One month before the big move, I still didn’t know if the plan to re-locate our family of five to China would work out. We didn’t have renters for our home, Chinese visas, plane tickets, or anything packed. But, there were several miracles in those four weeks that helped us reach our goals.
At the end of July, we finally signed on renters and began boxing up our belongings for storage. Just when we needed to buy plane tickets, my husband landed a lucrative freelance photography job to fill in the financial blanks.
We spent our final days in Utah selling our cars, forwarding mail, finding new owners for our cell phone plans, throwing a “goodbye house” party for our kids and their friends, and taking care of so many other details—too numerous to list.
After gobs of red tape and confusion, our visas showed up in the mail just three days before we left. Our last vehicle sold with less than twelve-hours on the clock. By then, I had stopped worrying and realized that things would work out. It’s funny how that happens when we become dedicated to our goals and believe.
Our next question was: "How will we move the mountain of stuff we just have to take with us?"
This was complicated by the fact that we were taking a five-day road trip to Disneyland with five other extended family members on our way to the airport.
We had received a lot of contradictory information about what would available once we arrived in China. Just to be safe, we packed everything.
On August 20th, 2006, we loaded the 12-passenger van and car top carrier that would take us to California. The good news is, everything fit. Plus Brian, our three kids with their car seats and I were able to squeeze in too. The bad news is, we left no room for the five other passengers and their luggage.
No worries, we just started driving thirty miles north to pick up everyone else. Twenty miles down the road, Brian remembered someone who owns a big metal hitch box. Brian called, the friend was home, he said we could borrow it, and we were even lucky enough that it fit perfectly on the hitch already installed on the van. Problem solved!
I share this seemingly insignificant story to illustrate how everything just seemed to fall into place for us. We reached one obstacle after another and plowed forward even when there was no answer in sight. Somehow, everything we needed came together. We were blessed beyond description.
After three days of Disneyland interspersed with a few days at the beach, the kids hit the hotel pool with their grandmas while Brian and I packed the van. Somehow, at the end of that long, fun-filled week, we managed to transfer the mountain of luggage to the airport and through all of the security checks. We were headed to our 13-hour flight, departing a little after 1 a.m. L.A. time.
Saying “goodbye” to our families while Sophie sobbed and clung to my mom’s neck was one of the hardest things I have ever done. We turned our backs and walked away – plowing on.
We made it to our gate, exhausted on every level. Just then, a lady named Annie showed up and started to help.
She talked to the kids and fed them treats. After we boarded, just when every other passenger was thinking about changing seats to get away from us, Annie traded with someone to sit right next to us and entertain the kids the whole flight. She was truly my angel in a time of need.
At long last, we landed in Beijing, made our way through customs, collected the giant mess of bags and stuffed it all into a powder blue 20-passenger bus provided by Brian’s new employer to transport us to Tianjin, a large city located about seventy miles southeast of Beijing.
We were in a daze. It was more than 22 hours of traveling from the time we left our hotel room until we arrived at our apartment. And, then it was only 10 a.m. China time!
At our new apartment, we were greeted by some of the Americans we had been in contact with via e-mail in the months leading up to our adventure.
They took us to “E-Mart,” a two story one-stop shopping center reminiscent of Wal-Mart. The next stop was a home improvement store exactly like Home Depot. So, we were able to get basically everything we needed.
Our new friends laughed along with us about the hoards of unnecessary items we had brought with us – a case of diapers, assorted spices, dish soap, laundry detergent and toiletries to last for months. Some things were heavy and un-needed, like my entire silverware set and a cooking pot. Other things were more useful – sheets, quilts, pillows and towels. It turns out that quality linens are hard to find and expensive in China.
Luckily for us, these “friends” who we had never before met, but were our lifelines, had found an apartment for us before we arrived.
Renting an apartment in China is the same as renting a home from a private owner in the U.S. So, shopping around is a bit more complicated. A few days before our move, we signed a contract, sight unseen, on a three-bedroom, 2-bathroom, furnished, 1200 square-foot place for about $275 per month.
When we arrived that first day and began un-packing our bags, most things about the apartment were better than we expected, and a few things were worse. Oddly, it felt like home from the first moment.
