After precisely one year of marriage, my internationally raised husband caught the travel and adventure bug. “I found jobs for us in Hong Kong!” he practically yelled. “That’s funny, since we weren’t actually LOOKING for jobs in Hong Kong,” I responded. Husband had been teaching high school for two years and I had been teaching fifth grade for one when he made this announcement. At the exact time all of our friends were buying cute houses with white picket fences, my husband was proposing a move across the ocean. I knew when I agreed to marry him that this was a possibility. If I’m being honest, I sort of hoped he would just forget. He did not.
In August 1998, we moved to a small apartment in Tai Wai Village. We had been hired to teach at the International Christian School. When we deplaned, my in-laws, also living in Hong Kong at the time, picked us up. They were instructed by the school to take us home and not overstimulate us with the new and different sights and sounds of the Chinese city. They decided to ignore that advice and give us the full tour complete with a “wet market” experience where I was forced to dodge dripping chickens fresh and ready for purchase. Our last stop was the local grocery store where I bought the only things I recognized in the entire establishment, a package of Oreos and a liter of Coca Cola. I walked into our moldy apartment, marched straight into the bedroom, dialed my parents on the phone and asked them to fly me home immediately. With all of the love and concern of a father raised in the fifties and sixties, my dad said, “You probably should have checked it out first before you signed on for two years. Get some sleep and settle in. You picked this, I’ll let you talk to mom when you stop crying. And welcome to adulthood!”
The first six months of living overseas were brutal. I became the poster child for American pride. “In the United States…” was my favorite way to start a sentence. Everything in the U.S. was perfect and all the other countries do it wrong. I was basically the best version of myself during this time. As time went on, I began to finally see the beauty in this culture. I fell in love with my new students, enjoyed traveling around Asia, and began to understand my husband more clearly. So many of the personality traits that perplexed me were born here in this land. I was incredibly immature, but I knew enough to understand that I needed to experience this puzzle piece to his life. I learned several other things while living in Hong Kong.
- Frozen hashbrowns cannot be recreated, ever. Let go of the dream.
- Karaoke is more fun in China.
- Chinese “chili sauce” and American “chili sauce” are NOT the same.
- People in the U.S. have too much personal space.
- When the son of your building’s landlady gets married, she will hang a piece of raw meat over the entrance to your apartment for approximately one week. In the heat and humidity, it will begin to smell quickly and you will invent a new game called unlock the door and dodge the dripping rotten meat.
- Your friends become your family and you keep them forever.
- Snow days are replaced by Typhoon days.
- There are bars on the windows, but no screens. So birds will most definitely fly into your living room.
- You might have to kill a cockroach and relocate a gecko in the same night.
- Humidity, and also more humidity.
- Authentic Chinese food is so much better!
- Squatty potties require balance and skill.
- The Chinese culture is beautiful, brilliant, and genuinely interesting.
Six months into our two year posting in Hong Kong, the baby fever took over my brain. I begged husband for a baby. I was not subtle at all. “We are traveling home for the summer,” he said. “So for safety and planning purposes, you can literally only get pregnant during the month of February. If it doesn’t happen then, you’ll have to wait a full year.” Message received! Get pregnant now, there is no other option. Poor husband thought it was virtually impossible to become pregnant the first time you try. So he assumed he was skating through on this one. The joke was on him, though! The hot second I got home from fourth grade camp week, I took a pregnancy test and found out we were expecting. After he got over the shock and accepted that his math and statistics were no match for my uterus, he began preparing with excitement for our new little person.
My firstborn child made his entrance on a beautiful October day inside a private Chinese hospital. He was two weeks early, insanely wrinkled, and angry. He cried off and mostly on for the next eight months. Coincidentally, the cement apartment directly below ours was undergoing a renovation at the exact time my plump, milk filled body returned from the hospital with an irritated screaming newborn. From the hours of 9am to 3pm, there was a constant sound of jackhammers. While husband went to work where he was adored for his brain, I stayed home and listened to jackhammers and crying. One thing that no one told me about was postpartum depression. While it would have definitely been a problem in the United States, surrounded by family and friends, it was exacerbated by my location in a foreign country. My sweet mom-in-law tried desperately to help. She would show up to hold the baby so I could sleep. She made soup from scratch and was known for pulling warm loaves of bread from her purse during church, a random train ride, or in the market. The woman was basically a bread vending machine. But no one could help me at night when the fears would creep in. Trigger alert: The most disturbing manifestation of my anxiety was with knives and scissors in the kitchen. I was positive, even though I had never once heard of this ever happening, that I would sleepwalk into the kitchen, grab a knife, and stab my own child. So my nightly hidden ritual was to gather all of the knives and scissors and hide them in a drawer where I would make too much noise retrieving them to cause any harm. I was also scared of baking my child and throwing my baby over the balcony. Of course I did not even tell my husband about this madness for fear that he would remove our baby from my care. I stayed busy all day, walked all over the city, and tried not to accidentally kill my new baby. By the summer of 2000, we had decided our international adventures were over and packed up to move back to the states. If you had known me during the Y2K debacle, I could have saved you about fourteen hours of stress. While the rest of the world was buying up supplies like canned goods, water, and can openers, we partied like rock stars. At 12:01am in Hong Kong, I called my parents in Illinois and informed them that the world did not explode when the date changed so they were able to go out for the evening and enjoy the celebration.
After a quick stopover in Hawaii where we stayed in the actual house where the movie, “Black Widow” was filmed, we took our jetlagged baby and prepared to transition from Chinese life to American life. Pro tip: If you deliver a bald white baby with blue eyes in China, expect the whole country to be in love with your child. People will pet your baby on the train, ask your baby to be a model, and treat your child like Justin Bieber. When you move to the U.S., and no one even looks at your baby because he isn’t special anymore, you will struggle with the transition.
The most difficult part of this season was having parents on two separate continents. One set was stateside and the other was still in Hong Kong. This was tough for everyone and I am incredibly grateful that after many years, both sets live within an hour of each other. Family has been the biggest gift in our lives. They have supported our dreams, growing family size, and travels, even though it wasn’t always easy for them.