A Kiwi family in a 'giant polluted city

Last updated 10:00 11/07/2014
Katie Riordan
Katie Riordan/Supplied

A WORLD AWAY: Katie Riordan's family in Shanghai.

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What's the scariest thing you've ever done?

Adrenaline Junkie's most daring moment The terror only a doily can bring 'The gods sometimes smile on fools' A Kiwi family in a 'giant polluted city 'I do crazy things when I'm bored'

I've done a couple of really scary things in my life. 

I've taken risks and taken on a few challenges, some voluntarily, like my big OE at the ripe old age of 19, skydiving and having children (I'm quite sure that counts). 

Some not so voluntarily, like enduring the Christchurch earthquakes and having twins (that definitely counts).

But this year I did the scariest thing yet: I moved with my husband and three children from the idyllic Canterbury town of Rolleston to live for several years in Shanghai, China.

Our decision to move to China was met by responses from disbelief and disapproval, to excitement and enthusiasm, but always with interest.

To answer the top five questions: it's for my husband's work, yes we want to do this, they'll go to a British school, three to five years and yes, we can still get Facebook in China even though it's officially banned. 

Beyond that, there is so much to tell, so much to say and so much we still don't really know.

The people we need most in our lives have been supportive of us doing this. If they don't support us then they've hidden that very well - and I'm grateful for that.

I do know that whatever people think about us moving to China, they are often less understanding of us taking our children from what seems like the perfect place to grow up - and it is - to a giant polluted city. 

That's a big deal. It's the one issue that made us hesitate. It's the one thing that in our last weeks in New Zealand woke us up at 4am and made us second guess this move.

Living as a westerner in Shanghai is a very well-worn path. I didn't have to look for long to find dozens - hundreds - of families like ours who live in Shanghai. 

My repeated questions to these other mothers was always the same: how long have you been in Shanghai, how much longer are you staying, and what would make you leave. 

The answers were surprising, and stunning in light of our fears. Mothers bring their children here with all of the same fears, but once they get here they so often stay longer than they'd planned, want to stay longer than they can, and often leave reluctantly when contracts end and can't be renewed. 

When I enquire about medical experiences here, I am told of broken arms, tonsillitis, dental care and food allergy issues. Occasionally asthma is mentioned. These are the same medical issues children experience anywhere, the spectre of pollution-related illness just doesn't feature in these dialogues. 

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I worry about what I am not being told; I worry about long-term consequences of breathing bad air.

Despite the fears of pollution-related illness, the lifestyle here is simply incredible. My children are having what I can only describe as a very Kiwi summer, only it's July and we're in China. They spend their days running loose around this giant compound where we live, they are free to swim, play or laze about just as they would at home. They're running on grass, they're eating salads and fruit, the sky is blue and the days are hot. 

Just like the hundreds of other expat kids I see in this community, they're thriving.

We've yet to experience winter here, when I expect the pollution to have some impact on our lives. As those days approach we'll do what most others here do: we'll install air purifiers in our homes, we'll stay indoors on bad-air days, we'll probably long for clean New Zealand air. We'll be reassured that our children will be in their air-purified classrooms and we'll plan clean-air winter getaways.

It's been less than a month since we moved to China, and it's hard to find the words to summarise this journey so far. 

There are days when we feel like we're living in a holiday resort, and there are days when I feel like we've moved to Mars for everything that is so different, so foreign, so confronting and so hard. 

So far though, we are happy we did this. We are excited about our futures here and all the opportunities our children will have that are only possible through a life like this.

They will have an education that far exceeds what we could otherwise have given them, they will travel the world to an extent we never could have imagined, they will have access to fantastic healthcare, they will interact with people from all over the world, they will gain an understanding of culture, of difference, of real poverty, of things I can't imagine yet. 

They might not want to go home, they might become citizens of the world to an extent that scares us - our grandchildren might have a culture and language completely foreign to us.

This is hands-down the scariest thing I've ever done, and nearly one month down the track, it still is, but it's fear that is tempered with an excitement about our future that we hadn't felt for a long time.

I can't really say how this is going to go or what our future holds for us in China, but so far so good. 

I'll let you know.

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