a lot of coffee during it, personally, I think we nailed it.

So…

Something needs to go up as a “first” blog post and I suppose this is it. The real problem with this post is that it isn’t the first post for this blog, even though it is likely to be the first one anyone ever sees. Between the Great Firewall, a marked increase in the censorship of blogging sites and hosts while we were in China, my own technical failings, ISP connectivity issues and frankly, never really knowing what was going to be legal or not, this blog never really got the chance to live. Some of its posts appear in other places (like Travel Blogger Tales) and others will be re-posted here because I like them but this is soon to be the Indian iteration of GlassAsDiamonds and this will be its first post.

My experience of Shanghai was not my favourite. It is a cosmopolitan city and, while we were there at least, a truly international one. I had experiences I’d have never imagined, both good and bad. I learnt what it was to be an expat and how to make a home somewhere that was never going to be home. I made some fantastic new friends in a far wider spread of opinions, ages, nationalities and inclinations than I’d ever anticipated and hope to stay in touch with many of them for years to come. I realised just how deeply I need to be able to read and how much words ground me to a place, how much that means to my own sense of safety. I learnt what I’d considered to be the defining features of adulthood, things like knowing where to buy groceries or plates or bed sheets (that wasn’t IKEA) could evaporate in an instant and just how much those things contributed to my equilibrium. I loved learning to write characters but spoken Mandarin drove me to distraction. I understood far more about Chinese culture as I learned just how many words I consider fundamental to the world just don’t exist in Mandarin (yes, no, plurals… it’s a long list) and saw how much such words shape human interaction for me. I was able to refine those things that truly mattered to me and, if I’m honest, spend a lot of much needed time trying to recuperate from a fairly awful few years but Shanghai was never a sanctuary to me. It was never a safe place and it was always a contradiction. I love my truth truthful, striped to its bare bones then recovered with compassion and that just isn’t the way China operates. I also hate pretence and China excels at it. Between “face” and “guangxi” and the ever present propaganda and censorship, there is a lot of concealment going on in China.

This blog and my Twitter and Instagram were named the moment a real estate agent who had made a minion bow almost in half while giving me an apology coffee (“I know what expats like”), told me that here, in Shanghai, “They buy as glass and sell as diamonds”. I think it may have been midway between an apartment with a Hello Kitty bathroom and one in which the builder had used counterfeit concrete so the walls themselves grew mould but I wouldn’t want to stake money on it. It was, I know, a brutally cold Shanghai February and one of the last true blue sky days before the pollution rolled in and the skies disappeared. We did not rent from that agent and she really did not know what expats liked but she had taught me a very valuable lesson. Especially as an expat, for two years, people tried to sell me glass as if it were the rarest of diamonds, and would then be mortally offended if I wasn’t happy with the bargain and I was never happy with the bargain.

Now, after two and a half years in China, I’m on the move again and its not back home. We’re heading to Mumbai, India. It’s a place I’ve been before and loved. I lived here for three months, a financial quarter, four years ago and I’m eager to come back. To me, Shanghai was always a grey city. Grey skies and grey buildings along grey roads populated by people existing in the shades of grey between right and wrong, known and unknown, official and unofficial. Even the light fell differently, in an odd, insipid grey. There were days of breathtaking beauty in Shanghai, those on the edge of the few weeks of spring when the plane trees around the city suddenly burst into life or after a typhoon when all the smog and pollution had been blown away to blight other places but in the main, it was a grey city. Mumbai however, has always felt golden to me. The light is somehow soft and gold while still being clear and bright. It’s dusty and it’s dirty and the traffic really is awful, but blows me away each time with the depth of its colour and the fervour of its devotion all things bright and beautiful.

I know that it is going to be difficult in ways I can’t even comprehend yet. I know that one of my dearest safety nets, a friend who lived an odd FIFO life between Sydney and Shanghai and ensured we didn’t run out of things like Berocca or Vegemite, isn’t living here and that scares me. I’ve never truly lived months away from known staples and home. I know how obvious and prevalent poverty is in Mumbai, how you can’t hide from it or pretend in the China way that it just isn’t there. It’s a place that lives, to quote another dear friend, “cheek by jowl” and where truth is often brutal in its confrontation. I know all those things and yet I am thrilled to be going. I’m so happy, I’m having a hard time keeping it under wraps to all those people happily living in Shanghai who cannot understand my glee. We never really saw eye to eye on China anyway but I’m going to try and be gracious…

I also am hoping that in India, glass will be glass, diamonds will be diamonds and the instances of someone trying to sell me one instead of the other will be limited.

I know this could be naive but cross your fingers for me!