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  • Writer's pictureHannah

A few thoughts

Updated: Jul 9

Taking a toddler and a preschooler to China may have been an interesting decision. The toddler and preschooler are now 8 and 10 and so far don't regret it. Having landed on England's soil a year ago now, I can't say we have settled but circumstances and things do feel slightly less painful than they did from the word go when we arrived.

After being semi- immersed in a people's way of being and language that is so very different to the British way, although I was desperate to leave China, it wasn't easy to return to some place and people that were at the same time familiar but now changed, different. Being abroad has made me aware of British culture in ways that had perhaps previously washed over me or I hadn't noticed. It's a painful process to undergo, that kind of deconstruction of self and relationship to the environment and rules that govern your interactions. And it can contribute to social anxiety.

Being in another society, especially a rising superpower such as the People's Republic of China can lead to an overwhelming sense of one's own insignificance, stupidity and an embarrassment of any previously made assumptions (of which there are surprisingly many).

One or two things I have noticed:

When I first returned, there was the very joyful occasion of my sister's wedding. There was a lot of happy emotion ,naturally, however I felt totally out of place, found everyone to be so loud and opinionated, cracking out anecdotes, banter and jokes! Although it was fun, I had forgotten how to respond/match these kind of interactions! Asian culture feels much more subdued, submissive and humble on the surface. It's hard being surrounded by what everyone else sees as normal and your experience being clouded by a culture-shocked lens.

I also felt quite panicky at the seeming lack of structure. In China, the way things are organised is very much in people pyramids, team members know exactly who is along side, who is above, who is below, and everyone is trying to cover themselves and avoid blame for making a mistake. In England I felt kind of exposed, structure was seemingly absent, it felt like everyone had a confident agenda of: 'let's go and get! Let's move forward and conquer!'

In a way, I found a new sense of respect. An example of this is when I took the kids swimming in Paignton. I was told the kids weren't allowed to swim beyond the half way point and weren't allowed to do backwards jumps in from the side. I think pre-China Hannah may have argued with the guard, feeling I knew best. This post-China Hannah avoided confrontation, valued submission above all and appreciated they are doing this job the best that they can, with the view to keep everyone as safe as they can.

Having come from an environment where I had been watched 24/7 via my phone, having my movements tracked 24/7 and being literally under the constant surveillance of security guards and the Chinese police and health officials, it felt good but also quite scary to sit in the driver's seat for the first time in 5 years with the knowledge that if we break down, no one will check you, it's my responsibility to fix it and resolve the situation. Regaining a sense of autonomy has been both a joy and a challenge. The sustained surveillance messed with my mind to the degree that I was almost convinced they were never going to let us leave the country and the immense relief I felt as the kids and I started to take off from Shanghai Pudong airport after a meticulously planned 48 hours to try to get out of Suzhou and through the doors of the airport, including numerous code checks, translated vaccination certificates, coach hire, and covid tests. To be fair, my worries about retainment in China weren't completely unfounded, for the police officials did confiscate my passport for 3.5 months at one point.

I can laugh now at the humiliation I experienced in Dartmouth one hot afternoon about 3 weeks after being back (and that my niece and 2 kids will inevitably remind me of over and over again), when I was trying to navigate a skinny dirt track (wide enough only for 1 car). It was about my 3rd time being behind the wheel again. I came up against onward coming traffic, although the driver of the car in front had only just passed a lay-by, she quite clearly expected me to do the reversing. Other traffic was piling up behind me. We had to get out our vehicles to make a plan. I was expected to reverse back up a steep hill to the next lay by, (the distance is a blurred memory but it seemed half a mile long). I got in such a panic and my adrenaline levels hit the roof, so much so that I lost control of my left leg (clutch control leg). It was swinging ferociously from left to right and when it eventually stilled enough to gain clutch control, I wildly overestimated the clutch/acceleration ratio and burnt the clutch so much that we were inhaling the stench of rubber fumes which lingered for weeks after. There seemed to be magnetic attraction between the back of my vehicle and the hedge row on the side of the track. Every meter of ground I managed to reverse, seemed to end us up in said hedge and I had to go forwards again to straighten out before then attempting to reverse in a straight line. The kids thankfully found within themselves patience, encouragement and support which soothed the venomous stares I was receiving from the oncoming driver and the words aggressively hissed at me through her window; ' YOU need to LEARN how to REVERSE!'

