10th Chinaversary — the Beginning of the End

This week marks my 10th anniversary living in China. It also marks the beginning of my impending move out of China and back to Canada. It’s been a good run, but the time has come to leave.

I moved to China in January 2005 as an 8-month stop-over on a journey heading towards Australia, and instead ended up making a life here.

In the decade since I arrived I’ve started a great new career that continues to challenge and teach me things, I’ve married an incredible partner who has helped me become the man I am, and I’ve played a part in creating two exceptional kids who have shown me just how deep love can go. Much of this I already said back in 2012, so I’ll not rehash it here.

In general though, through my time in China I’ve become a bit older, fatter and hopefully wiser. And now it’s time to leave.

The exit clock began ticking the moment in 2009 that we discovered we were going to have a child. I wasn’t sure when, but I knew that long-term, I wouldn’t be raising my kid(s) in China. I know a lot of expats, and even more Chinese, do; and all the power to them. For me though, the cost-benefit of putting my children through the Chinese education system (or selling organs to pay for international schools), putting up with the Chinese healthcare system, trusting the food supply, and enduring the country’s environmental pollution in the long-term made the math pretty straight forward — whatever the pros of living in China with kids, living in Canada is better for us.

Unplugging ourselves from the country has proved to be a slightly knotted affair, and admittedly, we’ve procrastinated as long as we could. For all its challenges, China’s a hard habit to kick.

But by mid-2014 we began the process of applying for Maggie’s permanent residence status in Canada, and though it’s still being processed (or, more likely, sitting in a pile waiting to be processed), we’re confident enough to be penciling rough departure dates on calendars and eyeing flights this spring/summer. The logistics aren’t going to be entirely easy. I arrived with a suitcase and a backpack and will be leaving with a wife, two kids, a dog and a crap-tonne of stuff I probably don’t want or need but don’t have the emotional fortitude to throw/give away.

I’ll also be leaving with an indispensable perspective of the world that I most certainly didn’t have before living in China, and doubt I’d have if the last 10 years passed elsewhere. While neither North America nor China are indicative of all places, the juxtaposition of the two does offer an insight into how considerably different cultural systems handle things, and I think that being in the middle of that for as long as I have has given me a better ability than I would have otherwise had to extrapolate a clearer picture of the world around me.

How any of that might fit into my future, I don’t know. But I’m grateful for it regardless.

More than anything though, I’m excited to return to Canada. I never thought I would be, but I truly am. I left Canada a bit bitter towards its bureaucracy, overly regulatory attitude, and overly rounded corners. I was eager for some sharp edges. But age and travel have mellowed those feelings; and now I crave non-transient friendships, family gatherings, camping, quiet streets, BBQs and, more than anything, exploring my homeland through the fresh eyes of my wife and boys who are new to it all.

So ‘home’ I soon head, onward to the next adventure.

26 Responses

  1. After 16 years we are leaving this year as well. From Beijing with 20+ million people to Faial on the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic, with roughly 16000 people.

    It is going to take a bit of adjusting but the traffic jams, pollution and crowds will not be missed. There will always be a link with China as we are renting out our properties and still have family living here but as far as living here it is a closed book for me.

    • I saw your FB update about Azores — made me look up where they were. I have to admit, the solitude has me a bit jealous. It’s a sad fact of Chinese demographics that I moved to a backwater tropical island … with 9 million other people. I keep threatening my wife that I’m going to move us to rural northern Canada, and I’m only half joking. After China, I can’t express how eager I am to forget what a crowd is.

  2. Definitely that sounds like an amazing ten year journey. My friend sent me this article as I have a seven month old baby in shenzhen with my Chinese wife and we are wondering the same things.

    Best of luck to you and the family on the next chapter!

    • Thanks for swinging by Michael, and congratz on the little one. Our youngest is soon to be 2. It’s a crazy thing having kids here, and when they’re young, it’s an awesome place to have kids.

