12. Our New Address

Let me backtrack just a little bit now so you understand the significance of what comes next in the story. While I was still in New York with the kids, about a month before we boarded the plane, my wife had managed to rent a house for us in Shanghai. She sent pictures and it seemed to be okay. The pictures even showed blue skies. For China that was really something extraordinary.

Our new home in China. It even came with a blue sky.

I had taken many trips to China since my initial visit to Changsha, but I couldn’t recall ever having seen an even faintly blue sky. As the economy had grown in recent decades, pollution had also increased on a similar scale. The country had been undergoing an industrial revolution and there was a price to be paid for the progress. I was very concerned about exposing my kids to such a polluted environment. The blue skies were a good sign; perhaps life would be better in the new China and we’d be able to live away from the contaminated output of the factories.

I was still far from being sold, though. I couldn’t put it into words at the time but I didn’t quite see this as the next stop on my, until now, slightly upward trajectory in life. It looked okay in the photos but without seeing it in person, it was hard to tell if this would be an acceptable place to live. Then she told me the address of the compound it was in:

 One Long Dong Avenue

My fears and misgivings vanished in an instant. It was going to be okay. I was sure that I would soon play host to a steady stream of visitors – old friends, colleagues, and relatives would all want to visit Shanghai and experience this address first hand. There was simply nothing like it anywhere in the world.  The best competition would have been Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire, England, but that had been renamed to Archer’s Way over a decade ago for some unknown reason.

The opportunities for eighth grade humor would be practically limitless. If I could just get past the spam filters, this could be the beginning of a truly great string of emails. Perhaps it would even go viral.

I could tell the world that we had also considered houses on Short Dong Avenue and Small Nuts Drive, but for reasons of stature and accuracy we chose the Long Dong property instead. And we wouldn’t be moving to just anywhere on Long Dong Avenue. We would be at Number One, a number the Chinese hold in the highest esteem.

Even though “Long Dong” innocently means “East Dragon” in Chinese, the average Westerner would react similarly to the way Bill from the moving company did.

We were sitting in the dining room on Long Island filling out paperwork when he asked me if I had a destination address in China that he’d be able to understand. I told him that not only would he be able understand it, but that he’d be amused by it. Bill was a real New Yorker.  He was from Queens and it seemed that this was the best thing that had happened to him in a long time. For the rest of the day, every time he was on his cell phone, no matter who he was talking to, he would announce amid howls of laughter, “You’ll never guess where this guy is moving to….. Long Dong Avenue….. That’s right…. Long… Dong…. Avenue. It’s an actual address in China. Can you believe it?” And then he’d say something like, “Well, we don’t exactly know what happened to your container, but I’ll call you back if the truck shows up.”

As the plane touched down 15 hours later at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, I was optimistic. I was psyched about my new address, and even though the skies were just as gray and murky as they were on my earlier visits to China, I wasn’t going to let that spoil my enthusiasm.  It had been a hard slog getting prepared for the big move and now that we were finally here, I was ready to settle in to our new home.  We pulled into the Long Dong complex and drove up to the house. It looked nice, just as it did in the pictures.

As I got out of the car, though, I found myself standing next to an enormous problem.  Not more than 30 yards from the side of the house was a 200-foot tall electrical transmission tower, the biggest one I had ever seen. Maybe this is what they meant by “Long Dong” in the address. Impressive as it was on some level, it was certainly not the type of Long Dong I wanted my family associated with. It was disgraceful.

The view from One Long Dong Avenue. This is worse than New Jersey.

“You’ve got to be kidding! How could you not mention this?” I said to Ming, somewhat bewildered.

“Oh that?  What’s wrong with that?” she replied.

“What’s wrong with it?  It’s the ugliest thing I’ve seen since that wedding in Bayonne, New Jersey!”

“Don’t get so excited, it’s not such a big deal,” she said.

I realized that I had raised my voice. Perhaps subconsciously I was trying to ensure that I could be heard above the hum of the transmission lines.

“You sent me all these nice pictures of the place, but none of them included this! In New York, we had a view of the harbor. And not only is this ugly, it’s probably dangerous too! What if it falls on the house? What if the kids try to climb it? What about electromagnetic radiation?”

