Pop Culture

‘Panda Dad’ on moving his family to China

When Alan Paul’s wife was offered a job in China, he saw it as a great opportunity to shake up his family’s life. In “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing,” Paul describes their amazing adventure. An excerpt:

Chapter 1: Come to the Edge
Three years earlier, I’d looked at my wife, Rebecca, through feverish eyes, cold sweat plastered over my forehead, and told her that I wasn’t quite ready to sign on the dotted line. I couldn’t agree to pack up our three kids, abandon life in idyl­lic, leafy Maplewood, New Jersey, and move to Beijing. Not just now.

I shifted in my sweat-­soaked coach­ class seat and put down the book I couldn’t focus on anyhow. I struggled to explain why I was hesitating. “I’m not sure this whole thing is such a good idea. I need more time to think.”

We were thirty­-five thousand feet up, in the middle of a fourteen­-hour flight back to the United States from a weeklong “look­-see visit” to Beijing, undertaken to decide whether Re­becca would accept the job as the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief. I had pushed her to explore this opportunity and I was extremely enthusiastic about it all week, loving everything about China: the energy, the culture, the sites, and the food. Even the pea­ soup pollution didn’t give me second thoughts. Within two days we were both ready for her to accept the job.

We started taking pictures to show our three kids: Jacob, seven; Eli, four; and Anna, twenty-one months. We wanted China to look like a fun, inviting place rather than a scary, exotic destination so we visited parks, playgrounds, their future school, our house-to­-be, and perhaps the world’s largest ball pit at the wonderfully named Fundazzle play space.

Now I was having second thoughts, my wavering triggered by the very thing that had fueled my fervor: food. I had eaten my way through Beijing, throwing caution to the wind once I realized just how different — and how much better — the cui­sine in Beijing was compared with any other Chinese food I had ever tried. I wolfed down bowls of wide handmade noodles, meat pancakes, dozens of dumplings, crispy Peking duck, fiery Sichuan beef sliced thin and dunked in a table­side bowl of scorching oil, and huge, earthy wild mushrooms sautéed with giant heads of garlic and hot peppers. I loved it all — until it caught up with me.

I spent my last two days in China mostly lying on my hotel bed, running back and forth to the bathroom and dispatching Rebecca to scrounge for Imodium. My diet was reduced to dry toast and tea.

I didn’t feel much better on the long march home. I was drenched in sweat, clutching my armrests and sucking down sodas as fast as the flight attendant could bring them. Moving to Beijing suddenly seemed like a very stupid idea.

“Don’t commit to anything,” I said, staggering weak-­legged off the plane. “What are we getting ourselves into?”

I was putting Rebecca in a bad spot. She had accepted the job in Beijing and begun working out details. My enthusiasm had gotten her to raise her hand for the job; it had driven our whirlwind week touring Beijing; and it had allowed her to start imagining herself in the position.

Now I was hedging and she was understandably confused. It seemed like all this fuss was over an upset stomach, but it was deeper than that. The illness had shaken me, causing me to truly doubt the wisdom of moving.

We had a house we liked in a neighborhood that we loved. Maplewood, New Jersey, is a tree­-lined town of colonial homes, filled with a diverse mix of families. Just a half-­hour train ride from Manhattan, it is an island of peace and calm, with chirp­ing birds and a friendly, interesting population that belies most suburban stereotypes. Writing contracts with Guitar World and Slam magazines provided a flexible freelance lifestyle backed by the stability of steady money, allowing me to make a living writ­ing about two of my passions, music and basketball.

Most importantly, moving would mean cutting the cord on a fantastic network — a pair of aunts and uncles on the block, my sister and her family ten minutes away, and two sets of parents who visited often and with whom we were very close. We often called our family cluster “the commune” or “shtetl,” evoking the European Jewish ghettos where our ancestors lived. This old­-fashioned way of life suited us beautifully.

Our support system permitted us to maintain our balance and allowed Rebecca to work long hours without me grow­ing resentful or feeling isolated. I had previously discouraged her from pursuing Journal jobs in San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., because moving just seemed too risky. Yet neither of us was ready to acknowledge that this was where we would spend the rest of our lives. It was impossible to imagine moving, and equally far­fetched to contemplate spending the next thirty years in the same house. It felt like we had at least one great adventure in us.

Scratching that itch with an overseas posting had simply never occurred to us. Rebecca had not even told me about the China opening, assuming I would refuse to make such a move with three young kids. I heard her casually mention it to a friend, who had asked about the scope of the Journal’s opera­tions over lunch.

“The paper has bureaus all over the world,” Rebecca said. “They just posted the China bureau chief job in Beijing.”

“Beijing?” I perked up, tuning into the conversation from the pizza I was eating with my kids at an adjoining table. “Are you applying for that?”

She was shocked. Though even I didn’t fully understand my reflexive reaction, I had a nagging “now or never” sensation as soon as I heard about this opportunity; a move out of the coun­try was only going to get harder as our children got older. And my desire to remain in Maplewood long term actually made moving to China more appealing because a foreign posting was understood to be for a limited time, unlike a more defini­tive domestic move. We could even keep our house, allowing us to maintain a solid safety net.

I never wavered from the first moment I heard about the opening — until that illness knocked the confidence out of me. As I sulked, a rare silence set in between Rebecca and me. Friends and family who had enjoyed my enthusiastic, passion­ate e­mails about the great Chinese food now teased me about getting sick. I did not admit my new hesitations to anyone else as I began to work through them.

Maybe I had been viewing the whole thing backward by fo­cusing on how much my career would suffer in a move. Beijing could well open more doors than it closed. During our visit, I had hatched a vague idea about writing a column about my expat life and put together an imprecise, but inspired, pitch. When the editor of the Wall Street Journal Online quickly showed interest, I was reminded that there were a lot of op­portunities hidden amid the uncertainties.

I had to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that I was growing restless, stuck in a velvet-­lined rut. I was finally start­ing to feel a simmering resentment toward Rebecca’s career, which was thriving while mine meandered. I worried about this festering problem after a long, easy relationship based around supporting each other’s work while carving out very different niches.

I had never really followed a career plan, trusting that some­thing new and exciting would come up. This worked for years, but I was now in a long stretch of promising ideas leading only to dead ends. The future no longer seemed limitless as I ap­proached my fortieth birthday. A new Guitar World owner wanted me to start coming into the office every day, threaten­ing my routine. Our whole family structure would crumble if I also began commuting into New York. I had happily assumed primary child­care duties when Jacob was born, but managing three kids’ schedules was increasingly complex.

I thought about a conversation I had with my father a few months earlier, just after the Beijing job had presented itself. We were riding up a Colorado chairlift on a blustery day, and he wondered why we were hesitating at all. I was born in An­chorage, Alaska, toward the end of a three­-year adventure my parents took over their own families’ objections. This was one of the best decisions they had ever made, he said.

“It still defines us in some ways forty years later, and you’ll probably end up saying the same thing,” he said. “It seems to me that you can’t say no to this.”

I had embraced those words then and I came back to them now.

You can’t say no to this.

Rebecca had come around to this way of thinking under my prodding. Now it was her turn to push me, by reminding me of my own growing restlessness in suburbia. “We can spend the next three years in China,” she said. “Or we can spend them talking about kitchen renovation.”

From "Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing" by Alan Paul. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins.

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