Home and Culture Shock

Martin moved out of the apartment on 17 December. We have a lot of stuff, and we badly misjudged the length of time the packers would take. But 2 days and 36 boxes later he has moved. He aptly put it that he has moved apartments. He hasn’t moved to a home. 

I have moved back home. Eleanor has moved with me but has she moved home? No, not yet. 

Home?

How often have you thought about the concept of home? If you are an expatriate, chances are you think about this this more often than not especially if you have a TCK. A TCK is a Third Culture Kid, a child brought up in a culture that is not their passport country. Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist in 1950s spent time in India and coined the phrase after seeing people moving from their home culture (first culture), and going to a host (second) culture. This is what we did, UK to China. The “third” part is that we carved out our own culture in China – we weren’t living a full Chinese life, and we certainly weren’t living as if we were in the UK. The third culture is the bubble that we and so many others create. 

The controversial incident between Ngozi Fulani and Lady Susan Hussey was uncomfortable to put it mildly, but for Eleanor, the question “Where are you from?” is deeply uncomfortable for an entirely different reason. If she responds with England, which is technically true she has no working knowledge about what it is like to live in England. We left when she was 4. Having not lived there for 10 years means she has no connection with anything English except for a cup of tea and her family.
If she answers China, again she wouldn’t be wrong since she spent her formative years there, but like the Mean Girls film of 2004, she risks the question – why are you white? She certainly doesn’t look nor sound Chinese, but as someone who asked for Hotpot for her birthday and wants to drink Boba Tea, she has assimilated well into the Chinese culture. 

We have returned to Northern Ireland for 6 months. Northern Ireland as a place hasn’t been my home since I was 18. 23 years ago I went to uni, and returned for summers, Christmases and our wedding, but even my parents no longer live in the house I grew up in. So I have returned “home” to my parents. The longest time I spent with them under the same roof since university was 6 weeks in 2020. Now, we are looking forward to 6-7 months with each other. 

So, home – a friend said it is where “we” are, and that is true but for us, “we” are separated by 8 hours and two different continents. We will be home properly as a family when we are reunited. For me, I have returned home, for Eleanor – returning home – is going back to China. But for the next 6 months we will do our best to make this a temporary home. It is homely, with home cooked meals and love. Plenty of love and warmth.

Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock

Culture shock is the feeling of being out of place in your host country, but the same is true when you return “home” having been away for a long time. Here are just a few of the things that we have noticed.

Food

When we first moved to China, Eleanor only ate watermelon and rice. Living in the UK she didn’t even eat pizza, and on the first occasion she ate pizza at a brunch (oh the brunches that I guess will be a thing of the past for the next period) both Martin and I praised her and breathed a sigh of relief that finally we could order in pizza and go to restaurants and not just order rice. 

Eleanor has developed an Asian palate, on the eve of her birthday we took her to 3 Levels, a restaurant that serves Chinese food – and also has a Japanese Teppanyaki. We went to the Chinese part of the restaurant and in true Chinese style had food to share across the table, not like Smithy in Gavin and Stacey. The food was good, but the pièce de résistance was the green beans. Our family devours them in the restaurant across the road from school, and it was great to have them on the menu at this restaurant. The icing on the cake, however, was the bubble tea. Boba tea is a Chinese delight, and one which Eleanor was worried about missing. She asked our waiter where she could get some, and he pulled out a menu of bubble teas. Eleanor’s smile got to her eyes and it stayed there. However what would normally cost 17 RMB (£2 or $2.30) cost £4.30 (36RMB). This restaurant isn’t local to us, but I think it will be a favourite restaurant when we go to Belfast. 

In lifeskills, I would also tell our Year 13s to pack in their luggage for uni their favourite food (if possible), or do some research on where to find it. I took my own advice when our soon to be 14 year old asked for hotpot for her birthday lunch! But that is an entirely different story. 

On our first visit to Whitehead (the nearest place to where my parents live) we found the Chinese take away, which really hasn’t changed since my days of living in the village/town with a population of just under 4000 people – whatever Whitehead is – it isn’t a city!