Now I didn’t know for sure if any of these things posed a real hazard.  Maybe it’s perfectly fine to live next to high voltage transmission lines.  But I had young kids and I didn’t want to take chances.

So that was that.  My mind was made up even before I entered the house.  My dreams of living on what is perhaps the single greatest phallic symbol road on the planet were ruined. Trashed. Done for. The best I’d be able to do for visitors would be to take them for a drive through this neighborhood. Perhaps a few would still come.

We entered the house and I found that the furniture – we were renting the house furnished – consisted of over-sized sofas, a fake gold leaf table, and an overly elaborate chandelier.  In China this is known as the Ornate European style. To me, and especially given my sour state-of-mind, it was just gaudy crap.  It was a mishmash of cheap odds and ends thrown together with no rhyme or reason. I expressed my distaste for the decor without mincing words. Ming took this as an indication that I was having a tantrum. I told her that I most certainly was not.  Then I stomped around the house for 20 minutes to prove my point.

When I was done and had calmed myself down, we decided that it would be a good idea to find a different place to live immediately.  We had six weeks before our container on the boat from New York would arrive.

 

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11. Packing Up and Moving to China

Sixteen years later, in the fall of 2009, I found myself living in Shanghai.  This struck me as somewhat odd since despite returning many times since my initial visit, I still felt that the best thing about the country was seeing it grow smaller through an airplane window.

Granted, a lot had happened in those passing years. In fact, with the relentless advance of technology, the world had changed more during that time than in any other with the exception of the Big Bang and the 16 years following it. I was a different person too. I had matured (a little), had married a woman I met in business school, and was now the father of two wonderful children. And China had also changed drastically.  Some urban pockets had emerged from the backwater shithole I first knew.  Five star hotels and modern skylines had sprung up in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and the mushrooming economy was attracting ambitious people from all over the world.

Western companies were flocking to the country to jump on the bandwagon.  There were many excellent reasons for moving to China at this point in history, and as much as I would like to claim one of them as my own motivation, my reason had been much simpler. It consisted largely of me having my head up my ass.

I had been watching television on a quiet Sunday afternoon when Ming, my lovely, elegant, refined, graceful, and all-around fantastic wife, entered the room and began her subtle ploy:

“Honey, can we move to China if I get a job there?”

“Oh that’s good, honey,” I mumbled as I switched to Swedish Kneading / Leg Compression, not knowing that it would change my life.

Following a golf ball as it flew over the fairway, I leaned forward in my chair and muttered, “Umm, hmm” as if she had reminded me to put a coaster under my glass of Blue Moon.

Oddly, she took this to mean, “Yes, I would be happy to move to China.” But what I clearly meant was, “That’s not happening, so please stop asking me distracting questions while I’m watching golf.” I really thought it was more of a hypothetical question anyway, along the lines of “If there was a Disneyland on Mars, and a spaceship leaving from JFK, could we go for a vacation?” I watched contentedly as Tiger made his birdie, unaware that my life was about to be irrevocably altered. (Woods, unable to keep his putter in his golf bag, was equally unaware of the coming change to his life.)

A month later, as I was sitting in the massage chair with it set to Swedish Kneading / Leg Compression, Ming said, “They offered me the job.”

“Oh, that’s good, honey” I mumbled.  “Which job was that again?”

“You know, the real estate one.”

“Real estate?”

“Yeah, you know, the one in Shanghai.”

I tried to leap out of the chair, but the leg compressor only allowed me to hurt myself.

“China!” I said, “You’re not serious about that one?”

“Well, I am, and it’s a really great opportunity.  It’s the CFO position.”

“But doesn’t that mean we have to move to China?”

 “Yes, but you said we could.”

“But I didn’t really think you’d get that job or that you even really wanted it.”

“So you were lying when you said we could move to China?”

 “Yes, of course, but only because I was trying to be supportive.”

 And that was basically it.

I wanted to protest, but I was in a poor position.  Ming was from China, and when we got married, I had said that maybe one day we could live there.  Life had settled down nicely though, and I came to think that it would either never happen, or happen only in the very distant future.  And, of course, I had agreed that day while watching golf – she had me there.  Worst of all, it really was a great career opportunity and she had to give them an answer immediately.  China was booming and it was now or never.