The front room was large with a small dining table at one end and two baby blue and cream-colored couches facing a large T.V. and stereo system at the other. The couches had about a dozen cushions, which turned out to be great for building make-believe forts, boats and spaceships.
The flooring was gorgeous 30-inch x 30-inch squares of shiny, off-white ceramic tiles in the main living area, with faux wood in the bedrooms.
Behind the couches was a bumped out sunroom with windows on all three sides overlooking a large courtyard with a fountain and marble statues. At the other end of the room, beyond the dining table, a small hallway led to a bathroom.
Across from the bathroom was a small utility closet that the kids soon dubbed “the clubhouse.” They spent hours with their imaginations in that tiniest corner of our home.
Sophie’s bedroom was hardly bigger than a generous walk-in closet. The bed took up almost all of the space and there was no closet. The only other furniture was a small nightstand that she decorated with photographs and toys within hours of arrival.
Even at five-years-old, she had a way of making a space her own. Soon her artwork and other memorabilia decorated the walls. The mint green curtains covering the large window looked great with the pink sheets and flowery bedspread we had brought from home.
Across the hall, where the boys slept, three-year-old Ian seemed so tiny in the queen-sized bed curled up with his “car blankie” from home. Isaac, who had just turned one earlier that month, slept in a miniature crib with a mosquito net canopy we purchased at a baby store for $100. Their room lacked the same character as Sophie’s, but was larger and had a desk and wardrobe.
One thing we discovered about the Chinese is that they like to sleep on very hard mattresses. Really, they are about as soft as sleeping on a board. So, perhaps it was a blessing that the king-sized bed frame in the Master bedroom had no mattress, since we were eventually able to purchase something softer. Our kids, being kids, would sleep anywhere.
The master bedroom was large. It had a roomy wardrobe, a desk where we set up the laptop, and a sunroom with floor to ceiling windows for hanging the laundry to dry.
The master bathroom had a small washing machine in the corner.
The kitchen was small with two gas burners and no oven. In a strange way, I loved the bright red cabinets with shimmery flecks of sparkles. We added a toaster oven for baking and a water cooler for drinking water, but we learned to live without a microwave.
All in all, the place was spacious and pretty. Everything was bright and new looking. The windows were large and plentiful with great views. And, there were special touches, like panels of decorative glass donning elegant branches of cherry blossoms, in all of the doors.
One thing that shocked us when we first inspected the bathrooms was finding that the “showers” were just showerheads attached to the walls with no enclosures whatsoever. So, when we took a shower, the water sprayed across the entire floor.
A large squeegee from the home improvement store solved the problem and we also bought a small round plastic basin to bathe our boys in, since we did not have a bathtub.
The only thing that seemed really disturbing on that first day was that there was an apartment being used to store Korean spices and dried fish directly below us. This resulted in a strong fishy odor that was upsetting to Ian.
It didn’t seem to bother the rest of us too much, but Ian plugged his nose for 2 hours straight and said "It stinks in here" about 1,000 times. I bought him his own can of air freshener. Our apartment became an orange blossom haven, but he still got upset when we opened the front door and made our way to the elevator. Long after the weather turned cold and stifled the smell, Ian, continued to plug his nose each time he entered elevators in China.
What later turned out to be the real problem with the apartment was the fact that none of the windows had exterior bars covering them. Many of the apartments were equipped with these because all of the windows and screens slid freely open with no way to secure them. No, we weren’t anticipating any robbers with tall ladders, but we were worried sick about the danger of children falling four-stories to the pavement below. This particularly became troubling as our one-year-old grew into an adventurous toddler who was very skilled at climbing.
On the one hand, if we would have been able to shop around for an apartment, we could have avoided things like offending smells, un-enclosed showers, and hazardous windows. On the other hand, I don't know how we could have survived those chaotic first days any other way. It was truly a gift like no other to have that apartment ready for us to move into right away.
It was the end of August and, to my amazement, we were in China. It had all started from a wild hair of a dream we thought had long ago passed. We settled into our new home sweet home and geared up for the adventures awaiting us.