Having just left a city of around 12 million, there will be a lot of adjustment and patience needed. Of course, where we live there is no Sherpas, Eleme or Meituan – the Chinese versions of Deliveroo. Here we have to go and get the carry out (take away) or have lots of home cooked hearty meals with an Asian twist. 

Transport 

At the age of 10/11 she began getting the bus back from her Sunday art class to school (home). The bus 136 would stop close to her art class, and Edward her teacher and our friend would cross the road with her and then she would get on the direct bus. That same bus would also take her from home direct to the Suzhou Centre, the Mecca of shopping in Suzhou and therefore where she would meet her friends. The bus and metro system is efficient, clean, cheap, safe. Eleanor had a lot of independence because of it. 

For Martin and I sometimes we would Didi (Chinese Uber) to the metro and then sit on the metro to wherever. If we couldn’t bus and/or metro, the didi was sometimes an even cheaper option than getting a taxi – which is inexpensive in any event. Now though… well my parents do live on a bus route… but there is no handy sign of telling you how many stops the bus is away from you and I have no clue as to how much it would be. What we will do though, is get the train to Belfast – at £6.40. Cheaper than parking I think. The freedom that Eleanor had in getting herself to places has gone. I now am the taxi, thanks to my Dad for putting me on his car insurance! And of course now that I am back to being behind the wheel – one of us will need to be the designated driver if we go out for a meal. That for me might the shock! 

I have just downloaded Uber and found “no cars available”. This is, of course, no shock to me, I probably would have been more shocked if there had been a car available to be honest.

School

In Suzhou, Eleanor started school in Year 1 and was quickly told by her teacher that she was one of twenty and needed to wait to get the teacher’s attention. These were still small classes compared to a state primary school in the UK, but in the UK, she attended the school Martin taught at, where in reception she had been one of eight. The joys of social media is that she has “found” some people who go to the school living locally – they told her last night that the class size is 28 – bigger that was she is used to, but still not large by some school’s standards. 

We have been fortunate to get her into a school as a guest student for 6 months to experience a different style of schooling. Eleanor is in a school that is very familiar to me… as I was a student there too.

Money

A lack of travel and living in boarding saw us making a concerted effort to save. We are in a very fortunate position to be in and it has meant that I can take 7 months off, enjoy ourselves and not have to worry. But, I do have issues 1) where is my wallet? 2) what is my PIN number? 3) Where do I put my wallet? 4) Do they take cards? 5) Is there a minimum spend? and add onto that where are the car keys and where have I parked the car? 6) Is is ok if I give you £2 (Eleanor to the chemist paying for something that was £1.50), 7) what does a 50p look like?

For the last few years I have left the house with only my school lanyard and phone. Living in boarding, we never locked the door and access onto campus was with the lanyard. Paying for everything was either through WeChat or AliPay, I didn’t even use a handbag on an regular occasion opting to put it all into a cloth bag if I was going food shopping. Now I need to think about ApplePay, though do all shops use ApplePay? could I get away with just my phone and car keys? 

What I will try not to do, which is something we rarely did in China, was convert the price of something back into the currency we are most familiar with. So in UK, I won’t be converting into RMB, and while we lived in China I wasn’t converting into GBP. (I do for the purpose of the blog to give people an idea of prices). I feel that when you live somewhere, there is no point in converting it. The price is what it is, if you want/need it you will buy it. Only sometimes do I convert and when I do, it is to give me a reality check – and usually it is for items that aren’t essential. 

Eleanor has no working knowledge of pounds and pence. What the coins look like or anything. China was 2 coins 1 RMB divided into 10s. but… when was the last time we held physical cash? um… pre pandemic at the latest. When we were packing up, we found 2500RMB in cash. Neither of us know when or where it came from. 

Shopping

“Sorry love, the queue is that way”. I had inadvertently cut the queue. 

“Oh sorry love, you have to buy that wee envelope at the other counter”. I had tried to buy an envelope at the post office counter in the local corner shop. 

“Sorry, you can’t scan and pay for your shopping here. You need to scan and pay over there.” I was trying to pay for my shopping at a place where you should have scanned your shopping as you were putting it into the trolley.

