Our second Expat tale is about a brave family who spent a year in China. At age 40, Greg and Heidi Rhodes kept a rash promise to each other made 17 years earlier, when the naive, mortgage-free expats swore to return to China with their own children. Arriving back in the Middle Kingdom in 2005, they were surprised to find their former home city, Chengdu, unrecognizable. Familiar landmarks and expectations had been swept away by China’s rushing tide of progress, replaced by glass skyscrapers, McDonald’s restaurants, and a frenetic scramble to get ahead.
Armed with a scant few remembered phrases of Chinese, two unsuspecting offspring, and (sometimes) healthy curiosity, the Rhodes set about learning to navigate their city, and their family, on brand-new terms. You can read all about their adventure in Greg’s book, Expat in China: A Family Adventure.
Now a few words from Greg!
“It was delightful to watch our 13 and 10 year children operate flawlessly, beer drinking and all. We were eating Chengdu hot pot, and they didn’t fuss over the trays of pig brains or pans of eels at the huge buffet line where we chose which morsels to cook. Both Nikki and Tommy were good humored and gracious to our hosts, our drunk friends, to each other, and even to their parents. We attended the party for over two hours, pounded by the noise and washed by the damp, spicy heat, nibbling, conversing, sweating and toasting. The kids never flinched.
When we’d been planning for our year away, we expected our children to have interesting experiences and enter into Chinese life. The hot pot dinner certainly met that standard, as did many other encounters we had – with the Muslim family who ran our favorite noodle stand, with the Buddhist monk who traded blows with Tommy using inflatable bats (on Christmas Eve no less), and with a group of Chinese university professors who included us in their family activities throughout the year. We had only to leave our apartment to find adventure and interest. Our kids learned that the whole world does not look like their American suburb – and learned to appreciate both their lives and the fact that others are different.
If the big picture of moving to China was about seeing a broader world, the small picture was about being a family. American life is busy, with both parents and kids going many directions. As parents we wanted to downshift, to enjoy our kids and hope they’d enjoy us. China allowed that. While our Chinese friends worked themselves ragged, Heidi taught 11 ½ hours each week and I taught 7, for 26 weeks of the year. It was almost criminal how little we worked. Our kids studied for three hours each morning, sprawled across our sofa, for the same 26 weeks or so. The rest of the time was ours, and we spent much of it actually interacting, walking or biking around town, reading the Harry Potter series aloud together, folding paper airplanes, or laughing at dad’s terrible Chinese pronunciation. We ate virtually every meal together, breakfast, lunch and dinner, for the entire year.
It wasn’t always easy, but this is true for the best things in life. Our 10 year old son struggled most, missing home more than the rest of us. However, any struggles were worth the outcome, and Tommy would positively acknowledge that today. He’s become a confident, self-possessed 17 year old, and China played a big part in that.
As I write this, our daughter Nikki is just over a week from leaving to visit Senegal on her way to a semester of study in Morocco. Our once fiercely inwardly-focused daughter has opened herself to the world, and we watched that happen over our year in China.
China often confounded our expectations, and that was the joy of travel, to be surprised and tested. It also provided far more than we hoped in terms of shaping our kids and supporting our family. We have breezed through the teen years mostly unscathed, and credit a piece of that to China, the year our kids had to rely on themselves, each other, and their parents. To anyone who asks, I say, “Take your family overseas. You won’t regret it!”
Twice Greg Rhodes and his wife, Heidi, have lived as expats in China, once many years ago (1988-1989) and again more recently, in 2005-2006. The first trip was a post-college, pre-career exploit in the still-emerging country, and the second was a family adventure with their two children in the rapidly-modernizing nation. Between trips Greg has worked for others and worked for himself while always wondering where those planes taking off at the airport were going. Greg has a passion for photography and local people when he travels, and his list of places to visit just keeps getting longer.