Dear Angela, Sarah, Robyn, Vanessa, Annamaree and Emma,

 

Standing with your legs wide apart, in a low squat position, exhale as you reach your right hand back and around your body, reaching down your front to grasp your inner left thigh.   Inhale.  Exhale now as you take your left hand and reach around the back of your left thigh to grasp your right hand. I didn’t catch the name of that pose so I shall call it the ‘Elastigirl’. Now just relax in that position while you read my letter.

 

In the spirit of embracing compound life, this morning I attended a Hatha Yoga class in the compound gym. As you will know, I don’t do yoga. I did try it once or twice many years ago, but my lack of flexibility coupled with an alarming lack of balance tends not to lend itself to yoga. It barely lends itself to walking upright. However, reading the schedule of gym classes on offer, yoga seemed like a nice safe choice for my first class, yoga is all gentle and meditative and stretchy, perfect.

 

I think it’s a fair assumption that I was the only native English speaker in the class, possibly also the only participant who can’t routinely shop for clothes in the children’s department. I rolled out my mat and attempted to follow the directions of the lovely instructor, who to her credit gave me just the right combination of instruction and encouragement and seemed to know when to leave me alone too. I suspect she’s met my sort before (totally inept, but with a degree of enthusiasm and a healthy dose of no shame). It wasn’t gentle, it was definitely stretchy, it was a little meditative.

 

I think I’ll go back next week, I feel a bring something extra to the class that was lacking before, a new challenge for the instructor for sure, and a sense of achievement and success for all other attendees, who must feel pretty great about themselves after watching my performance; particularly during ‘Elastigirl’.

 

I rewarded myself with lunch at home after yoga, and then with the family passports in hand headed on down the local police station. You see we’re still climbing the seemingly insurmountable stack of paperwork that will eventually lead us to our residence permits to live here. Last night Ross received an email from our immigration consultant, and asked me if I’d just pop along to a police station today and pick up a few forms. “Sure!” I said, “Of course, no problem” beaming with kiwi-girl can-do-ness, how hard can that be!?

 

So, armed with directions and a bucket load of optimism I found the police station and approached the first counter, and happily made my request. Well, apparently I am just HILARIOUS, I am actually the funniest thing they’ve seen around these parts all month! I could sell tickets to this show! As evidenced by the four Chinese men now doubled over with mirth, actually pointing and laughing at me. “Oh so no English?” I smile along; yes this is very funny for me too! They collectively contain their hysteria long enough to point to the next counter, “I should go there?” I asked, chuckling along, that I continued to speak in English to them brought forth a new wave of belly laughs; I smile my gratitude and move towards the next counter, and do manage to not burst into tears, but it was a very close call.

 

Trying to not look utterly defeated, I approach the next counter, with less optimism. I make my request again; I hand over our passports when asked. The officer shakes his head and speaks to me in Chinese (which happens a LOT round here! I really should be less surprised about this!).

“Do you have a translator?” I am asked,

“No”

“Do you have Chinese friend?”

“Yes”, I lie, “I’ll come back”.

I take the passports. I walk home in the rain. I make a cup of tea and eat some Oreos. I text my husband very mean and inappropriate things about our immigration consultants, in which I speculate in colourful language exactly how I think this process should work and who should be doing what. He replies and says all the right things, which is always the safest option when one’s wife becomes irrational. He’s a smart guy, and I feel a little better.

 

Now you may release yourself from that yoga pose, and go ahead and stretch, and do the other side. Don’t forget to breathe!  

 

Love, Katie xx

Dear Mum

Help! This is perhaps the strangest experience so far in my eight days in China – I have a maid! This is a very new concept to me, having done my own housework since … forever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to be in the situation where having an ayi is not only appropriate but is expected of me, in fact I have met a few people who are frankly astonished that I’m only employing a part time ayi, the expectation seems to be that a family of 5 would have at least one full timer (and often a weekend ayi too!).

