Monday, February 17, 2014

Reflections on a Year in China

A year ago today my family and I moved to Shanghai China. I will write here about my perspectives, experiences and learning. I am sure my husband Stephen and each of our three children who live here with us would have an entirely different take on it all.

When we found out we were moving here we all experienced excitement, fear, interest and a whole lot of anticipation over the unknown expanding in front of us. We all new that this would be life changing, amazing and assuredly challenging, but we didn't know how; how it would look, feel, sound, taste, we knew next to nothing.

The move, as all our moves have been, was most challenging for me (that is my opinion of course). I say that because for Stephen and the kids there was some continuity of experience. Stephen has his job to structure and fill his days, the kids have school. Yes, their transition has also had its highs and lows, bumps in the road, but they have had some immediate structure and familiarity.

For those of us called "trailing spouses" it is a bit like being thrown out of an airplane into unknown territory without a map or compass. We land, look around, and begin to fumble about like fish out of water trying to figure out what the hell we are supposed to do now. The first few weeks for me were a wake up call. I quickly realized that I am an immigrant here. I didn't know how to achieve the most basic things like get food, pay a bill, set up my cell phone or bank account. On top of that I am completely illiterate here. It is one of the scariest things I have ever confronted, being unable to communicate, speak, read, write. Nothing. Talk about feeling vulnerable, helpless, exposed. I still feel that way quite often, even after a year and learning some basic Mandarin.

Most of us trailing spouses are wives who have followed husbands here for job opportunities. We are the "tai tais". Tai tai is Mandarin for wife, there are some "guy tais" as well to be fair. We live in what we call "the bubble", areas that cater to foreigners and are really an oasis, a kind of tamed down China. I really like going out of the bubble and into old neighborhoods, exploring interesting sites and taking in the culture and the people. It is nice to have the bubble to go back to though, as I sometimes find the experience here can get overwhelming and produce sensory overload.

A great part of this experience is the friends to be made. We expats are a collective, all on this ride, this walk on the wild side and so we all have that in common. Even with my introvert nature and tendency toward social awkwardness, I have met many amazing people and grown some beautiful friendships. The painful part of this is losing people. After only a year here I am faced with saying goodbye to several friends who are repatriating. The fact of the temporary and fleeting nature of expat life has a lot to teach about impermanence and the practice of non attachment. It is a tough one. Really it is just a mirror of life anywhere, everywhere. People come and people go. Life is transitory and fleeting. There is so much opportunity in that respect to explore how I deal with change, how I relate with loss, how I grieve or resist grief. The full on experience will come at the end of the school year, but I am feeling into it even now.

After not too long a time being here I ventured into teaching yoga part time at a big Shanghai yoga studio, and what lessons I would learn there! Teaching there was very difficult because the culture of the studio was very rigid around what yoga is and what it should look like. My teaching, which emphasizes the spiritual over the physical, was not valued or embraced at the studio. I had a choice to be authentic and true to myself, or try to fit the mold and teach within the desired parameters. Despite the pain it caused me I chose to be me, to go against the grain. My classes were not very popular, but I know I reached a number of people, and if even one student gained insight or depth from my teaching then it is a victory. My confidence was shaken and my ego bruised, but it was very powerful for me to stand my ground and walk my truth when under pressure to conform. In the end I found a new studio that has new vision, and that is a journey yet to come.

Some of the biggest lessons I have learned here are about what I have taken for granted in my life. Clean air, water and food to start. The biggest concern of these is air. I can get bottled water and pay more for import or higher quality foods, but you can't buy clean air. What is more vital than the air you breathe? There have been days when the air has just made me angry and left me wondering how a people, a country, could ever have gotten to this point, allowed it to get this bad. I realize now that this is a reactivity I go to often, blaming. The truth is the pollution is a complex problem involving many factors and there is not a quick or easy solution. What I have learned is that people here do care, they do notice, but they have little recourse and no time or energy to spare to engage in activism. They are busy getting the days food on the table, working very hard to get by. Besides, activism is not such a welcome concept here, the people must tread lightly.

That brings up another thing I am more grateful for because of my experiences here. There is so much to be valued and recognized about personal freedom, the ability to express my opinions without fear or hesitation. There is extreme government control here over the media including social media. Facebook, YouTube, even Blogger, which I am writing this on, are blocked in China. All of us expats get around this with use of a vpn. Censorship is just a fact of life.

Another fact of life here is having no privacy. People here know the government is watching and just accept it. As I have watched, from the vantage point of a country with such an invasive government, the discovery of my home country's NSA spying programs, I can only think that it would be a mistake to ignore it or trust that it is all fine. The saying "You don't know what you've got til it's gone." comes to mind.

Treasure what you have. Enjoy every bite of healthy food you eat, pause when you are near rivers, streams, lakes or the ocean and give thanks. Cherish a breath of clean air. Make a conscious choice to value your freedoms and rights, work to keep them by speaking out and voting wisely.

The most important thing I am learning though is about honoring people. Even with a language barrier, cultural differences and sensory overload, despite all the challenges I have confronted, I know now, more than ever, that a smile is really the only language we need. No matter how different a people might seem, we are all searching for the same things; to have what we need to be safe and secure, to be accepted and understood, and most of all to be loved. I believe that love can conquer all and by reaching out with an intention of loving kindness I find that condition increasing within myself.

The culture and history of this country and its people is rich and deep. I have barely scratched the surface of learning about these things. When I am out and about in the city of Shanghai, I marvel at the mix of old and new, the industriousness and ingenuity required to build the impressive skyscrapers, the beauty of the old neighborhoods, the sculptures and the temples. I most love to see the people, playing cards on the street, doing tai chi or dancing in the park where I run, riding their bicycles, out with their kids. I am glad that through my teaching I have the chance to share my Kripalu Yoga practice and Let Your Yoga Dance with local students. I intend to continue to explore, study, teach and connect with people. I want to savor each day and experience fully.

 I look forward to all the learning and growing yet to come.

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