Real Life

REAL LIFE: What this Sydney family learned from two-and-a-half years living in China

Nicole Webb, 49, from Annandale, NSW, shares her exciting story.

By Brittany Smith
My muscles strained under the weight of my daughter, Ava, three, as she hiked her legs up over my shoulders.
"Careful, please!" I said.
Finally in a good position, she aimed herself over the squat toilet in the bathroom.
Once she was done, I sighed in relief.
One battle down, a million to go.
We'd just arrived in Xi'an, China, to meet up with my husband, James, who'd landed a job as a hotel manager.
We'd spent the past four years living in Hong Kong, after I left my job as a journalist in Sydney, at 38.
Before moving to China, I was a newsreader. (Image: supplied)
Despite how close the two cities were to each other geographically, they were a world apart when it came to daily life.
Home to 12 million people, I felt like a drop in the ocean as we zipped through the crowded Chinese streets.
Next day, James was busy with work, so Ava and I were left to our own devices to explore our new home.
Determined to start off on the right foot, I got Ava dressed then braved the throngs outside.
As soon as we left the hotel, hordes of people flocked to our side.
My heart raced as people surrounded us, touching Ava's long, strawberry-blonde hair.
With fair skin, blue eyes, and light locks, she stood out like a sore thumb.
"Piàoliang!" a few people gasped.
Since it had only been a few whirlwind weeks since we'd decided to move, I barely knew any Mandarin, so I whipped out my phone and looked up the translation.
Beautiful, it read.
The attention had been overwhelming but they'd all meant well.
Ava's blonde hair stood out. (Image: supplied)
Walking around, I was struck by how lovely the city was.
It looked like a quintessential Chinese town, filled with traditional architecture and red lanterns lining the cobblestone streets.
Every second felt like an assault on my senses, from the intense humidity to the constant ringing of car horns and the unique smell of herbs, noodles and cigarette smoke.
But with such a beautiful area right by our doorstep, I started to feel hopeful for the future.
Once Ava was four, we enrolled her in an international school.
Suddenly, I spent hours alone each day and although my Mandarin had improved, it was hard to have a deep conversation with anyone.
Loneliness and insecurities got the better of me, but James was supportive.
"You know how strong you are," he reminded me.
Emboldened, I started chatting to other mums during the school run and before long had made a few friends from all over the world.
Aussie expat Nicole, American-Irish Kirsten, Danish-Australian Heidi and Chinese Chao embraced me and we soon became close.
Gabbing away with the girls, I felt like a weight had been lifted.
Finally, I had a place where I belonged and the weekly ritual became a small piece of normalcy in my chaotic life.
Sometimes we swapped the coffee for champers but no matter what we did, we had a ball.
James, Ava and I exploring together. (Image: supplied)
As time passed, James was invited on works trips and we had the chance to explore China together as a family.
We tried karaoke, pushing through our embarrassment to sing loudly all night long, spent time in the mountains where each small town felt like a magical, ancient village, and tried baiju – a shockingly potent alcoholic drink.
Wherever we went, the locals embraced us.
People were still fascinated by Ava's hair, as well as my own, but it didn't alarm me like it used to.
The more I talked to locals about everything from communism to dumplings, motherhood to dynasties, the more I realised we weren't that different after all.
Deep down, we all shared the same humanity and the basic desire to be loved.
After two-and-a-half years, James, Ava and I returned home to Sydney.
Ava and her friend on Lunar New Year. (Image: supplied)
Our last days were a blur of tearful hugs with all the friends we'd made and wistful glances at our favourite sights.
Although we were glad to be home, I couldn't get China off my mind.
As a journalist, I wanted to share all the interesting conversations I'd had and the lessons I'd learnt.
I started writing a memoir about my experiences and, four years later, China Blonde was published.
I wanted to tell our story. (Image: supplied)
The feedback I've gotten has been so sweet.
I felt like I was on the journey with you, one woman wrote.
Most people say China is the kind of country you can lose yourself in.
But deep down, I think I found myself.

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