PORTRAIT Masami & Chun - Shanghai, China

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Meet Masami and Chun.

Masami is Japanese and self-described wanderer "who has lived in many different places". Chun grew up in Shanghai and moved to the USA for college. The pair met in New York.  After ten years living and working in America - and a New York City wedding, Masami and Chun moved to Sydney thanks to a corporate job transfer opportunity. They relocated  back to Chun's home country in 2005 and have called Shanghai and the wider region home ever since. There, Masami reinvented herself as food entrepreneur.

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On their formative years in America.

Chun grew up in a China that saw limited foreign influence, beyond a handful of wealthy expats in Shanghai's centre. His dad however had had the opportunity to travel to Europe for work, and this early exposure shaped Chun's decision to study abroad.  He set his sights on the United States and duly  prepared by taking extra curricular English language classes throughout high school.

Masami's arrival in the USA was more serendipitous. English language was actually her least favourite school subject, but the USA presented a brilliant opportunity to escape the tediousness of a corporate job in Japan, as well as the burden of care-taking responsibilities for younger brothers. Masami wanted to work in film, so America seemed like a good option and she first moved to Seattle.  Masami spent three months there and build strong bonds with her landlady. Upon announcing that she wanted to move to New York City, her friend recommended a place to stay and wrote her a handwritten note, painstakingly mapping out every detail of the route the taxi should follow to her friend's place. New York City still carried a  menacing reputation in those  pre-gentrification days. Masami learnt the language, transfered her Japanese university credits over and promptly met Chun. They married and moved together to Connecticut for graduate school, keeping a small apartment in the city. The diversity of the characters and cultures they encountered was quite a contrast to life in much more homogeneous Japan. Life felt exciting, but 9/11 precipitated a relocation for Chun's job, both because US job prospects constricted and a sense that their best American years were already behind them. And that is how they found themselves packing for the Southern hemisphere and Sydney, Australia. Ahead of the move, Masami had retrained as a baker and her transferable skill allowed to quickly find a job in a bakery in Sydney and slot smoothly into a local community. Although they struggled at first with the language (accents, expressions et al), they quickly acclimatised to life down under. The news of Chun's employer's plan to relocated them again after three years, and to China, came as a real shock.

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On returning to China.

Relocating back "home" is a loaded experience, as one suddenly looses the glamour -real or perceived- and social standing of the 'expat' status. The very reasons why you left often stand in the way of your return. China was an exciting new adventure and opportunity  for Masami to reinvent herself yet again, yet relocation for Chun, who had never worked in China before,  and the prospect of having to take on a local sales job was daunting.  Chun's ambivalence was heightened by  the expectation that overseas Chinese in the 2000s should stay abroad. Overseas-based Chinese had cachet, and the cohort of  Chinese foreign students was expected to build successful lives overseas. Indeed, none of Chun's foreign educated peers had any plans of coming back to the homeland.

What started as a bizarre status transformed into a strength, as Chun's ability to merge Chinese and Western approaches was a truly rare skill at the time and enabled fast career progression in a China that was experiencing massive economic growth. Familiarity with both the language and the culture -even with the landscape of the city he grew up in- enabled Chun and Masami to settle in and build a life in Shanghai.

On settling in China.

Masami and Chun always saw themselves as nomads who up sticks and change location every few years. China was supposed to be a three-year experience before moving away again. The energy and opportunity of China became a potent magnet, but it is primarily the birth of their boys that made them decide to stay and settle in Shanghai. Masami and Chun describe themselves as from "around there", with roots in both China and Japan. Masami describes the sense of place she wants to foster with her children. They may go to an international school, but they experience the local culture and language everyday in the central Shanghai neighbourhood the family calls home. Chun's family is still Shanghai-based and visits regularly, while the boys make multiple trips per year to visit their mother's family in Japan. Masami ensures that they attend the local school  over there for a few weeks each year. While the boys may complain that going to school somewhere else  is hardly a holiday, they get to experience Japanese language and culture first hand. The family has built a rich local life than meshes Chinese, Japanese and Western experiences in a city that is not short of interesting local and a magnet for foreign colourful characters!

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On language and being an English-speaking Chinese.

Chun jokes that he slotted seamlessly back into China, as both the language and the culture and customs are second nature to him. For Masami however, China was terra incognita and once again she found herself needing to acquire a new language fast. She still remembers fondly how, a few weeks after arrival, she mustered up the courage to go and order her favourite street food (rou bao, or meat buns) all on her own. With butterflies in her stomach, she managed to string a few newly acquired words together in an intelligible fashion. Early days in a new country are peppered with such small victories, made sweeter when they represent emancipation from a locally-fluent partner. Masami still remembers how, years earlier, she had been amazed by a Japanese friend visiting her in New York declaring he would go to McDonald's and order a strawberry shake all on his own. He had come back empty-handed but she could not have been prouder of him. The rou bao became her strawberry-shake moment, and with passing time, and ears tuning in to the local language, Shanghai became home.

Yet, for all their familiarity with the city, Masami and Chun remain acutely aware of their otherness. Most of their friends are foreigners, and there social interactions outside of work happen in English. Reading - mostly current affairs- is in English, even communicating with the kids often seeps into this second language. Tongue-in-cheek, Chun describes himself as an English-speaking Chinese, at ease in a China that is home for now, yet with retirement plans that would take the family to split their time between Europe, and China and Japan.

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 On settling in China.

Masami and Chun always saw themselves as nomads who up sticks and change location every few years. China was supposed to be a three-year experience before moving away again. The energy and opportunity of China became a potent magnet, but it is primarily the birth of their boys that made them decide to stay and settle in Shanghai. Masami and Chun describe themselves as from "around there", with roots in both China and Japan. Masami describes the sense of place she wants to foster with her children. They may go to an international school, but they experience the local culture and language everyday in the central Shanghai neighbourhood the family calls home. Chun's family is still Shanghai-based and visits regularly, while the boys make multiple trips per year to visit their mother's family in Japan. Masami ensures that they attend the local school  over there for a few weeks each year. While the boys may complain that going to school somewhere else  is hardly a holiday, they get to experience Japanese language and culture first hand. The family has built a rich local life than meshes Chinese, Japanese and Western experiences in a city that is not short of interesting local and a magnet for foreign colourful characters! Masami and Chun hope that this multicultural education will encourage their children to find and follow their passion, wherever it may take them physically and emotionally. They themselves are already planning for retirement that will see them split their time between China, Japan and Italy, where they hope to purchase a pied-a-terre to enjoy Italian food and lifestyle.  We wish them and their family a beautiful and colourful future.

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