Enough is enough, I said to myself last week. I temporarily stopped my daily urban excursions and, one morning, still wearing my pajama, I took up a new challenge : Sign in to Taobao, the local Amazon, the ultimate experience of Chinese online shopping.
After hearing for days and to exhaustion : Do you like it ? I found it on Taobao - You should look for it on Taobao ! - You'll see how convenient Taobao is ..." I had to give it a try.
There was just a little but negligible detail : the Taobao website is only available in Chinese which, as we all know, is not one of the friendliest languages to approach.
For this reason, most expats they either wait for a local soul to help them out decrypting those little tiny scribbles or they simply give up. After waiting in vain for someone’s help, I decided to take the bull by the horns.
After all, yes, Chinese looks pretty hard because you can't event read it but if I was in Russia or even in Germany, with their never ending words, I would also be in trouble. Plus, nowadays, there are tools that come in handy such excellent translators you can download on your cellphone or computer.
You just have to choose the right one considering that those supported, for instance, by Google, which is blocked by the Chinese Firewall, do not work or if they do, because you trick the system by using a VPN service, they drastically slow down the connection speed. I found Microsoft translator or Bing translator, which are better liked by the Chinese government, quite good and helpful. Together with a bottle of tranquillisers, to keep my nerves steady, they helped me defying the great monster Taobao.
After a few attempts I managed to complete the registration and logged in. Now it was time to purchase something. I decided to risk only a few yuan and instead of a Prada bag, which is also available there, I searched for something cheap and familiar like bottles of San Benedetto sparkling water. The name San Benedetto was enough for Taobao to understand what I needed so, a second later, a page full of pictures of blu bottles in all sorts of packaging popped out. I clicked on the first option, totally ignoring the gibberish all around the picture frame, because I was already too tired to copy and paste more words on the translator. Instead I just clicked on a big yellow button I kind of assumed the meaning of being "Pay for your order”.
Of course, God forbid the payment process could only be intuitive and easy enough to be figured out quickly. Unlike Amazon, on Taobao you cannot simply insert your credit card details and thank you very much for your order. No, payments on Taobao are processed through Alipay which is a third party service such as Paypal. And, of course, to Alipay you need to register too which I did, carefully inputting all the required information, and in Chinese of course, until I clicked a red button and I got a pop out window that filled me with a mix of enthusiasm and adrenaline : successful registration !
I was so excited that I thought, ok, this is it, I made it, I am a genius. I immediately texted my hubby to show off and a couple of friends too, totally unaware that there was just a little problem : I actually never paid for the water. At the end so “Much ado for nothing”!
After completing the registration process I was supposed to set up a secret code in order to finalise complete the payment but somehow I missed that part.
Anyways, at that point my priority had become another, to log out of all the websites I signed in to. I started to look frantically everywhere, to copy and paste every possible command on the translator but I simply couldn’t find the right one. My kids came back from school in the afternoon and I didn't even looked at them, my eyes being stuck on the screen trying to solve the “Log out" riddle.
Only few hours later, when everybody was already asleep, I don't know what I touched but my username had magically disappeared. I was so relieved that I celebrated with a glass of wine and went to bed with a smile upon my face. As expected, 48 hours later, there was still no news of my San Benedetto water which was a bit suspicious for an express delivery, though from Beijing because I had not checked the vendor location :-)
I had to log in again and after another half a day of work with the translator, a considerable amount of sweat and swear, I finally clued in and realised what I still had to do in order to get soon hydrated.
Now I’m aware there are women in this world who achieved more than purchasing water bottles online, though sparkling, but this doesn’t lessen the huge sense of pride I felt right after this epic exploit.
Few years ago, I would never attempted such a thing. I remember cautiously approaching Amazon when in Montreal still afraid of messing something up. In Taipei, I even asked my Chinese teacher to explain me the functioning of our very sophisticated toilet in fear of being sucked down. Now that I’m perhaps more experienced I think it’s crucial when living abroad to break the invisible barrier holding me on the edge of reality and try to penetrate the new environment. This makes me feel less suspended and trapped inside a bubble and acts as a booster of confidence for further challenges along the way. And here there are many, I tell ya !
My advice to those of you, embarking on a new expat adventure, regardless of the destination, which can be less attractive or promising than an another, is the following:
1. Get out
Overcome your demotivation or fear of the unknown and take a walk in the streets around your building or house.
When I moved to Taipei, I spent the first week at home venturing out just to buy groceries for our survival or to drop something off at the dry cleaner as my washer was pretty basic and threatening.
However one day I woke up and realize that I couldn’t be doing that for the following two or three years without ending up in therapy for misanthropy.
I then committed myself to take a short walk everyday either in the old part of my neighborhood, pushing the stroller mostly in the middle of these very tiny alleys with no sidewalk and lined by what I believe are the ugliest buildings in the world, or inside the intricate pathway connecting all the fancy malls recently built around the 101 tower which is Taipei’s landmark.
Every daily trip helped me getting a better sense of my whereabouts and gradually making me feel more oriented and settled.
Look out for a coffee place or a store that you like and try to go there at least a couple of times a week, kids permitting of course.