I will not forget the utter blissful feeling of walking down the street without a guard yelling at me for my 'su kang ma' (health code proving I'm covid free and tracking my movements for every 2 weeks). It felt like a gift to be able to return home without proving where I'd been or showing a ticket proving I'd had my covid swab test for the day which would allow me to re-enter my compound. To feel the ocean breeze on my skin again, letting it seep into my rather polluted soul (due to both poor Chinese air quality and clouds of self- doubt thanks to an extended time in a dystopian climate), as I stood atop the headland overlooking the English channel was definitely therapy my soul had ached for. It was also lovely to find rolling green hills and country gardens and old crumbling castle ruins; China for all its exciting modernity makes you appreciate again England's rich history.

I also value the slightly more polite way British drivers treat pedestrians , you put your life on the line whenever you crossed a road in China and pedestrian crossings were about as effective as a bucket with no base and drivers turning right would have right of way turning into a side road regardless of red traffic lights. Superficially, English people are noticeable more friendly too, strangers you pass by in England tend to greet you with 'good morning' or at least a smile. In Suzhou Industrial Park, this didn't happen.

I have a new appreciation for dairy produce (try a Chinese Starbucks frappucino or a 'cake' from a 'bakery' with greasy cream the same texture as shaving foam and you might know what I mean). Apparently dairy farming doesn't really happen in China.

Being immersed in Communism where the state is god and observing the pathways some of my Chinese friends have forged/followed with the opportunities accessible to them and the expectations of their families, I have a deepened appreciation and acceptance for the gospel and a gratitude that ultimately if you trace it back, it is entwined in the foundations of British culture- aside the inordinate number of imbalances and social problems we have, I am only more convicted that Jesus' example and his view that the kingdom of God is as valid a 'country' on this planet as England or China. I noticed.a a kind of naive selfishness. amongst my Chinese friends . There was no expectation to give or sacrifice of time or money especially for the friends from one-child families, bearing the weight of all your parents expectations and investment with the main object of life to make money and be able to look after your parents when they are old and frail, with the notion of having your own kids to be too costly an inconvenience/sacrifice and distraction from your own earning potential and pleasure. Although some economist or politician could argue you out of the park about why Christianity may not be helpful for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or success, or even contribute to laziness because why work at all when Jesus has already accomplished everything for us at the cross, it can be difficult to work out where to put your hope if your only sense of spirituality is derived from Confucianism/ Buddhism and therefore ultimately yourself. A people or a place where Grace presides is the best kind and I'm pretty sure the Chinese government could benefit from getting hold of the concept.

What I miss

I absolutely miss the incredibly convenient transport systems in China- almost door-to-door fast and regular subway systems, constantly being extended or new lines added. The train strikes have inevitably been quite frustrating in UK! Not to mention the multitude of teacher strikes!

On the theme of convenience you could order groceries and they'd appear at your door within half an hour. My mind had to readjust when I first made a grocery order back in England and could only reserve a slot for no earlier than one week later!

I miss my ayi; 'Fan' so much, who came to help with housework and some babysitting- both of those are rare occurrences now! I miss the the way our bills were just handled by our agent and you didn't have to think about mortgage rates or anything. We all miss our beloved dog (Yemei) who is going to be adopted by an American couple and fly out to the States soon (thanks to Fendi and Roshan). I miss parkrun in good old Baitang gardens and the lovely Chinese friends we made through it. Oh, and the Cherry blossom.

I miss our compound 'Lakeshore Gardens' and the way I could walk down the path and bump into a friend (especially Ellen- if you're reading this!) and the warm outdoor pool we would spend many a happy afternoon in during summer. I miss how the kids could run out and play with their friends in the large compound gardens. I miss the smell of egg pancakes (ji-dan bings) being fried on the little street food wagons and the random contrasts ,for example , an old fashioned trike carrying boxes of live chickens down a cobbled street next door to a flashy new mall. I miss sewing share bears with a group of ladies and Johanna, who helped organise it.

I miss Jinjihu (Jinji lake) and Taihu (Tai lake) and Shanghai (in general!). I miss my e-bike. I miss the kids' school where I volunteered speech therapy sessions, joined choir rehearsals and nutrition committee meetings and attended many sports days due to having a very flexible schedule, (although of course all school became online and therefore beyond the parenting- pain threshold during the pandemic and this has influenced my otherwise happy experiences of my kids' education out there!

And now we find ourselves in the incredible city of York, and although there are no street food ji-dan bings- there's bubble tea a plenty, a strong Chinese presence and the adventure continues.

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