Monday, April 24, 2006

Last column

I am finishing up work on this week's column and realized that I never posted the last one, due to traveling, etc. Here it is, if you haven't seen it.


Hong Kong and Shanghai
Show Different Side of China
April 14, 2006

After less than a year in China, I have seen only a fraction of this huge country. Each time the kids have a break from school here in Beijing, we try to visit some place new. While the heart of China remains in its vast interior, which I have only begun to explore, I considered it unacceptable that I had yet to visit the nation's two other major urban centers. So it was that on our kids' recent spring break, we set off for Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Beijing is a city of over 12 million people, with a wide array of amenities growing by the day. Yet almost from the minute we landed in Hong Kong, I felt like I was leading a pack of country mice lost in the big city and awed by their towering, glittery surroundings. It seemed as if we had leapt from the mid-twentieth century into the mid-twenty-first.

We landed at the airport and took the train into town, lugging two big bags, three young kids and an assortment of carry-ons. At the central station, we took the elevator up two floors, ready to catch a cab to our hotel. Before we could head out, however, my wife, Rebecca, spied a bookstore on the other end of the floor and we all ran toward it like Bedouins spying an oasis on the edge of a desert.

With our luggage stacked up in the hallway all five of us were grabbing books and games and throwing them onto the counter in a mad frenzy. There was a huge display of Jacob and Eli's current favorite series, Geronimo Stilton, big board books of Elmo and Dora for Anna, and rows and rows of novels and nonfiction books for Rebecca and I to peruse. There even was a prominent display of "Mao: The Unknown History," a biography banned in mainland China.

Afterward, I was taken aback by the eagerness with which we had plunged into the store and filled the shopping bags. I don't generally feel like we lack much in Beijing but our excitement at this simple train-station bookstore said otherwise. I can only imagine what trips to Hong Kong must have seemed like 15 years ago, before Beijing began opening up in earnest.

We spent two days tooling around the island, riding the tram to the peak and going to the lovely Hong Kong Park. We had a great dim sum lunch, with 5-year-old Eli thoroughly enjoying a bowl of shrimp and fried rice -- he would say "I'm sorry but now I'm going to eat you" before popping each little crustacean into his mouth. Eight-year-old Jacob, our picky eater, didn't want anything to do with the food, but he was simultaneously grossed out and fascinated by the restaurant's fish tanks, which included several species of marine life I have never seen, notably hairy snail clams. The hulking, multi-pound clawless lobsters also gripped Jacob's imagination. That evening we rode a double-decker bus to the more remote south side of the island to have dinner with friends at Stanley Beach, which felt more like the Italian coast than China.

In the morning, I left our cramped little adjoining hotel rooms and set out for a cup of coffee. Walking a few blocks, I was struck by the energy of the city. It has a street-level feel reminiscent of Manhattan but in a much more physically striking locale. Though generally overlooked by people focusing on the capitalist and commercial whirl, Hong Kong is a tropical island with towering green peaks surrounded by the glittering turquoise South China Sea. Dry and dusty Beijing seemed a world away.

After two days in the city, we headed out to Hong Kong Disneyland, where we stayed at the Hollywood Hotel. I have a long-time antipathy toward Disney, which is well-known to many friends and family members who delighted in mocking my capitulation to the Mighty Rodent. Truthfully, I really enjoyed it there. Eli was blown away by the Disney characters – delighting in taking pictures with Buzz Lightyear, Goofy and others. He and Jacob rode Space Mountain nearly a dozen times. Two-year-old Anna was thrilled with her pink Minnie Mouse ears.

I have spent a grand total of one day at Disney World in Florida and found the smaller Hong Kong version easier and less exhausting to navigate. I was also fascinated watching all the Chinese and other Asian visitors walking around in wonderment, smiling broadly and snapping pictures. I wondered how many assumed that Main Street USA really represented an average American downtown.

When we left Hong Kong to fly to Shanghai, I literally gasped at the sight of the Chinese flag flying over the Hong Kong Airport. It just didn't feel like I had been in the People's Republic.

Shanghai is a beautiful city that bears the unmistakable stamp of colonialism. European powers ruled over the city for decades and their architectural influence was profound. Perhaps because much of the skyscraper growth has been concentrated in newly developed areas across the Suzhou River, many neighborhoods in Shanghai have retained a smaller-scale, prewar feel largely absent in central Hong Kong and Beijing. The French Concession neighborhood is lined with towering sycamore trees, which seemed particularly noteworthy coming from virtually treeless Beijing.

Shanghai is a great walking city, and we enjoyed strolling through some of the city's beautifully maintained parks. Fu Xing Park has a giant stone statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel. But we spent most of our three days there doing kids' activities, including visiting the aquarium and the Science and Technology Museum. The new and impressive museum was filled with uniformed schoolchildren, who were fascinated by our family and anxious to practice their English on us: "Hello, sir. Nice to meet you. How old are you?" We also rode one of the world's fastest trains – a maglev line from the airport that tops 260 miles an hour.

