As we are in the midst of building a fourth new life abroad, I have indulged myself in revisiting a grim slice of time from our first move abroad: a pre-move recon visit to Zhuhai, China.
Picture it: George Bush Jr is still president, something like four people have heard of Facebook and I think that moving to Zhuhai will be an adventurous two-year blip in our otherwise Seattle-based life.
Scanning the search results for “Zhuhai,” the first result was a BBC article referencing the Chinese National Air Show being cancelled due to the city’s severe air pollution. Scrolling down, the next several results all described a massive weekend orgy attended by 400 Japanese men and 500 Chinese prostitutes in a hotel with a faux waterfall running down its facade.
Digging deeper, I also learned that Zhuhai, a city of 1.5 million mainly migrant workers, features a long coastline traced by Lover’s Road which is often dotted with brides wearing rented white dresses for wedding portraits by the seaside.
Despite the search results, I remained enthusiastic about the chance to live in China, so in the stonking heat of September, we arrived in Zhuhai for a look-see visit. Our company-sponsored, pre-move tour was conducted by a man who had little grasp of life outside of China, a fluent English speaker named Sailing Ko.
Our first stop was to Zhuhai’s massive public sporting facility. Visiting this space-ship shaped, cement building required crossing glaringly white acres of paving in the blazing hot sun. Trailing Mr. Ko and my husband, I reached the structure itself and entered an enormous room. When my eyes adjusted to the contrasting dimness, I saw that it was filled from end to end with ping-pong tables. I then smelt a whiff of chlorine and was led through to the Olympic-sized pool full of swimming-capped pensioners exercising. Would I buy a swim cap and hang out here on weekday mornings? Would I spend my evenings playing ping-pong? I was open to anything and mulled this over as we walked back across the paving to the car holding Mr. Ko’s proffered umbrella over my head as a sun parasol (this was the first time in my life I would have imagined using an umbrella to shield the sun).
Mr. Ko was surprised that my husband wanted to see a health club for our next stop, but happily obliged by taking us to a spa dwarfed by a vaulted, marble foyer and filled with beautiful young women wearing matching, floor-length, sea green dresses. It was only when we asked to see the fitness equipment that both sides realized the depth of our misunderstanding.
Mr. Ko, hoping to ease our minds about the availability of food that would be to our liking, then took us to the international food departments of several grocery stores. Scanning the shelves for imported products we found tinned tuna, Green Giant canned corn, Kraft American cheese singles and Campbell’s oxtail soup.
Housing was the last part of our look-see tour and Mr. Ko handed us over to a shiny, young real estate agent with a suit-pocket full of mobile phones and hair stiff with gel. Mr. Slick assumed, without asking, that all foreigners wanted to live on the outskirts of town in houses that resembled the set of the old American soap opera Dynasty: overly big and vulgar with massive golden chandeliers, fussy draperies, and gilt, overstuffed furniture. Convincing him that we would rather live in the city-center, he showed us apartments housed in buildings tiled in pink with blue-tinted windows and kitchens covered in a patina of ten years’ grease.
And then, dumbstruck, we flew back to Seattle to pack.
We moved to Zhuhai six weeks later and swiftly swapped Mr. Slick for a savvy Taiwanese friend who helped us find an apartment with a clean kitchen and sea views. I never again visited the Olympic-sized swimming pool or purchased a can of Campbell’s oxtail soup. We greatly enjoyed our four years there.
Take-away: look-see visits may be useless. In fact, I haven’t gone on one since.