This is a key element in order to build up your new routine.
Wherever I went, the priority was for me to find a nice place to hang out by myself.
Ideally it should be a cozy café or a restaurant where to sit and spend sometime outside home while pondering over your catastrophic new life and hopefully meet new people.
In Taipei the verbal interaction with other customers was a bit challenging but being recognised or even greeted by a smiling barista or cashier would make my day.
Whereas in Montreal or even here in New York City my Monday morning cappuccinos brought me to meet very nice and interesting strangers who, either locals or aliens themselves, often turned into new good friends.
3. Be curious
While busy getting your family organized, save yourself half a day or just a couple of hours to go and be a tourist of your new city.
Bring along your guide book if, old fashioned like me, you still believe in printed paper and patiently discover, neighborhood by neighborhood, the place where your life will be staged in the upcoming months or years.
I often came across other expat women who’d spend their days in the closed perimeter of their neighbourhood, especially if an expat compound, completely ignoring the surrounding areas. What a waste!
Unleash your curiosity and, on the contrary, even if not extremely practical, include other parts of town in your everyday life by, for example, picking, like me, your hair salon a bit farther than down your street.
4. Keep a journal
At the beginning, what really helped me in Taipei was writing about my days.
Notes about funny discoveries, discouraging moments, adventurous trips to the grocery store, endless misunderstandings have, first, filled long emails to my family then become the content of a blog, Quitaipei, which I am still keeping years later.
I am not alone in this. Internet is swamped with blogs kept by erratic people like me recording their experience worldwide.
Writing often helps sorting yourself out without spending too much money on a therapist. Sharing your first impressions and feelings is not only helping you to gradually take it all out without reaching your breaking point and hit your husband, but also your family and friends to better understand the challenges of being a so called trailing spouse.
Too often, in fact, people have a pretty distorted image of an expat woman as a privileged human being who is spending half of her time playing tennis and the other having her nails done. A very unreal scenario considering that, at least for the first few months, you have no friends to play tennis with and not a clue where the closest nail salon is. And even if you knew, no time whatsoever to go.
4. Hang around at school
Your kids’ school quickly becomes your main source of social interaction. Or at least it should. I personally have contradictory experiences but at the end that’s where I have always met at least a couple of very good friends.
In Taipei, I put Matteo, my oldest child in a Chinese Montessori-oriented preschool where, with the exception of another American woman, I was the only non taiwanese parent. I have no regrets but let’s say that my interaction with other parents was almost zero. The language barrier turned out to be the greatest obstacle in spite of my efforts to use the little Chinese I learned. Good morning, how are you? I like rice were somehow never enough to persuade some parents to invest in a possible friendship.
On the other hand, their lack of confidence in English often discouraged them from making any attempt to talk to me. Sometimes they were simply not interested at all.
However I was paid off in Montreal. The preschool both my kids attended was where I met almost all the people who have become such an important part of my life and the reason why, at the end, it was so difficult to leave.
Most of them, like me, were coming from other countries which helped creating an immediate bond but a few others were lifelong Montrealers and yet extremely welcoming and open.
New York is a bit tricky. A much busier place, here people are always rushing and less into meeting for a coffee after drop off. Most of the moms are also working which understandably doesn’t leave them time to hang out with you. And some of them, well, they just don’t care.
However, once again and particularly in my youngest son’s class, a small group of kids whose parents are meeting every morning in the classroom, I met lovely people for a daily quick chit chat before parting in different directions.
This is how I got first tips about kids’ activities, babysitters, doctors and many other things I was curious about.
Anyways my suggestion is beforehand to ask the school principal or the head of the admissions to put you in touch with other families who, like you, are from abroad. Getting to know people who have been through the same experience can be helpful and reassuring. And if you’re lucky they can also become your first good friends.
I never cried so much since I became an expat. Tears have copiously run down my cheeks during departures, arrivals and bad days when I simply felt lonely and lost. Partly it was because of the hormones after two pregnancies, partly because living this kind of life is often emotionally overwhelming.
However I also laughed as much. Laughing is essential and the best way to make it through the day.
I’m always trying to look at myself from the outside like a clumsy super hero who’s desperately trying to survive on another planet.
I know laughing doesn’t come easy for certain people but being an expat can transform you and, at some point, you’ll understand that laughing at frustrating situations, annoying people but most of all at yourself is quite beneficial. Putting a smile upon your face will also make you more likeable and attractive, making your life much more enjoyable.
Crying or moaning over the past is very understandable but not helpful. Unfortunately we always know what we leave behind but not what’s ahead of us that is often even better.
Or as Kierkegaard puts it: “Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forwards.”
When I first started spreading the word about our relocation to New York City, I received two types of reaction: enthusiasm from some, who I suspect, have already been picturing a future of free accommodation in the Big Apple than truly understanding the implications of another displacement for my family; and in contract, a concern in particular from other women and moms.
"New York? How are you going to survive there with the kids? Manhattan? It is a crazy and dangerous place. Why don't you go and live in Brooklyn or in the suburbs?" And then the ultimate “compassionate” line: “I WOULD NEVER MOVE THERE!"
