For the last seven years, as an expat, our housing situation has been anything but “normal”.
For the first four years, we lived on Hong Kong’s sparkling harbour side, high up on the 43rd floor of a sprawling, shiny sky scraper in a tiny shoebox-sized apartment. 43 floors up seems considerably tame when you’re next to the world’s 7th tallest building, pushing 108 floors.
An enormous shopping centre lurked a convenient lift ride away, sprawled out underneath our complex, complete with movie theatre, ice skating rink and the subway; next door, a mammoth construction site heaved with whirring jack hammers, day and night. It was all part of a buzzing, oriental whirlpool, we liked to call home.
After that we brought it down a notch to live on the second floor of hotel residences in the middle of urban China. Bringing it down a notch only in height. We lived above a Rolls Royce showroom and outside the five star (China-style) bubble, we were flanked by shopping centres every which way, street carts full of unidentifiable foods, a 1300 year old Buddhist Pagoda; it’s tiered, concrete exterior the focal point for tourists from right across China, all year ‘round. Not to mention a bevy of unknown people, hanging out on our balcony at any given time, prone to peeking inside our windows for a sticky beak at those foreigners.
Life pretty much hummed along to a backdrop of horns honking day and night and someone could always be heard shouting in mandarin …and let’s not forget the fireworks, erupting day and night! (Is it any wonder I mistook the rumble of the washing machine for fireworks the other day?!)
And here we are now… a world away, down under in Sydney, Australia.
Moving, was always going to be a shock to the system, as expats who’ve lived abroad for almost seven years. We realise adjusting takes time…and while there are days I want to crawl back into my box and be transported to my bubble in China and everything familiar, living in a fully developed country has its upsides!
Everyone can understand me, for starters.
There’s an urban expat myth, that puts seven years abroad as the magic number, after that, apparently, your chances of coming home are limited.
Looks like we made it just in time.
So far we’ve skipped from a hotel room to a temporary air b ’n’ b in inner city suburbia. After a 50 minute hair-raising car ride to school each morning in heart stopping traffic with a non-English speaking driver — walking the leafy, tree-lined street to school in seven minutes flat is an unfamiliar but pleasant concept. I’ll take the smell of grass clippings and Frangipani’s over that incinerator smell of pollution any day.
Everyone curiously asks why we chose to live in the particular suburb we’re in (not quite as much as we were asked why on earth we chose to live in the middle of China, I might add).
Trying to decide where your future will be from afar is not easy and is a little bit like ‘eeny, meeny, miny, mo!” One friend has researched an entire town on the net, found the perfect street, with the best schools and even stalked out the neighbourhood on Facebook. (Just as long as you can see wine in the background at that neighbourhood shindig, I caution her!)
For us, at this stage of the game it’s all about convenience. When one of you is starting a brand new job, and travelling and another is starting a brand new school and you’re trying to set up a new life in what is largely an unknown environment, you want to make it as easy as possible.
We made a deliberate choice not to return to where we used to live a decade ago. As much as I loved my old life and the suburb will always have a piece of my heart, it’s hard to go back (oh and did I mention, ridiculously expensive).
As well as asking where we’re living and why, people want to know if we miss China.
There’s no easy answer to that but yes..and no will do.
The thing we miss most about China and probably expat life (apart from our dear friends) is the adrenalin of being on a permanent adventure. I find myself awkwardly trying to explain how even a simple trip to the supermarket is an experience to be believed.
As an expat coming home, that sense of adventure still needs feeding, so somewhere new and unexplored to set up home, is appealing.
Psychologists say, “people who go on multiple assignments tend to develop a global identity. They learn fairly quickly how to adjust in each place. And each new country will offer unique thrills and challenges.”
Did I mention the challenges of house hunting in the world’s second most unaffordable city?
For the past seven Saturdays, we’ve been up and at ‘em with a list of potential homes to start this new chapter in.
Coffee in hand, we’ve covered every nook and cranny…the sat nav purring relentlessly, “At the roundabout take the second exit….” “Your destination is on the left!” (If you see a car driving erratically, that may be us China-dwellers).
Pulling up at the ‘house of the moment’, we’ve gone from asking ourselves: Is she pretty? Does she have character? Where’s the walk in wardrobe? How big is the garage? to “Forget about the grass, is this small patch of concrete ok? Do we really need parking? Perhaps this bedsit will do!”
Never mind about the gazillion planes flying overhead, right? Like they said in the famous movie, Castle, it’s all about “Location, location, location.”
In a city where the market property is so hot, it will literally melt your pockets, the competition is stiff!
Come rain (the absolutely bucketing down kind) hail or shine (42 degrees worth) potential buyers have lined up in their droves, outside every. single. house. we’ve viewed.
The ubiquitous real estate agent stands at the gate, her smile unwavering as everybody’s name and number is recorded as though it’s some sort of lucky draw. But we all know, it’s more like Russian Roulette.
Once inside said house, the air is palpable. There’s barely a smile cracked among scrutinising viewers. Instead, there are sly, sideways glances, each potential buyer covertly checking out the competition, ears pricked…necks craning, trying to garner any tidbit of information on the seriousness of their competitors’ intentions.
With your game face firmly on, no one makes eye contact, as you squeeze quietly past one another…in and out of bathrooms and down skinny hallways. Couples retreat to all corners of the property talking in hushed tones. No one dares give away their game plan. And lurking behind to butter up the agent is always a sneaky tactic.
Others tap urgently on the walls, as if they’re hoping to find a magic doorway that leads to hidden treasure.
Some even turn the lights off in an attempt to make the house look as dingy as possible….. oh wait that was us! Or when you set your heart on a house….stern looks are given, “Excuse me that’s my carpet your standing on with your muddy shoes!”
And if you like a house, I mean really like it, you need to have your sh-t together, because if you can’t go for it there and then — you’re totally out of the game.
During our military style house hunt, we sneak into an auction to see how it works, because, of course we’re newbies to this whole world. Small person grabs my skirt, hiding behind it. “What are we doing in this lounge with all these people mum? And why is he shouting??” Good question my love, there’s a lot to shout about.
We find the house for us in the nick of time. Time being of the essence, we see it twice for all of five minutes, before we’re pressed to make the decision of a lifetime. It’s quite fair to say, we spent more time looking at the car we just bought!
Once our offer is made, we’re launched into the equivalent of the TV programme, The Amazing Race, in a bid to win the game, hotfooting it all over town to meet demands and deadlines.
Then we wait.
Finally we get the call, it’s ours – complete with cat flap and stairs – ultimate priorities for the Small Person.
We’ve crossed the finish line by the skin of our teeth. Current challenge over.
Finding our pocket amongst the madness, has meant compromises. Yet here we are about to move into a townhouse a few kilometres from the city, opposite a hairdressers (yes, ironic) and around the corner from school, a pub and a myriad of cafes.
From a strapping skyscraper in Hong Kong to a 5-star hotel in China ….and now a townhouse in suburban Sydney.
For now, it’s our home.
This is Australia.