“We can spend the next three years in China,” she said. “Or we can spend them talking about kitchen renovation.”
This excerpt from “Big in China” rings true for me and probably many other expats: living abroad can be an exotic, inspirational and mind-opening break from the “real world.”
Alan Paul’s book “Big In China” relays his damn lucky Beijing adventure during which he went from begin a “trailing spouse” (his wife was the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau chief) to heading up a popular blues band that toured China to large crowds. Few are so lucky to undergo such a transformation abroad, but his story underscores the point that unthinkable opportunities more frequently arise during expat life, especially in China where everything is growing and changing so swiftly.
And, of course, opportunities are even more common for those with a wealth of connections and a sweet expat financial package. Some readers–perhaps especially those teaching English in China for low wages–may resent tales of his very privileged “full expat package” existence:
“The very existence of places like the Riv [“The Rivera,” a gated compound of villas] was news to me before we made that look-see visit. I had assumed we would be living in a small apartment in the city center, but we ended up with a house that was larger than our place in New Jersey.”
“The compound was simultaneously a non-Chinese bubble and a paradigm of Chinese living, with guards and street maids who kept the sidewalks and gutters clean with archaic twig brooms.”
This plush lifestyle paired with an environment rich in potential, is well captured by these quotes:
“It felt like a was winking at life and getting away with something. I was energized by the raw thrill of being enmeshed in two new worlds: Beijing and Expat Land.
“It was like living in a college dorm, but with kids and money.”
During my 3.5 years in Zhuhai, China, I certainly enjoyed a similar feeling of “getting away with something” by living the good life abroad. But, I have since been humbled by three years as an expat in the UK. Three years spent doing my own laundry, hunting for the rare babysitter, struggling to make close friends and living “normal life.” I can now appreciate even more clearly how uniquely privileged the expat life can be in some corners of the world.
Despite the privileged expat bubble that Paul lived in, his book is a fun read and many expats will find much to relate to.
Since finishing the book, I’ve wondered how he’s holding up back in New Jersey. They returned home for pragmatic reasons (his wife was offered a super job for the Wall Street Journal back home), but it was with evident sadness that the family left Beijing and the unique lifestyle they enjoyed there.
It’s very clear that Paul was glad to have followed his father’s advice when they were making the decision whether to accept the overseas assignment or not:
“You can’t say no to this.”