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Maria: Still Times

In our InterNations Recommended Blog section we let you take the spotlight! Expat life in general is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for great, user-generated reads, and life in China makes no exception. Take your time and browse the great blogs showcased in this article!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to China, etc.

Hello, my name is Maria Smyth. I am currently living in China with my husband and two young daughters. We live in a small rural community located west of Shanghai and south of Suzhou. In a village called Luxu, city of Wujiang, state of Suzhou, province of Jiangsu. We have been here since February 1, 2012. We are originally from Pigeon, Michigan, USA, a small farming community located in the thumb of Michigan.

My life is about to take another turn as my youngest daughter starts school February 25th. I’ve decided to pursue my love of photography, amateur that it may be, during my spare time while the girls attend school. I also blog on and have started a small side business of Accessories, what I call treasures, from China.

When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

I started blogging to help those family and friends without a social media outlet stay connected with us. I wanted to share our adventures through photo’s and a journal of sorts. So, I thought blogging would be the best way to stay in touch.

I actually started the blog in April 2012. I put the blog on the back burner so to speak as I got busy with other things. In June 2012, after constantly being asked about China, I decided to dive in and start sharing a bit more. This took some time as I was not prepared and or organized with my photos. However, since then, I have really taken the blog to heart and poured our journey into it.

I have found the more I share, the more I want to continue. There is so much to learn about this rich culture and history. China has taken me by surprise. The more I learn the more I yearn to learn. There is a misconception of what China a communist country is all about. IT IS, what you hear, it is a communist country; however, communism as we know it from textbooks and such, is not the communism in existence today.

Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

I have few blog entries that are near and dear to my heart. They are not my favorite because of the content of the posts but because they are areas or locations I never ever dreamed I would be able to see or personally visit. My absolute favorite is the simple post of Tiananmen Square. I stood in the same general location as the area where the protests of 1989 took place. A protest that resulted in the death of thousands. All in sake of pro-democracy. My second favorite or maybe it’s my first… ha ha... is the post from a small village that I was able to visit. A remote village that does not even show up on Google Earth. Jhu Jiang Wan is a great little area with villagers full of life. They were so welcoming to us. Very willing to share their food, home, & pose for my photos. A glimpse of true China can be seen through the photos. Take a peek and let me know what you think.

Tell us about the ways your new life in China differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

Oh, I think a book can be written about the culture shock alone. A westerner in a strange and foreign country where the language is not understood and quite complex to learn. China is a country that struggles (in my opinion) to keep up with the new but has a hard time letting go of the old.

Life here is very different. One of the greatest differences is that we don’t drive. Yes, we are dependent on public transportation and our great driver Charles. I don’t quite understand the legalities of driving in China; however, I have experienced firsthand in the front passenger seat, what driving is all about. Driving in China is plainly put, “Mad Chaos”. Speed limits, turn signals, the yellow and white lines on the road, all these and more are pretty much just suggestions.

You know all those manners we learned and the ones we teach our young ones at an early age? The ones where we say cover your mouth when you cough, sneeze, saying thank you, please, excuse me, or perhaps no pushing, shoving, or cutting in line. Pretty much, those type of common sense manners go out the window here. We’ve even laughed and told our girls, the bad habits you pick up here, stay here! Ha! You name it, we’ve been through it here. Especially in this community where foreigners were not so common as in Shanghai or Suzhou.

Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in China? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

I’m a firm believer in, “Just Do It”. At times this has nipped me in the rear but at other times it has really helped. I don’t think one can actually be fully prepared to move to a foreign country where the language is the main barrier of ALL. To prepare, it would have been nice to have the basics of Mandarin studied and down pat.

Before moving, I managed to pack every kind of medicine available to families that are over the counter. This was more for the girls’ sake than our sake. Little did I know that most of everything we brought with us could be found in Shanghai or Suzhou. Well most of everything with one great exception. The exception is Tampons. Yes, ladies, believe it or not, Tampons are the hardest thing to find in the metropolis of Shanghai. We can find them now in a small chain called CityShop. If you see them, pick them up, take them all, stock up, trust me unless I’ve missed something we just don’t find them that often.

Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

One thing I really never read in blogs, in Shanghai Daily, or while talking to others is about the restroom situations. I knew the majority of bathrooms were squatty potties, but I had no clue what to expect.

While out and about in Suzhou on a hot summer day I had to use the restroom. With no other choice but to use what was available, I used a public bathroom. I was traumatized from the experience. It is an image and experience that is embedded in my brain that is quite unforgettable.

I’m somewhat of a voluptuous woman and trying to squat for very long is at times trying. Imagine if you will a hot and humid day, a bathroom with no ventilation, a door that does not latch, and an overflowing waste baskets. Not to mention a facility that smells of acid from all the urine spilled outside the squatty. Now, imagine having to use the facility and your face is facing down towards the ground while trying to hold on to the door and take care of business. All along having to vomit from the stench and trying to keep a free hand to wipe the tears from nausea. Oh yeah, no one is quite prepared to use a bad squatty potty. However, I should say that there are MANY facilities that are reasonably clean or well kept. I just happen to pick the worst one in the area.

It was a disgusting event; however, we laugh at the whole thing now. Sure, I can laugh a hearty laugh as I know now what to expect.

Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in China?

  • Books, if you are a reader, arm your electronic reader with books as paper books and books in English period are rare and hard to find. It also makes it easier if you setup your Skype, VPN, & favorites from your home instead of waiting till you get to China.
  • Don’t over pack! If you are moving to or close to an area such as Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing, etc. everything you need can be found here. For ladies on the bigger side, be warned, undergarments are not as easy to find for bigger sizes.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: If you are coming with small children, bring a suitcase of food or snacks that are favorites for the kids. Snacks that will help ease them into the local foods. Adults can manage just fine, we are adults after all. Our girls struggled so much with the food. It would have helped if we had packed some of their favorite foods to make the transition easier.

How is the expat community in China? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

Unfortunately, because of the area that we are located in, there are not many expats in the community. We are a handful of American’s and the school is full of Canadian teachers. However, there are only 2 ladies that I have been able to build relationships with. Shanghai and Suzhou have many wonderful opportunities to meet other like minded people.

How would you summarize your expat life in China in a single, catchy sentence?

China, a country I self exiled to, send drink mixers!

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

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