Twenty years ago, my wife and I moved with our two young sons to Tokyo. We expected to be there for three or four months. We ended up staying in Japan and Malaysia for nearly four years. We traveled frequently in China, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines, and we dodged visa rules to get into Burma and Vietnam. One year our children attended Japanese public school, which helped and hurt them in ways we’re still hearing about. After our family moved back to Washington, I spent most of another year on reporting trips in Asia.
Not long ago, my wife and I moved to Shanghai for an indefinite stay. You can’t do the same thing twice, and we know that this experience will be different. Our children are twenty years older and on their own. We are, well, twenty years older. The last time, everything we saw in Japan and China was new to us. This time, we’re looking at Shanghai to compare its skyscrapers and luxury-goods shopping malls with the tile-roofed shop houses and rundown bungalows we first saw here in 1986. The whole experience of expatriation has changed because of the Internet, which allows you to listen to radio programs via Webcast and talk daily with friends and family via Skype.
But it still means something to be away from the people you know and the scenes and texture of daily home-front life: the newspapers, the movies, the range of products in the stores. (Most of America’s ubiquitous “Made in China” merchandise is hard to find in China itself, since it’s generally destined straight for export.) And the overall exercise is similar in this way: the Japan of the 1980s was getting a lot of the world’s attention; today’s China is getting even more. [Read More]