Expat Woman in China an interview with Jan Alexander

Author Jan Alexander who wrote about her adventures in “Getting to Lamma” is an American born and bred:

I grew up in the US, and lived in one suburban Chicago neighborhood in until I was 14, but then my parents made two drastic moves, first to Hot Springs, AR, for two years then to Toronto, Canada. I don’t think of myself as a native Chicagoan, however, as my parents were both from the East Coast and family visits to Grandma involved going to Virginia or New York. Actually, since my mother came from the south and I have many family ties there, I feel as if I’m half southern, almost as an ethnic identity. As far as going abroad, I never lived abroad until I was an adult, but the move to Canada during my high school years did open my eyes to a non-U.S. way of thinking.

You described the urge to live in Asia as compelling. Why is that?

I became interested in China and Hong Kong before going to live there, and I had visited a number of friends who worked there in journalism and business consulting. I went back to school and earned a masters in Asian studies, so I learned quite a bit about the culture. While working on my degree I spent a summer in Shanghai studying Mandarin.

I went on my own: the move abroad was a career and life enhancing move, and I was pretty much free to stay as long as I wanted to be there. I had quit a job at a magazine to go to school, but once I was settled in Hong Kong I found that freelance writing assignments were plentiful.

Did you learn the language? How proficient did you become?

I’m not fluent in the language, but I spoke enough Mandarin to get by traveling in China. What was a handicap was living in Hong Kong and not speaking Cantonese. I picked up some words but always felt I was missing something; however, it’s a very difficult language to learn.

What did you leave behind Stateside?

A Manhattan apartment I didn’t want to give up because I would never again find something this large for the price, so I sublet it complete with furniture and two cats. At times it was a problem dealing with subletters from abroad.

Any moments of doubt?

By the time I finished school and arrived in Hong Kong, most of the people I’d known there had moved on, but I arrived with a long list of friends of friends to call.

I don’t know if I’d call it culture shock, but when I got off the plane I had a terrible cold; I had just met (and left behind) not one but two groovy guys in New York; I had spent several weeks getting together with good friends at home to say goodbye. And that’s when I thought what AM I doing here?

I didn’t have a place to live yet, and for four days I sat in a tiny room in a firetrap guesthouse above a karaoke amidst the tenements of Causeway Bay, sneezing and coughing and jetlagged. Yet at those worst moments I couldn’t wait for the adventure to begin – I even had a sense that for every moment of discomfort the future would hold an equal and opposite reaction.

Did you ever feel “at home” in Asia?

Living in Hong Kong was an adventure for me, but like most expatriates there, I felt that I would always be an alien.

What did I miss most? My close circle of women friends, until I developed a sort of parallel circle of friends in Hong Kong. That and good bread.

I found it easy to make friends among the community of expats, especially fellow journalists. Hong Kong is a transient community, and people are used to newcomers. However, getting close to Hong Kong Chinese people was harder. I made friends with some, especially once I got a job at a newspaper, where we all worked together and therefore had something in common.

What did I NOT miss? Cold winters, and the lack of awareness and even curiosity that so many Americans display when it comes to the outside world. I had some really harrowing adventures in the wilds of China, and now that I’m back home I judge my compatibility with people by whether they’re interested in hearing an adventure story. (Just one story is all I ask.)

Would you do it all again?

Absolutely, would do it again in a heartbeat. The last time I was in Hong Kong was in 2000 and it had changed.

I’d rather be living close to where the action is now – ie. the Middle East. However, my husband, who was born into the cosmopolitan French-speaking community that existed in Egypt until Nasser came to power, and whose family went into exile in Paris prior to coming to the U.S. when he was a teenager, has had his fill of harrowing exotic adventures. He doesn’t want to go back there to live, and is concerned that I would be unsafe there. (I look like an American, no question.)

Is there a specific incident that stands out in your mind? One thing that really hit you over the head as being so different from everything you’d ever known before?

Well, the many festivals in Hong Kong that took place right on the street where I lived. Paper money being burned everywhere for Mid-Autumn Festival, Buddhist altars everywhere, with joss sticks lit and offerings placed fresh every morning.

And from time to time in southern China, seeing a butcher shop with nice fresh dogs hanging on meat hooks.

I was always bothered by the close proximity to carnivorous cuisine. The ordinary butcher shops in Hong Kong are pretty scary. When winter is approaching you pass Chinese medicine shops with live snakes for sale; snake soup is said to warm your blood in the winter. Even the fish in tanks outside the many seafood restaurants looked as if they knew they were about to be stir-fried – in Hong Kong I learned that fish have emotions and I hated seeing them look so depressed.

Was your re-entry to the U.S. strange in any way? Did you feel different? Did you notice things you never really “saw” before?

Sure. I went to a gourmet market in my neighborhood and thought I was in Disneyland – the abundance of so many different kinds of lettuce alone overwhelmed me.

After three years in Hong Kong, I thought New York seemed tranquil compared to the cities in Asia, sort of muffled compared to the noise in Asia, sort of falsely glossy compared to the rawness of Asia.

Do you feel more rounded as a person now that you’ve lived in a different culture? Are you more attuned to what’s going on internationally? How?

Yes, definitely, I feel more rounded and more attuned to what’s going on internationally. I’d say it’s largely a combination of having studied international affairs and having spent time in foreign countries.

Now that the Middle East is dominating the news, much of my attunement comes from the influence of my husband, who in addition to having been born there is a professor of Middle East history. We have many friends who are from the Middle East as well, and it’s a frequent topic of conversation in our home. However, I think that my experience abroad gave me a foundation for understanding other cultures in general.