“Big in China”

“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.”

Here, here!

Alan Paul, “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing,” 2011.

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18 responses to ““Big in China”

  1. Not living in the full “expat bubble” myself – it seems like a different world even to me. There’s also the moving “Shanghai Calling” I think that is coming out soon which is another expat/China look. Sounds interesting

      • Seems like these “bubbles” even in China may be becoming increasingly rare as more and more companies pair down to “local plus” contracts. But that’s a whole other can of worms for another day!

        Thanks for the “Shanghai Calling” tip. I’ll keep my eyes open for that one.

  2. Thanks for the discussion of Big in China.

    The expat bubble we lived in was interesting and quite a trip for me – I was thoroughly naive about that whole world before landing in its midst.

    I’m holding up pretty well by the way – thanks to the book. Had I not written it, I would have really struggled with the transition.

    Big in China movie rights have been sold and film seems to be chugging along. Ivan Reitman bought and is signed on as director and producer…

    Happy to discuss any of this further if you’re interested.

    • I feel like I’m at a neighborhood book club meeting and the author of the book we’re reading just knocked at the door with a bottle of wine! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment.

      I haven’t re-patriated yet, but I can imagine it’s a doozy. Having projects/classes/part-time work has certainly helped me manage the rough bumps of moving to several new places, so I can relate to the focus/relief that having an interesting project to dive into provides. Great to hear that a movie is in the works as well. Congratulations!

      I looked up some of the WSJ columns you wrote while living in Beijing. Interesting stuff and completely relatable. Others following this thread take a look here for an index of Alan’s “The Expat Life” posts: http://on.wsj.com/puC9St

      A final question: have you managed to bring your fellow “Woodie Alan” band members to America yet?

      • Thanks on the columns.

        If you want to see the band, videos and photos, please visit http://www.alanpaul.net.

        I have very few regrets about the book but I do wish I had included photos.

        I have not been able to bring the guys to the uSA yet… woodie has had some difficulties related to issues discussed in the book… I got him a visa two years running and he just couldn’t get himself to travel. I tried and failed to get the other guys’ visas to come over for the book launch. I have not given up but am going to need to figure out an angle.

      • Loved seeing the pictures of you, your family and “Woodie Alan” in China. Thanks for the link. Refreshing also to hear your perspective as “Panda Dad” in response to “Tiger Mom.”

        I’ve been in need of some re-inspiration regarding expat life. The first few months in Hong Kong have been rougher than expected–it is no China (despite the political realities)! Thanks for the reminder to mix it up, jump in and try things. I’m taking it to heart upon re-entry from “home leave.”

        Good luck, also, brining your bandmates to the US. I’m sure you’ll make it happen one way or another.

      • And one other thing: I have showed up at book clubs with a bottle of wine before.. if you or anyone else wants to read Big in China in their book club, I will gladly do a skype session to discuss…

      • Ha… Thanks… Actually, the book club usually supplies the wine, but I’ll pout my own for a skype chat.

  3. I lived in Asia and worked as an ESL teacher when I was in my 20’s. Back then, I dated a tennis coach who coached all the expat wives who had nothing better to do all day than learn to play tennis. I thought that their world was so foreign from my own life as an expat in the same country. I’m now experiencing life as a trailing spouse on a full expat package (but I have yet to take up tennis 🙂 While the perks of the expat package are undeniably fantastic, I actually kind of miss the more simple life that I lived as an expat who had to fend for myself. I felt much more grounded back then. Now I often feel like I am playing make-believe.

    • Once your little ones are in school (very soon, right?), a whole world will open up. No need for tennis, when you can write, take classes, and explore a little more on your own. Hell, Alan Paul founded a touring Blues band as an expat spouse. Sometimes I feel that those who spend too much time on manicures and tennis (while both very nice *some* of the time), lack imagination.

      I also completely understand your point, that too much time can leave one feeling “unmoored,” especially during the settling-in period. Are you back from your trip to America?

      • We got back to Brazil about two weeks ago and my kids started school right away. You’re so right about a new world opening up! Now that I actually have free time, I’ve signed up for Portuguese classes and art classes. It’s nothing like founding a touring Blues Band, but it’s a start and way better than tennis or manicures. Unfortunately, I also have a thesis that I need to finish so I won’t get to have too much fun until that’s done. But at least I’m getting the opportunity to work on it now. I started it when I was working full time and my youngest was just a baby and my oldest was just two years old, so there was rarely a free moment for me work on it. Now I have over six hours a day to myself. It’s very surreal!

      • The more you do, the more you’ll do, so just get out there and mix it up! I wasn’t looking to form the band I did. It just happened, but never could have were I not in the mix.

      • Melissa, I’m already jealous of your schedule: Portuguese classes, art classes and a (hopefully) interesting dissertation to work on. Heavenly. I hope your kids are settling into school well.

  4. I love your book reviews! We are certainly not in a privileged expat bubble here but most of our neighbours and the kids’ friends’ parents are…how galling 😉

    • Channeling Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa,” I sometimes wistfully think, “I had a villa in south China,” when I remember our former full expat package days…

      Glad you like the reviews. I’ll have to get reading more books!

  5. Pingback: You Only Live Twice | Expat Lingo·

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