I’m not going to write two reviews for every book I read. But I happen to have read two very intriguing books in a row. (Although this afternoon I kicked through a nice, light murder mystery. It was fun but I’m not going to double review it.)
Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing is writer Alan Paul’s story of moving his family to Beijing and living there for 3 ½ years. His wife was offered the position of chief of the China bureau for the Wall Street Journal, and they both felt it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Naturally this book appealed to me. When my kids were still preschool age (ok, technically Elliot was in Kindergarten), we moved them to North Africa. I could relate to so much of the expat experience as he described it, including the driving (and how it’s kind of fun, in its own death-defying way) and his 3 blonde children being petted and admired and photographed everywhere they went. Paul and his wife, Becky, approached their time in China rather as Donn and I did our overseas time; they wanted to embrace it to the full, learn language (uh, we were only semi-successful at best at this although in our defense we did teach English, which insulated us somewhat), travel the country, escape the expat bubble and really immerse themselves into local culture as much as was feasible.
One big difference was that his wife had a job with an international company and an expense account, so their Expat Land (his term for it. Love it!) was different than ours. We worked for a small humanitarian company that paid the same no matter what rent we paid or where we put our kids in school. His expat experiences were more in the English-speaking world, putting his kids in a British school and going to their baseball games. Our expat experiences were more mixed; we had friends who spoke French and Arabic but no English (well, everyone speaks at least a little English…), and we didn’t get invites to embassy parties. Still, like him, we spanned at least two worlds; our English-speaking friends were Scandinavian and Turkish and Korean and American and British, our local friends might have had roots in Sudan or Libya or a small mountainous village in Morocco.
The title of the book refers to Paul’s band, and the heart of the memoir really is him finding his wings as a musician. Although he was sort of a musician and sort of a writer (and more successful at both than I am, for example, although he felt his career was “meandering” before they went overseas), it wasn’t until he left his own culture that he found the opportunity to really succeed at both. Some of this was no doubt the freedom one has to reinvent oneself when one arrives in a new place, and some of it was the opportunities that arrive when you are one of a few (native English speakers, for example, or expats who have experienced a particular culture). Regardless, while I enjoyed that aspect of the book, the parts I really enjoyed were the parts I could most relate to. They came home for the summer and everything was familiar and strange at the same time. They went back to China and everything was dustier than they’d remembered. They wanted to stay; they wanted to leave. Their friends were constantly moving on.
They experienced things that were magical, incredible—some of their trips to the interior, for example. Their kids will have great memories. (I don’t know why we always say that. It’s true my kids have great memories of growing up in Africa, but I do too, and my memories are better…that is to say, more accurate.) And Paul’s band, composed of him, one other American, and 3 Chinese musicians, gave him an in to the culture that was unique.
It was a fun book and brought to mind the question I’ve been asked countless times: why did you move overseas? There are many answers to that question, but I would agree with Alan and Becky Paul’s reason: it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It broadened our vision exceedingly; it changed our lives in countless ways; in some ways, it defines us.
Read my actual review of Big in China here.