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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.