Nicole was born in New Zealand but grew up in Australia. Following her studies, she started working as a journalist before her husband's posting in Hong Kong. After a few years, they moved to Xi'An in the center of China. Nicole talks to Expat.com about her life as an expat mom, an avid writer and blogger, and her passion for traveling.
A former News Reader with Sky News Australia in the beautiful harbour city of Sydney, six years ago my hotelier husband and I took a leap of faith and upped stumps to relocate to the fragrant harbour city of Hong Kong. Our decision to 'live ...
Hi Nicole, where are you from and what brought you to China?
My name is Nicole, and I was born in the Land of the Long White Cloud (aka New Zealand) before moving to the Land Down Under as a teenager! In the ten years before I became an expat, I worked as a reporter, producer, and news reader at Sky News Australia, then the country’s only 24 hour news channel. Throw a wedding into the picture and life in Sydney was pretty good until, in what was a fairly spontaneous decision, we decided to pack up and move to the City that Never Sleeps, Hong Kong. My hotelier husband had been offered an exciting role, and it seemed too good an opportunity for us all to pass up. When I say ‘all’, I found out I was having a baby in the very same week we made the decision to move overseas. Gulp!
We got over the initial nerves and settled in to Hong Kong where we lived very happily for four years. Life was never dull and we had some incredible experiences and made some amazing friends. Eventually it was time to call it a day and take the next posting for my husband’s job, which happened to be Xi’an, in the middle of China.
What is the process for a Kiwi expat to move to China?
In both Hong Kong and China you need to have a visa to live and work — fortunately my daughter and I are covered under my husband’s work visa. Getting a visa for Xi’an is a much more difficult process though, and involved a lengthy medical and a lot of paper work.
Why did you choose to move to Xi'an?
For us at the time China was an intriguing place, and our sense of adventure saw us agree to give it a go. Of all the cities in China, we had heard it was one of the most interesting and aesthetically attractive. As one of China’s ancient capitals, it is filled with history and authentic Chinese monuments, including the famous Terracotta Warriors and the city wall.
What has surprised you the most about China?
To be honest, we did suffer culture shock. As much as we thought we were prepared, we weren’t. The language barrier was tough — in Hong Kong you could get away without speaking Cantonese, but in Xi’an only a few people speak English well. The culture is also incredibly different, and it took a while to settle in and feel at ease. At the same time it was utterly fascinating.
How is accommodation in China, and what type is available for expats?
There are plenty of options in Xi’an and rent is considerably cheap. For us there wasn’t an option. As my husband is the General Manager of the hotel, we actually live in the hotel, which has also been an interesting experience. We are very lucky to have a little bubble to escape to when we need to retreat from the outside world.
What are the features of today’s expat job market in Xi'an?
While Xi’an doesn’t have a huge expat community, there is definitely an emerging one. Expats currently range from university students to teachers and those who work in many of the production factories. Samsung has its headquarters in Xi’an, Boeing is also stationed here, and many other companies have plants here. And of course the hotel industry is growing all the time.
How do you find the lifestyle in China?
The Chinese lifestyle is similar to ours as far as every day life goes, but there are some interesting differences within the society – including education to politics, media censorship, cultural habits and beliefs, and family expectations. It’s fascinating to try and understand these people who make up the world’s largest population. China is the world’s second biggest economy but essentially it is still a developing country.
Is it easy for an expat to live in Xi'an?
It is if you can get a work visa but these are not necessarily easy to get, depending on the line of work you are in. They have started to crackdown on the types of work expats can do and the qualifications they have.
Have you been able to adapt yourself to the Chinese society?
Yes, but it’s been a very steep learning curve. The language barrier is probably the biggest hurdle but I’ve been consistently taking lessons from day one, so I am slowly finding it easier. Not being able to get what you need can be frustrating and healthcare is not what we are used to in the Western world. Not being able to drive means a lack of independence and not being able to get the sort of western food you are used to takes adjusting to. It’s important to escape every few months to recharge.
How is the everyday life for you?
For me, life generally continues as it would in any other city with an added touch of craziness. I take my five year old daughter to her international school every day (there are three in Xi’an) – a hotel car takes us as it’s impossible to drive on Xi’an’s roads unless you’re a really brave (or crazy) foreigner. I am a freelance writer/editor/blogger and do all things media-related, so most of my work is from home unless I am MC-ing an event or media training. I am also currently in the midst of writing a book on life in China, so I am often out and about doing interviews with locals and expats.
Could you share your most memorable experience in China?
There are really so many… Every day is challenging but it’s also extremely interesting. We’ve been lucky to travel around from Beijing to Chengdu, Tibet and Sanya – just to name a few – so have seen many sides of China. Still with over 660 cities, it’s really just a drop in the ocean.
What is your opinion on the cost of living in Xi'an?
Cost of living is really cheap. Eating out, rent and social activities are relatively cheap. If you want to save, it’s a good place to be.
What do you do in your free time?
When we are not out and about exploring China, we are relaxing at home or with friends.
What is your favorite thing about China?
The fact that there is never a dull moment. It’s a fascinating time to be here and watch this country evolve so rapidly… yet hang on to thousand-year-old traditions. It’s the experience of a life time.
What do you miss the most about your home country?
My family. That is of course, the very hardest thing about being away from home, and every day you wonder at least once why you’re doing this. Apart from that just the normal conveniences like a doctor (it’s a case of stocking up on medical supplies when I’m out of town) a hairdresser who can colour blonde hair, being able to drive, and of course understanding the language.
What has motivated you to write your blog “Mint Mocha Musings”?
I began Mint Mocha Musings on my second anniversary in Hong Kong. As a journalist I love to tell stories so it was really only a matter of time. I was in a situation where there were interesting stories every day, and thankfully they’ve continued. I’m as passionate about blogging today as I was four years ago when I started. I would like to think it gives people an idea of this part of the world and what it’s really like to live here, as well as a few chuckles along the way. My mantra is to be ‘educationally entertaining’.
Could you give us some tips that soon-to-be-expatriates in China will benefit from?
Be prepared for it to take time before you feel settled. Try to embrace the differences as much as you can and definitely always, always have a sense of humour.
What are your plans for the future?
That’s really anyone’s guess at the moment. China is not forever, and with a husband in hotels we will no doubt have the opportunity to move on to our next posting and/or head back home at some stage in the not too distant future.