So despite my discomfort, and seeing as the only home we could find here with the five bedrooms we wanted, also comes with five bathrooms and enormous stretches of dusty wooden floors, I will embrace the ayi experience with all the grace I can muster. As I write, this lovely lady who I met this morning, and have hired after taking the advice of a complete stranger, is cleaning around me. I think this is where our utter newbie expat status really shows, having discussed the hiring of ayis with several experienced expats, it seems that everyone else is utterly at ease with having domestic staff, many expats have multiple ayis and a cook, as well as the ubiquitous driver. So, with Downtown Abbey as my only reference point, I am trying very hard to not be a Matthew Crawley – I must get over myself and let each person actually do their job.

I have to admit, having a driver is actually quite wonderful. I ring and he arrives, calls me Madam and opens doors for me. I never have to find a car park, I never have to fill the car with petrol, I can text away to my hearts content while being ferried around the place and I have a very keen umbrella-toting building-to-car escort in the rain. I am told by much wiser expats than I that this driver honeymoon period will come to an end, and even I can see a glimmer of independence fast disappearing as I come to rely on someone else on daily basis.

In an attempt to reciprocate the ad hoc Chinese language lessons he’s getting from our driver on the way to and from work each day, my darling husband has taught our driver the phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’, something which apparently doesn’t translate with any humour into Chinese. The result of which is that our driver has taken this instruction to heart, and has repeatedly told me that Mr Ross said I must be kept happy at all times: “Happy wife, happy life!”. Bless him. More than once now Ross has given him an instruction in front of me, only to have our driver turn to me for confirmation: “Is this okay with Madam?” I’m going along with it, its very funny.

In conclusion, you see that I am at dire risk of becoming a lady who lunches (and not much else), so to stave off that grim possibility (although honestly it doesn’t seem all that grim)…I must go now and work on my CV, I have a job prospect to pursue – and now I also have an ayi and a driver to pay!

Love,
Katie

Dear Emma

Hello lovely! You would have been very impressed with me this morning, taking a leaf out of your book and getting out of bed before 6 am to get some exercise. Although, to be fair my hour and a half fast walk around the neighborhood doesn’t really compare with your daily long runs and doing two half-marathons in three weeks! But hey, its a start!
The sights of this neighborhood really amaze me, the cultural differences between what is my norm and what is happening in the streets around me is huge, and I’m loving see this in action – although some of it is more than a little challenging!
Exploring things around here often makes me think of you, and your time spent in Japan. A lot of what you described to me about that time resonates with me as I navigate life around here. For a start, the language barrier is much bigger and more difficult to climb that what I had imagined.
There is a degree of arrogance in the assumption that English will suffice at least to a small degree when I’m living in what is very much an expat community, but repeatedly I’m finding that it does not, and if I want to be able to function independently here then the pressure is on me to learn Chinese. Our lessons start this week! We are having a language tutor come to the apartment two evenings a week. I’m excited about being able to communicate better in this world, but dread it at the same time, its going to be an enormous challenge and I’m going to have to work hard to get to where I want to be with this language.
When we talked about making this move, we talked about the things we could all gain from this, and learning an amazing new language was a big part of that. Its not often that a family gets the opportunity not just to learn a new language but to live among that language for such a length of time. So, no matter how hard it is, its important to keep going and keep learning and most of all I think its important to have the courage to speak up and use the language I’m learning – which is going to mean making a fool of myself many times for sure! I’ll be sure to fill you in on all my humiliations!
Yesterday we visited a market, and it was enlightening to see my children so keen to interact with stall holders and ask the price in Chinese – knowing that they wouldn’t even be able to understand the answer given but eager to take that first step in using the few Chinese words they know. I’m so looking forward to hearing them increase their Chinese vocabulary and their confidence in using it in the coming months and years. Their enthusiasm is exciting and it spurs me on.
Walking in the neighborhood again this afternoon with Ross and the kids, the reality of our new situation really started to sink in – how real this is and how long term it is. At the same time, if I think of the people we’ve met here, there are many who have outstayed their initial assignments, who have been here for years and still choose to have and raise their children here. That tells me all I need to know right now, that life here can be fantastic if we’re willing to take it on.
Miss you,
Love, Katie