“Please pay for that at the self-check out” – call me old fashioned but at Boots I had queued to pay with an actual person.

Milk, wrapping paper, birthday card and jam. That should have been a quick trip to Tescos or some such other establishment, but for me, on a Saturday night in December in an almost empty Tescos I mooched. I browsed, I put in some other things into a trolley that were far from essential, I wandered up and down aisles taking a mental note of where to find things for future reference and I took too much joy in a supermarket trip. I wasn’t doing this on a WeChat mini programme, trying to find the vegetables I want by translating it first then copying it into the programme, I wasn’t then tracking my delivery man to one of the gates I was actually in a shop where no one wanted to check my temperature or look at my green code. But I was then faced by a charity worker holding a bucket for spare cash, I had forgotten about that. I looked guiltily away from the man so that I wouldn’t make eye contact. I didn’t make a donation, I didn’t have any cash. 

It was my second mooch round a supermarket on Saturday. The first supermarket visited on Saturday afternoon was a joyous occasion. It was The Asia Supermarket, 40 Ormeau Embankment. All things Asian, from Eleanor’s preferred Iced Tea brand, pocky, matcha latte powder and tapioca pearls, there were gasps of delight in every aisle. It isn’t local to us at all, but it will be a supermarket that we will visit often. And hearing a broad Belfast accent from a Chinese person when you have been in the country for 4 days is something that will make you smile and question it all at the same time! And I guess it might be a bit like when we talk Chinese in China, almost always, the Chinese person will stop and stare. 

Listening 

We have lived in a bubble for 9 years. With relative confidence we have had conversations that few people will have understood. But likewise, when going about our daily business we have been unaware of everything because we couldn’t listen in and understand conversations. Now, our aural bubble has burst, we can (well I can) listen to people speaking all around us and understand it. Eleanor has yet to get her ear acclimatised to the Norn Irish brogue, but we now need to be careful in our comments about our environment!

No Masks

That shock happened the moment we stepped into Qatar airport. We were immediately surrounded by more people than we had been surrounded by in years and not everyone was wearing a mask. We have just been to our first concert in the SSE Arena in Belfast with 11,000ish in attendance. But we took it in our stride and went maskless. Side note – you can take the girl out of boarding/teaching, but you can’t take the boarding/teaching out of the girl – there were at least two people vaping that we could see/smell – and all I wanted to do was go and confiscate the vapes! 

We haven’t yet been in Northern Ireland for a week, but we have packed a lot in. Yesterday I started the everyday mundane life…

Laundry

This is undoubtedly a #FirstWorldProblem. Our ayi (Chinese for aunt) has been with us since February 2015. 3 times a week washing, ironing, cleaning and tidying and generally keeping our family together and taking care of the mundane things so that we didn’t have to. During the campus lockdowns when Wenwen couldn’t come onto campus, we really missed her. She watched Eleanor grow up, and indeed grow taller. Wenwen really was one of our family.

I am quite capable of ironing, washing and tidying and when we came to China when I wasn’t working – that is exactly what I did, and it is what I will do again. But I have already shrunk some of our clothing…

There will be more shocks, of that I am certain. The biggest one came this morning as I paid for a 3 figure (nearly 4 figures) dental bill to repair a temporary fix that happened during the last lockdown in school.

Right now, we are the new sensation to folks at home, but in a couple of weeks or even days, we won’t be new anymore and everyone will go back to normal expecting us to fit in. This will be harder for Eleanor, but hopefully with routine, school and activities that we have planned, it will be a smooth transition. Her sentiment of everyone looking like her, but not being like her will play on her mind, but we are treating this as an experience to be savoured. 

This image as well as others was bought in July from Ian McIlroy. I bought many images when I was pining for home in July. I had this image up by our front door in Alleyn House so that I saw it every day.
Whitehead, sitting on the coast is famed for having no streets… the punchline to that is that all the “streets” are called Roads, Avenues, Parks, Crescents, Mews, Drives, Gardens, Closes, Lanes, Parades, Places, Rises and Ways.

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