Goodbye Suzhou; Hello Hainan

The places I've lived, or will live, in China

The places I've lived, or will live, in China

After more than four and a half years, we’re leaving Suzhou.

So much has happened to me since moving here from Dalian in 2006: I got married, I started a new career path, I got a dog, I had a son. In my adult life I’ve not lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in Suzhou.

But the time has come to move on to some place new, and what better place in this country than China’s vacation mecca — Hainan Island.

Many close to us know well that we’ve half-made plans to move down to Hainan several times over the past several years, but always changed our minds before things developed too far. First it was deciding to have a baby and wanting to be close to a decent hospital during the pregnancy that cancelled our plans to move south. Then it was not wanting to leave our wonderful support network right after having a baby that put the migration on hiatus. It is this reason that I’ve been reluctant to blog about the decision, fearful that I would have to retract this type of post for having changed our minds.

But now, our flights are bought, accommodation arranged, and with us 10-month veterans of parenthood, we feel we’re ready to embark on this long-anticipated next chapter of our lives. Nothing about the move is easy though — I suppose it never is. Since coming to Suzhou we’ve moved multiple times, having lived in five apartments straight across the city, and every time it was a pain in the ass. But this is the first time we’ve had to cart a fussy kid, a big furry dog and a long-collected pile of mostly useless (but strangely sentimental) stuff across more than 1600km to the southern most end of China.

Initially our plan was to head down to Hainan and sort out an apartment, come back to Suzhou and get our affairs in order, and then pull the trigger on the move. Time, money and a lack of enthusiasm for having to make multiple trips with a 10 month old inspired us to take a leap and just head down in one go.

When we arrive we’ve arranged to stay for a week in a small one-bedroom apartment rented per night like a hotel (but unlike hotels in China, we’re able to stay with our dog). From there we’ll hopefully find a place we like quickly and be able to move in before our stuff arrives via moving company at the end of the week. It may seem tight, but we have some flexibility in that we can stay longer in the apartment and our stuff can be stored at the moving company’s depot should either be needed.

We’ve yet to decide whether we’ll move to Sanya or Haikou, and will likely be looking at places in both cities, but are heavily leaning towards Haikou. What it lacks in beautiful beaches, it seems to make up for in being a proper city, and not just a scruffy third tier town with rows upon rows of newly built high-rises crowding its beach front. The only question mark is — and it’s a bit of a biggie — we’ve been to Haikou just once and then only for a short overnight stay, so really have no idea about the place.

Maggie @ Sanya Sunset

Maggie @ Sanya Sunset

We’ve been to Sanya twice, once as mentioned to get married in ’07, and once as an anniversary/holiday trip in ’09. I really like the place and don’t think I’d have any problems living there, but with a kid in tow, practical considerations need to be heavily weighed.

Haikou, for what it’s worth sounds pretty great. It has some of the best environmental policies and the highest-rated air quality of any Chinese city. It’s new high-speed train makes Sanya’s beaches only 1.5 hours away, and bustling high-tech and tourism industries are helping the city to develop quickly. It also reportedly has a vibrant night-time culture — and man do I miss sitting on the street eating random bits of barbecued animal.

End of the day though, it’s a Chinese city, and I am keeping my expectations well in check. In fact, I’m viewing the move much more as a return to “common” China (trying hard to avoid the term “real” China). Life in Suzhou, specifically Suzhou’s SIP, is not indicative of what life is like in most places in China — even at the 2nd tier city level. I’m surrounded by good foreign restaurants, several foreign supermarkets; I can get an assortment of cheeses, deli meats, Canadian Moosehead beer, tex-mex takeout, my choice of delivery pizza, and an ever-expanding litany of other comfort things from home.

I’ve loved that about where I live. Ironically, it’s like a little island of normalcy in an otherwise challenging place, and I’m sure I would have wanted to head back to Canada long ago had I not found it. I am acutely aware that I’m giving most of that up in this move.

But I think I’m ready for it. What I’ve come to realize is that as much as being comfortable and having conveniences a button push away are great, they also create a lethargy in me. For better or worse, challenges push me to think harder and develop more. While I can’t think of a time in my life I wasn’t trying to make life easier (whether by making more money, living more comfortably, adding security, whatever), I also can’t think of anything I value in my life having come out of comfortable circumstance. Questing for them, perhaps, but once obtained, it all just sort of stales.