Had it been my first expat experience I would have felt tremendously discouraged and demotivated. But it wasn't the case. Therefore, I simply ignored the comments because one very important learning acquired in years of moving from one country to another is not to be influenced by people's different opinions. They tend to be based mostly on preconceptions, rumours or simply different views people have about moving.
I was well aware that a significant change was at stake. Moving from a suburban house in quiet Westmount, Montreal, where you can leave your front door unlocked all night and in the worst case find a raccoon in your kitchen, to an apartment building in the Upper West Side where neighbours don’t bother greeting each other as they meet in the elevator, is after all quite extreme. However, to my surprise, settling in New York turned out to be much smoother than I had expected. Clearly, I could still think of more pleasant things than unpacking boxes and entertaining two boys in the dazzling heat of July.
But New York was rather embracing.
1. The neighbourhood
After considering a few options, we eventually picked the Upper West Side (or “UWS” as it is better known to New Yorkers) for a place to live. The UWS really is a great neighbourhood for families with children for a number of reasons:
a. It's in Manhattan but a lot less bustling and hectic than other areas. It is just a few subway stops, or a short cab ride, from Midtown where most offices are, which makes your husband's commute easy, quick and less nerve wracking.
b. There are more kids and strollers on the UWS sidewalks than adult pedestrians which made my daily trips more relaxing than in other places. (for all their qualities, New Yorkers are not known to be a patient folk so anywhere else in the city they tend to be less welcoming to a slow place stroller pushing mamma).
c. But in the land of family with kids that is the UWS, it is easy to get help from peer parents when I would you find yourself trapped trying to push the stroller into a store or up or down the stairs of a subway station.
2. Central Park
If there is one good reason to choose the Upper West Side this is undoubtedly the proximity to the City’s best outdoor playground : Central Park.
This is where, from my first days in NYC, I took my two boys to let off their energies. Moreover, in summer time it's the perfect place for a picnic or to run around in one of the many playgrounds scattered all over.
To my surprise these play areas are very SAFE. Not only are they clean and well-kept but also fence. So, though it's always necessary to keep an eye on the kids, they cannot run away too far and I don't have to strain my eyes. Almost all of them are equipped with sprinkles which offer a free relief and fun without necessarily going to a pool. Taking my kids to a playground was also for me a chance to break away from my domestic enclosure and strike up short conversations with strangers, other parents or nannies, seeking relief from the summer heat under the trees shade. This is how I started collecting more detailed information about my neighbourhood, places to take the kids, and phone numbers of potential babysitters and housekeepers.
On rainy days I must be honest and say that I'd rather empty more boxes than entertaining my boys. This is the time when I'm entitled, as a mother, to use tv and tablets as a distraction when the kids can’t take it any more in the confines of the apartment. However as I would have later discovered there is no shortage of indoor places where to register your kids for a very wide range of activities (that do not come cheap though).
My usual destination was the American Museum of Natural History on 79th Street and Central Park West where you can get in just by paying a symbolic fee and the kids are always so excited to see the dinosaurs rooms or, even better, the big hall with the whale hanging on the ceiling.
The attached Rose Center for Earth & Space is also worth a quick visit and then, if hungry, we would head to the cafeteria located on the underground level where the kids menu is all you need. In summer time do not expect to be alone though. The museum is under siege by flocks of tourists so walking your way through them is quite challenging and can get you easily tired and… frustrated. Well, you will quickly become an impatient New Yorker too…However if you manage to get there rather early in the morning and enter through the space wing located on the back side along Columbus Avenue, by the time it gets crowded, you are done.
Option number two was the Children's Museum of Manhattan on 83rd street where the entrance fee is not discretional but not too expensive either.
My kids really love this place which is basically a big playground on 4 levels with different educational sections that, in case of my kids, are totally ignored. I love it less and every time they ask me to go there I get goose bumps because the idea of finding myself surrounded by a countless number of frolicking kids yelling and squealing is how I picture hell. However, this is my job so after ten minutes of breathing exercises I would give myself in and escort the boys where you shouldn't go if you are still hesitating about motherhood.
My favorite floor is the underground level where there is a contained play area so you can simply stand or even sit by the entrance without becoming cross-eyed, trying to keep a visual contact with your kids who are, otherwise, disappearing amid the crowd.
On my daily outings with the boys, I would often bump into groups of children wearing colourful shirts, giggling and happily playing under the attentive supervision of young counsellors. They were all attending summer camps, a few weeks of fun activities starting right after the end of school and organised by various institutions. Many times, while chasing, in sweat, my kids on their scooters, I asked myself: “Why didn't I think about a damned summer camp? Wouldn't it be easier for me, for them, for us?”
A really pointless question because, first, when we arrived, it was too late to register to any of them and, second, even if given the chance, I would have opted out of it. The transition from Montreal to New York City had been, on a different level, an emotional challenge for the kids too. Therefore, we had to go through our first weeks of adjustment to our new environment together. When everything changes around them they only have me as their steady reference and I must softly guide them towards their new life until they’re comfortable enough to fly alone.