  3. We are also leaving this year – after 3 years in GZ & 4 in BJ. Also an interesting & eventful journey, but I too am glad to be leaving – for California. A new start in a new place, but very exciting.

    • California! That’s great Sue, colour me jealous. My biggest fear about moving to Canada is subjecting myself to Canadian winters. The first one will be a thrill, as it’s been a long time since I’ve seen snow and our boys never really have, but after that it’ll just be whinging about slush, bad roads and shoveling the effing driveway 🙂 California is a dream.

  4. If you need a break from Canadian winters, you’re welcome to come hang out in Boston. I still owe you a coffee from years ago.

    • I suspect that the NE seaboard is not exactly an “escape” from winter Chris 🙂 But I’ve only ever been to the Boston airport, so am dying to check out the city. And, of course, likewise, if you’re ever up the Niagara/Toronto way.

  5. Yeah, Ryan, we’ve had some extreme cold warnings this week here in Southern Ontario – you’re probably not going to like it. Still, surviving a winter in the middle of China I thank God every day for central heating back here 🙂

    • That’s the thing I have the hardest time describing to people back home. I live on a tropical island, but 15C without any sort of insulation or heating is way colder than -5C with.

      • For sure – today is -12C (feels like -22 with windchill) and my 17 yr old son is flinging his goalie pads into the pickup before driving out to his hockey game (and yeah, he’s wearing shorts & sneakers with a coat, no hat/gloves) – something to look forward to in a decade or so with your boys 🙂

  6. Thanks for writing about this transition, Ryan. It is interesting to read. Sonja and I are living in the DC area, as I think you know. There are lots of things that i really miss about China, but i agree with you, of course, that it’s not a good place to raise kids. The pollution and food safety are at the top of my list, but the style of education is also a major factor. On the other hand, we worry a lot about US schools being too lax and easy, as well as other issues like them getting exposed to cigarettes and drugs. I think the best solution would be a really good private school around here, but those are expensive.

    Good luck on this next phase of your journey, and if you are ever in the DC area, make sure you let us know.

    • I think we both fall somewhat in the autodidact camp, and I suspect we’ll never be fully satisfied with what other folks are teaching our kids (as I’ve never been with what others paid to do so taught me). I suspect despite the flaws in our countries’ education systems, we’re both pretty keen and able to help supplement where necessary. The vices are something that I’ve admittedly not put too much thought into. I don’t imagine I have all that much control over it outside of trying to foster an open line of communication and intelligent children.

      DC is big on my list of places to visit in the US, so I might be taking you up on that before too long. I hope you’ll do the same if you’re ever up our way.

  7. Happy 10th Chinaversary Ryan! It sounds like, overall, your time in China was definitely a big positive in your life — and no doubt your move to Canada will bring you more joy. Wishing you a smooth transition back to Canada!

  8. Dear Ryan, congratulations.
    You wont regret it!

    Moving back to Germany was the best thing to do after we had our daughter Emily. We had similar reasons as you do. Your kids will thank you later for saving them from cancer and whatnot.

    But it will be hard for your wife in the beginning, just make sure to take her to a good Chinese restaurant on a regular basis. Intergration in the western world takes some getting used to – just never give up and help her as much as you can. After a year or two everything will be much smoother…

    Hope to meet you again someday!


    • Thanks for the insight Jakob. My wife loves order and organization, and so Haikou drives her nuts. I suspect that a lot of Canada will be a great comfort to her — but I do worry about food and that she might miss the noise. We’ve anticipated this a bit, and taken it on ourselves to put a bit of an effort to learn to cook some decent Chinese food (fuck the noise, she can get used to silence). I cook a lot, and so am working on nailing down my favourite dishes. My wife is luke-warm on cooking, but her go-to cuisine is Dong Bei, so basically… potatoes, beans, sauerkraut/suancai and pork — in various combinations 🙂 Throw in a couple baozi (which she’s a pro at making from scratch) and we’re all good. Canada’s pretty multi-cultural, but where we’ll be, I think we’ll be relying on ourselves for authentic Chinese food a lot more than the local Chinese take-away (best memory ever was our first trip home when my step-mom ordered Chinese as a good-will gesture and my wife asked, “This is good, what kind of food is it?”)