She signed the documents a few days later, and a week after that she packed a few suitcases, kissed me and the kids goodbye, and moved to Shanghai. I was expected to follow as soon as possible with our two young children and almost everything we owned. While this was an enriching, once in a lifetime experience that many families would jump at, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d be happier stuck in my relaxed suburban life. I suddenly realized how good I had had it.  I had a short commute to a comfortable job, went sailing and played golf on weekends, owned a beautiful home that was walking distance to a private beach, lived close to my extended family, and all this while my wife stayed home with the kids. Until that moment I had grown complacent with it, but now it was obvious that it had been an idyllic life. It was too late now. Until this point, golf had only screwed me while I was playing it. I was going to be living in the country that I had once vowed never to set foot in again.

With Ming already living 12 time zones away and flying around in private jets, I was left to sort out the mess at home.  So I put our house up for rent, listed our cars for sale, made arrangements with a moving company, and juggled the kids with nannies and grandparents while I kept working full time. My daughter was starting kindergarten and my son was starting pre-school. I was going to have to yank them out, get them enrolled in a good Chinese school for international kids (if there was one) and find a job for myself in China.

On a lark, I went into my boss’s office one morning and told him what had transpired:

“Listen Ted, I’ve got a problem.”

 “If this is about the porn blocker, you have to talk to IT.”

 “No, that’s not it.  I have to move to China.”

 “I understand, but I won’t help you move,” he said.

“Well I wasn’t going to ask you that, it’s just that I was wondering, is there any way I could continue working for the company in China?”

He paused for a moment.  I almost hoped that he would suddenly burst out in uncontrollable laughter, and between gasps inform me that my skills weren’t relevant in China; that I had no choice but to take an extended vacation and bone up on my drinking skills. But there was no laughter.

“You know, we’re expanding in China, and I think we actually could use you there.  Let me run it up the flagpole.”

A few days later, the answer came back.  They would put me in charge of Greater China.  This should have been great news, but it was all happening too fast.

Like many before me, I couldn’t help feeling that I had somehow been Shanghaied. 

A month later the kids and I were sitting on the runway, waiting for takeoff.  I had somehow pulled it off – the house was closed up, the cars were sold, the furniture was on a boat to China, and the kids were enrolled in an international school that had a great reputation. Things were starting to come together.  The kids were excited about the move, but that mostly was because they were looking forward to seeing mommy again.

“Daddy, how long does it take to get to China?” my daughter asked.

“15 hours.”

“Is that longer than a month?” my son asked.

“Not quite, but it’s enough for you to get a full night’s sleep.”

“I’m not going to sleep at all!” my daughter boasted.

“I’m going to stay up too!”

Seeing their exuberance I started to feel a ray of hope. I had recently reflected to a colleague that in the past year my most exciting trip had been to an insurance industry event in Dayton, Ohio.  I believe this had been a cry for help. Maybe that’s why I zoned out while my wife asked if I minded turning our world upside-down. On some level this was what I wanted – to get back out into the less familiar but challenging world I had traveled so often in my younger days. After all, how high on the bucket list does being comfortable rank?

I was heading off for a new adventure and I would just have to work things out for the best. It had been a long time since I had decided I didn’t like China. Perhaps I was just hanging on to an outdated notion of what life there could be.  And though it was hard to admit to myself, I probably would have felt differently if it had been me who had initiated the move. Had that been the case, in all likelihood I would have been telling everyone that I always envisioned myself living in China, that it was the future economic center of the world, and that I loved the food.

The plane hurtled down the runway and we were off. I decided then and there that I was going to give it my best shot, if for no other reason than to show my kids that I wasn’t the type of person to let adversity defeat me. They needed someone to look up to in this new and distant world, and I was going to be the best father I could be. I’d be a beacon of dignity, honor and self-respect during these tumultuous times.  Yes, I would give it everything I had! I was going to set an example by loving the country!

And if that didn’t work after a little while, I was going to mope around and teach them that even the bitterly disillusioned can make good fathers. Either way, we were all in for the ride of our lives.

About an hour after takeoff, the kids fell fast asleep and slept most of the way to Shanghai.  I stayed awake the entire flight, trying to escape the feeling that like so many before me, I had somehow been Shanghaied.