Shanghai, China

Rich family tapestry and rock'n roll expatriation.

Sabine is an academic that I met in Shanghai and with whom I collaborated on a student corporate project. She has been fascinating me ever since, with her youthfulness and refreshing world views. Sabine and her two daughters Lea and Maya are totally at ease in the world, which they explore with utter openness and empathy. I was lucky to catch Sabine as her younger daughter Lea was visiting Shanghai for the holidays, before settling in Hong Kong, from Montreal. We met on a rainy Shanghai evening in the Former French Concession.

Sabine, can you tell us who you are?

S: I am the product of a colourful family history, which largely explains who I am and where I am today. My French grandmother married a Russian exile in the 1920s. My mother is therefore half Russian, but was denied access to her father’s mother tongue. In those days multilingualism was not encouraged. In turn, she made sure that I would learn her language and, for many years,  I studied Russian, as well as English and Spanish, as I was growing up near Paris.

My father fought in China in 1937 and lost one arm to the Japanese army in Tianjin. It is the Japanese compensation money that financed the family home near Paris where I grew up and that still houses my family today. After that, my father travelled a lot for business, spending months on end in Africa and South America. My mother threw herself into learning languages. As soon as her children were old enough, she started travelling and visited India, Japan and for Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s. The family home was full of artefacts from my parents' travel. 


That is quite a family saga. You are the youngest of six children and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most free-spirited. Tell us where you have lived.

S: I have always been fascinated by Asia at large. It is a continent that was romanticized in my parents' world and which somehow represents for me 'maximum alterity', what is most different and exotic. I managed to convince my parents to let me spend one year in England in high school, after which I came back to Paris and studied fashion and dressmaking. I then lived in Italy for 2 years and New York for 3 years. Japanese designers were huge in those days and I had met my Japanese husband in New York, which created the springboard for me to go and spend time in Japan. We stayed ten years and both my daughters Maya and Lea were born there.

I was surprised when you told me you decided to come back to France.

S: After 10 years in Japan, I felt I had both deeply integrated into the local culture, yet I was still being regularly reminded of my otherness, which befuddled me. So it was time to move on. Coming back to France was conceivable because, as a bi-cultural family, we slotted into a Paris suburbs with international schools. Our friends and neighbours were also multi-cultural, or coming back from long periods abroad. However, China was always lurking in the back of my mind, and when I decided to leave behind my career as a fashion designer to go back to academia, my PhD focused on the influence of Japanese designers on Chinese fashion. Maybe without knowing it at the time, I was creating the conditions for moving to China eventually. I also started lecturing extensively and immersed myself in a world of academics and researchers, who somehow reminded me of the cultural Petri dish and intellectual freedom I was lucky to experience growing up.

What prompted your move to Shanghai ?

S: Maya had just graduated from high school and other personal reasons meant I had the freedom to decide where to live. On a whim, I asked Lea -who still had three years of high school study to go- whether she wanted to move to Shanghai with me. We arrived in this massive city without a very defined plan regarding job or accommodation, which was both daunting and exciting. I quickly found a job as a lecturer. Lea started in the Lycee Francais in Shanghai. However from the start we lived in a much more local and modest way compared to traditional expat families who often come to China with the huge support system that a corporate transfer entails.

Lea, you are French-Japanese. You left Japan as a baby and grew up mainly in France in a very international context. How did you experience your move to Shanghai ?

L: I was starting to get frustrated with my intense and regimented Japanese studies, in parallel to the French curriculum, so I jumped at the opportunity for a change. There was a rawness and excitement to moving to China without much preparation nor support that made it deeply exciting. I quickly found my footing in the Lycee Francais and made amazing friends, who often envied my freedom. I was living with my mum in a small place at the heart of Shanghai, and socialising with my mums's new friends who were academics, linguists and artists, all long time residents of China. This was a very different experience compared to my peers, but I also enjoyed glimpses of the more sheltered compound life of my close friends. I had started studying Mandarin alongside Japanese a few years prior, and quickly acquired a good enough conversational level. What I loved while living in China was chatting to local people about their lives. A visit to the local fresh market or a taxi ride is always the opportunity for a conversation, and I even volunteered in a local homeless shelter. I funnelled all these stories and experiences into my work as a journalist for the school paper.


Upon graduating from high school, you decided to go to University in McGill in Montreal, Canada. Why moving so far away ?

L: I wanted to study in the UK, which is prohibitively expensive for us, and settled on Quebec instead. I love Montreal, precisely because it is so different from living in Shanghai. Asia is never far away though. My three flatmates at McGill's are also each a mix of French and various Asian nationalities. We found ourselves with a lot of shared cultural references and quickly recreated our own mini-Asia. We bond a lot over cooking and shared meals, as we share our respective home cuisine. In an case, I will be in Hong Kong for the next six months as part of a university exchange and will get my 'Asia fix' then.

Where next for both of you, it seems the world is your oyster!

S: I have been in Shanghai for 4 years already, but I can easily project myself in China for 10 years or more. After that, who knows ...maybe Hong Kong or India. I am heading to India for a roadtrip with Lea's sister, Maya, in the next few days and look forward to discovering that country. All I know with a degree of certainty is that I want to deepen my experience as an educator.

L: I am studying International development and I feel that my future is a totally open book and can take me anywhere. I dream of doing a world tour to discover less familiar continents like Africa. In many ways, I belong nowhere and everywhere, which is a huge and exhilarating freedom. Only time will tell which spaces I will inhabit.

Thank you Sabine and Lea for a spirited and warm conversation at Cafe Zen, Dongping Lu.