      And definitely, the next time I’m over that way, expect a call. Likewise, should you ever be in the TNSaF (extra points if you work that out), do let me know.

    • I am sorry to hear that ” save her from the cancer…” .
      Even though there is a serious pollution problem, china is not really a country where everyone’s life being treatened.
      In other words, why China become so polluted today? because the westerns countries have transported their source of pollution in China! You benefit from the natural ressource in a low price and low priced human ressource to produce the final products for your final use. Is that correct?

  9. Soo like… how’s it goin eh? Soo like… bravin the great white nort eh, hoser?
    Yer gonna needa dialect refresher


    Job prospects? Start here:


    If and when you care to pass the FB torch in Suzhou I should be here for the next 10 years. The air will be better when you come back to visit. I promise. Education… not so much.

  10. Hi Ryan! Thanks for your blog. I am a Canadian living in Shanghai for about four years. Not ready to hang up the hat just yet! Maybe 10 years will have me singing a different tune! Good luck with the transition. Cheers:)

  11. HI Ryan,
    good luck with your move.
    Some years back when i was living in guangdong, i had this sudden realisation that I’d been living in China for ten years, and decided, on that basis, it was time to go home.
    You know, the usual… pollution, young child, etc.
    (Whilst it might sound odd that “i had a sudden realisation” – its simply that being Australian, our school year actually equates with the calander year, and i just simply get the years mixed up, lol)

    Anyhow… we went home. chinese hubbie couldnt deal with aus. he came back. me and my daughter stayed a while longer… when she was younger, it was great. good school, fresh air, beaches.

    we missed china. we came back. did another couple of years stint, went home again.

    each time, i found the cultural conflict difficult – not living in china, but living back in aus, with its isolation, lack of people, ridiculous bureacracy.

    we we found ourselves back here. this time around, the pollution is really noticable, much more than it was a couple of years back, and i find myself worrying..

    schooling is another huge issue. wont go there.

    but morale of story – whilst some of your correspondents have related how happy they have felt to go home – for me, it was very difficult to settle back into australian life.

    as you said, china is a hard habit to break.

    good luck 🙂

    • Thanks for the insight Debbie. It’s definitely a concern of mine, not as much for myself as for my wife. She is, however, someone who likes quiet and order, and so I suspect there will be a lot about Canada she’ll like. Time will tell. I don’t know if we’ll miss China enough to return, at least in the short-term; but we may find that we have itchy feet and want to return to expat life someplace else eventually.

      • the best thing I found was introducing the spouse to other chinese immigrants, so they could give some insights on how to adjust.
        my chinese friends in aus advised my husband, “this is not china, relax a little, learn to enjoy a leisure life as well as work”.

        good luck!

  12. Hi Ryan,
    My kids want to move to Canada (they are 8 & 10) … but I am a teacher and the prospects in Canada (especially Ontario) are not very good. I will take a guaranteed job than uncertainty (at least at this point in my life).
    One of the hot teaching prospect is China right now … this does have some perks (one being a high quality FREE international school education). I am curious to know if that would be a game changer for you and your kids?
    Thanks for your reflection and good luck back home.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. I take it to mean that you’re not living in Canada, nor are you living in China at the moment? I’ve known a good number of international school teachers in China with children, and was always quite envious that their kids got to attend the school for free. That’s huge. I’ve not updated the site since this post, but in the time since, I’ve moved back to Canada. I’m not sure if a perk like that would have changed my mind, as my time in China (for now at least) was past its expiry date. Continuing to live in China was delaying some future goals that just couldn’t be completed there. There’s still a lot about China I love, and more and more that I miss, so there’s definitely the possibility of ending up back there again at some point. China’s pollution and food safety are two big deterrents, but if I was approaching the country with fresh eyes and a good career opportunity, for me it would be a difficult decision with no real wrong answer.

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