We took the overnight train back home, 12 hours in a cozy sleeper compartment. Once we managed to tuck our bags under the table and into various nooks and crannies, we were quite comfortable in our little pod. Through the window, we watched Shanghai give way to suburbs, then wetlands and finally countryside. As it grew dark, the kids set out for the hallway, roaming the car and finding friends in the American family occupying two adjoining cabins. Within three or four hours everyone but me was soundly sleeping. I lay in a top bunk looking down at Anna and Rebecca sawing logs in a bottom bunk and listening to the sounds of my family sleeping as China flashed by outside the darkened window.

The train ride was a great experience for all of us – even the absurdly busy stations on either end. After nearly a week of trekking to amusement parks, aquariums, museums and parks, we had the most fun simply transporting ourselves home. In the two weeks since we've returned, the kids have more often asked "When can we take the overnight train again?" than "When can we go to Disney again?" As we prepare for further outings, it's a great reminder that there is plenty of fun to be had without elaborately planned adventures.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

* * *

Readers Respond

Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on dealing with my father's battle with cancer from far away. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I really appreciated and was touched by the outpouring of support. My dad had his surgery last week and is recovering well at home.


Thanks for sharing what must be a very emotionally trying issue as an example of the difficulties of living abroad. My husband and I live in Dubai, and most of the time we don't feel far away at all, given email, texting, IM and Skype. It takes something somewhat serious happening to make you feel truly far away. I hope your father is doing well and continues to get better.
-- Liz Riemersma

- - -

Your article about your father brought back memories of my expat life and similar experiences with my mother. I wish you and the family the best outcome. Expat life is great, a wonderful experience; one certainly sees the world in a different light afterwards. I have forwarded your articles to friends and business associates, some of whom are or have been expats, others who manage expatriates. No doubt your writing has an impact on them as well.
-- Jerry Hampton

- - -

As an Indian living in Minneapolis, I empathize with the cultural barriers that you are facing in China. Your current struggle with your Dad's illness is a stark reminder of how some distances are always difficult to conquer even with email, Internet, Web cams and other forms of technology. To make matters worse for people like me, the U.S. visa process includes some formidable barriers. For example, my wife and I are on an H1-B visa, which allows us to work here for three years, then renew it for a further three years. The initial visa took more than 8 months to get approved.

We have both been renewed, but to be able to travel outside the United States and then re-enter, we must go to the U.S. Embassy in India and get the visa re-stamped. The typical wait time for getting an appointment is 4 months. So if I were to receive a call like you did or God forbid, something worse, my only option would be to go to India, wait four months for an appointment, then return to a likely unemployed status! The embassy web site states that you can get emergency appointments but does not give any further information. All this is for a visa and not for a permanent residency or citizenship, the requirements for which have far bigger hurdles to clear.

I consider you lucky that money and the availability of your own time are the only barriers you face in being able to visit your ailing father. I wish him the speediest of recovery and hope that you are able to see him soon.
-- Rajesh Balachandran

Thank you for taking the time to share your situation. The difficulties legal foreign residents in the U.S. take while following the law can be easy to overlook, as can the simple, obvious fact that people like you are also expats.

- - -

My father (in Philadelphia) also had his bladder removed while we were in Scotland, around the same time that my wife's dad in Brunei was diagnosed with cancer. We ended up going to neither 'patient' but it made us re-evaluate my expat career and was one of the reasons why I decided to quit some time ago. I came 'home' and was able to see my dad for another year.

Hang in there and don't worry about comments that you have to become more Chinese. A lot of folks don't even have a clue what it is like to live as an expat, especially most Americans. Make the most of it while you can!
-- Guido Gaeffke

- - -

That's a pretty powerful story. I'm frankly struck with admiration for your relationship with your father and the bald-headed way in which you and your friends offered him your moral support. I experienced similar experiences living in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the early economic and political upheavals between 1994 and 1998 – and remember well how the distance to home seem magnified whenever someone close to me experienced a major life event.

This experience is felt both ways, of course. I can only imagine the reactions at home when my wife called to say that I was being operated on in a local hospital in St. Petersburg (too late to evacuate me to Finland) and that our pessimistic surgeon was telling her to "start lighting candles." Things went better then expected, thankfully, although – even here – the unusual joys of expat life revealed themselves as I recovered in a local hospital ward ... I also remember awaking in my intensive-care unit to the live television coverage of the ceremonial burial, nearby, of the murdered last Tsar and his family, complete with the soundtrack of the somber tones of the Russian Orthodox memorial service for the dead.
-- Nick Rumin