Dear Adele

Ahh Adele, my ‘just-popping-in-on-the-way-home-from-school-pickup-yes-okay-let’s-have-a-wine’ friend, can’t tell you how much I will miss you just popping in on slow afternoons, and the wine of course! You’ll be pleased to know our local shop here in China sells New Zealand wine, along with an impressive selection of wines from Australia, France, Chile and USA – so don’t worry about me, I’m going to be just fine for wine!

This afternoon I turfed my darling iPad addicted children out into the world on their own! Well, not quite the world, but the compound at least! Its huge and they can easily get lost, which I think is an excellent idea right now! I instructed them to stick together and if they get lost then keep looking until they figure out where they live! Some things I think kids have to do on their own, and learning their way around this place is not something they really need to do with their mother tagging along! They complained unconvincingly and disappeared, reappearing and disappearing several times over the course of the afternoon, first for swimming gear (although Olivia insisted she was NOT going swimming), then for ice cream money (Olivia appeared soaking wet after her swim!) they said they *think* they know how to find the shop, and they *think* they have enough Chinese RMB for an ice cream each, I have declined to offer any advice on either point and waved them off again. They’re getting on so well, having so much fun together, I really hope it lasts until they each make a few new friends of their own. They have 4 days of school next week before the very long summer break…
We have arrived in June, which as I have learned is a significant month for expats all over the world. June is leaving month, June is when contracts end, schools wrap up for the year (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) and en masse people migrate back to their home port or on to their next assignment. In short, theres a whole lot of leaving going on in the midst of our arriving. For us this means meeting some great people, and having them disappear the same week, and it also means that in the coming weeks there will be a wave of newbies to make me feel slightly less new, a little less green and I hope by comparison a little more wise.
Adele, I hope there’s a small part of you thinking about coming to visit, yes its huge and weird and oh so different – but I know where we can buy some gorgeous handbags babe!
Love,
Katie xx

Dear Mum and Dad

Its day four living in China, and we’re all doing fine! I’m so happy to write that those three angst ridden grandchildren you kissed goodbye at Christchurch airport are more relaxed than they’ve been for weeks. The anticipation of moving to China was so hard for them, but the reality is that living in this compound is like living in a holiday resort – the twins haven’t located all five swimming pools yet but they’re loving the search. Today we’ve all been issued with club cards, with which the kids can charge up anything they like in the compound shops, the consequences of which can be delayed until the bill comes to their parents at the end of each month, I will let you know how that goes.
In the absence of most of our belongings, we’ve made two trips to Ikea already where the children have picked out new bedding and accessories for their new bedrooms, perhaps not the most creative way to decorate but its easy, its here, and the kids are happy. The day our boxes arrive with our belongings will be glorious day! I am dreaming of putting our own art on the walls and our own bits and pieces around the apartment so we can begin to feel like its our home.
Living in this compound we could easily forget that we live in China now, but as soon as we step outside the gates China is right there in our faces. The children are completely undaunted walking to and from the closest restaurants and shops, taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the neighbourhood. They’re curious, interested and eager to learn and settle in here.
As for me, well running a household is the same just about anywhere I guess, washing, shopping and cooking still need to be done, if a little differently over here. I think I’ve been washing the clothes, but as the instructions on my washing machine are all in Chinese its a wild guess really. The washing seems to swish about for an hour or so and come out smelling better so I’m happy with that for now. As for cooking, its a little hit and miss when we can’t read the labels at the supermarket, all part of the fun, although to be honest that’s not always fun. I guess we’re not the first newbie expats to drag our bewildered driver into the supermarket to help us translate the grocery labels, but perhaps I’ll follow some advice I got today and switch to a more international supermarket tomorrow.

Lots of love,
Katie x