Palms at sunset in Sanya, Hainan

Palms at sunset in Sanya, Hainan

So I’m looking forward to the challenges of living in a new place, meeting new people, and exploring a large chunk of China that until now has escaped my visit. Living on Hainan, I cannot wait to get outdoors and explore the island, but I also cannot wait to use the place as a gateway to other areas in southern China I’ve long wanted to see. Kunming, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Guilin and Vietnam are all places I hope to venture to from my new home base.

I’m truly looking forward to feeding my soul with new experiences and re-igniting my passion for the outdoors, travel and for China.

It was that need that brought me to China in the first place, and then, like now, the hardest part in the whole process is leaving friends behind. As an expat, it’s hard to make deep and lasting friendships, as more often than not someone ends up leaving before the relationship has really blossomed. I was lucky here in Suzhou to have made some incredible friends that have not just left me with great memories, but have infused the best parts of themselves into my character and made me a much better person for having known them.

The great part about friendships like that is you know it’s never goodbye, only see you later. And while I know that relationships inevitably suffer from an inverse-square law, I also know that the moment that we again find ourselves in the same place it will be as if little or no time has passed.

And so, in a little more than two weeks we’ll say 再见 to our life in Suzhou and begin something new in Hainan.

20 Responses

  1. Wow! We have missed so much of our Suzhou friends’ lives after we moved down south… so close yet so far away. Congratulations and good luck, I know that you have been thinking about the move for quite some time now. I see our city is on your list – please visit soon! Short flight or long (overnight?) train ride away.

    The worst part is, though, when we come to visit Suzhou next month, you’ll be gone already! Oh, btw, if it makes you feel any better, our moving truck made it down here in 2 days!!! Maybe yours will only be 3. 🙂

    • Bummer we’re going to miss you guys here in Suzhou, but we’ll definitely be making the trip to GZ soon enough. Last I checked a flight was like 250RMB… that’s ridiculously cheap, and no chance I’ll be bothering with an overnight train for that price.

      As for the moving truck — we want more time not less! 🙂 We’ll need at least a week to get things organized down there before we want our boxes to arrive. We’ve checked with the company though and they said that’s no problem to arrange.

      • Yep, our flight to Sanya was cheap (and it was considered expensive – National day holiday) So I imagine Haikou is a similar price. You’re right, I think the overnight train between Haikou and GZ is not one of the nice, express ones. So why bother?!

        We used Allied Pickfords, and they offered us 30 days free storage. It arrived so quickly but we were going home for the summer, so they gave us approximately another week in addition to the 30 days in the end. They estimated a one week transit time, which turned out to be 2 days, and we needed more time!

        How are you getting Button there?

  2. I was in Haikou for about a week during 2009’s winter holiday and enjoyed it immensely – exactly because it was simply another 2nd-tier Chinese city, but warmer and with fresh “exotic” fruit everywhere 😉

    Boy, do I know the feeling you describe. I haven’t nearly been as productive as I wish I’d been, but I dread a return to my home country mainly because, in spite of the things I should be able to do there, I fear the stultifying comfort it would likely entail…

  3. That is one big move across the country. Guess I won’t see you if I stop by Suzhou this summer (sorry, I definitely won’t make it to Hainan this year). Enjoy your new home.

  4. Hey Ryan, looking forward to meeting you guys when you get here. We can show you around town and get you guys connected with some of the local groups. Actually there is a mom’s group Maggie might be interested in. Anyway, safe travels and let us know when you’ve arrived!

  5. Ryan, best of luck down there. I’ve also been to Sanya, but not to Haikou yet. And as you’ll be in the ‘hood (relatively), make sure to pop up to Hong Kong when you get a chance!

  6. Well done for making the move. Now you have straddled the whole of China! I loved your “kick-ass Friday afternoon on the beach” photo…it made me want to move to Hainan immediately! Good luck with settling in and hope to see you there next winter.

  7. Hey Ryan I just got offered a job at Soochow University. I know it’s got a very good reputation.. just wondered if you know any people there.I have been teaching in China for 3 years (one year Zhejiang two years in Xiamen)
    Would appreciate any contacts there. i think it will be a blast.Congrats on the move to Hainan btw.

    • Hi Ruthi, sorry about the long delay in replying to this — I’m not sure how the comment slipped past me. It’s been a very long time since I had any affiliation with Soochow, and evne then I was just a Mandarin student, so unfortunately I don’t. Suzhou’s got an excellent and inclusive expat population though, so you’ll have no trouble meeting folks. Be sure to check out the Suzhou Expats group on Facebook (which I still moderate, despite having left the city some time ago):

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