pondering family, work and home

It seems like my mother is heading back to Europe for sure next year.

She "retired" this year, in the sense that she gave up her job with no intention of looking for another one. She also did that several years ago but it turned out to be a sabbatical. This time it might be for good.

If you recall about two months ago she shared that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Like, not just some whatever cancer, but excision and chemo and radiotherapy cancer. I sent her a couple of emails over the space of as many weeks - which for me is a lot - but she didn't reply. Then i stopped. I figured no news was good news.

She's two chemo sessions in now, with a third coming up and then on to radiotherapy. Two of her sisters flew down from Europe to look after her for the first few weeks, so at least she wasn't totally alone. That's pretty awesome of them.

I guess it would have been pretty awesome of me if i had offered. But i am the worst child. I feel like it would be a waste of my meager vacation allotment (not to mention my savings) to fly to a country i do not like to look after a sick person. Even if that sick person is my mom.

I was always the distant child. I love my parents, but i rarely speak to them - maybe one email every few months, sometimes even just one or two emails a year. We only meet in person once every few years. It never seemed to matter because my dad has a new family and my sister was always in deep with mom. They used to talk every week, spend holidays together and so on.

It seems, though, that something has happened between my mom and sister. Mom said she's living in her own world now and doesn't really want much to do with her. That's super-weird because if, compared to me, my sister is distant, that's like... estrange-o-rama.

Anyway, my mom had been talking about going back to Europe while i was still living there. I think part of it was because i was there, but even now i have left she still has the itch. I know she would like to be with her mother (my oma) who just turned 90 and is probably ready to go soon. Perhaps this cancer treatment has been a wake-up call that she doesn't have anyone at all in Australia besides my sister. One of her siblings lives in California but all the rest of her family lives in the Netherlands.

My mother left the Netherlands over 40 years ago. She was back there for a few years in the 90s - it's where i finished high school - but then she headed back down under. She's been living in Australia for over 20 years. She felt so at home there she gave up her Dutch citizenship to become an Aussie. But now? She is dead fucking serious about heading back not only to the Netherlands, but to Limburg province, where she was born and spent the first 18 years of her life.

Don't get me wrong, Limburg is nice. Maastricht is a lovely city, and the Dutch south feels rather more charming than the ultra-modern, densely packed polders up north. Europe is a great place to retire. Excellent public transport. Museums. Castles. Parks. And God knows i am much more likely to go visit mom in Europe than in Australia. But it still surprises me.

In Chinese they have the word 老家 which literally means "old home". It means... the place your family or clan is from. The place where your ancestors are buried. Even if you never lived there, it's still your 老家. My mom is 60ish, and it seems she is finally hearing the call back to her 老家. Well, sort of, considering her ancestors go back to Germany and Malta and God knows where else, but that's Europe for you - we're all mutts. Point is, it's not Australia.

Whatever her reasons are, it makes me happy she'll be living somewhere i actually want to go.


This Golden Week i have spent 5 days straight lying in bed. It feels like a waste. The weather has been fantastic. I should have at least gone out one day to climb a mountain or bike across the city or do something outside. But i was exhausted. I really needed to do nothing at all. I'm not sure the break has completely replenished my energy, but i do feel calmer than i have in weeks. It's sort of a lazy contentedness.

God, i cannot wait till i can retire.

In the mean time, i started nosing around the job sites. There is a possibility that the new CTO will have enough of a positive effect on restructuring this company that my whole experience here will transform... but it's just as likely it won't. Even if it does i know it'll take 6 months or more to get traction.

I don't hate my job. It's not challenging or interesting, but i knew that going in. What i didn't know going in was that i wouldn't get to speak any Chinese at work and i wouldn't get to spend any time hanging out in the PRD factories where our software is used. And those were two things i thought were going to be major perks of the job.

So, i figure if i'm just going to be working the same old shit job i could have been doing in Berlin or Toronto or any other goddamn city in the world, perhaps i should look for one where i can speak more Chinese, or where i get paid more, or even just find one in a different city so i get a change of scenery and can "travel" without going on a visa-busting sabbatical.

That's how i ended up reading about Chengdu. If you look at a map of China, Chengdu is the last city on the left. Basically there are all the well-known cities of China along the east and south coast, then a whole bunch of inland cities you probably never heard of, then Chengdu, then fucking nothing. Well, nothing in the sense of the Tibetan plateau, which is over a thousand miles across and has about as many people in it as can fit in a football stadium. If you go up north a bit you can follow the silk road across the desert to Xinjiang and central Asia, but directly west of Chengdu is a brick wall. The roads just stop.

So Chengdu is the final frontier, but it also happens to be the only city in mainland China besides Shenzhen where i felt totally comfortable and relaxed walking around. I don't know why, because i didn't experience any memorable moments there and didn't enjoy a single vista. It just felt right. There were wide roads and greenways and canals and restaurants with plastic stools. So it was on my shortlist of places to learn Chinese, along with Kaohsiung and Shenzhen.

I added it to my LinkedIn search list, and it turns out there are quite a few companies up there i could work at. I immediately applied for a job at a games company, though the ad was over a month old so i doubt it's still open.

Then i decided to do some Chinese practice by doing the kind of search i would do in English if i was thinking about which Canadian city to move to. I typed in 成都深圳去哪儿 - Chengdu, Shenzhen, where should i go? And then i read.

One thing that has been a common thread through my conversations with everyone around mainland China and Taiwan is that Shenzhen is a soulless city full of people who only care about money. Chengdu, on the other hand, is portrayed as a laid-back, old-fashioned place where people go to retire. It's odd because between the gleaming skyscrapers and the giant Mao statue I didn't find Chengdu old-fashioned at all. Meanwhile Shenzhen is exactly the kind of city that would be great to retire in: good air, tons of greenspace, close to the ocean, excellent infrastructure... but, whatever.

The overwhelming wisdom of the 中国网民 (Chinese netizens) was go back to Chengdu. 好好过日子吧 - enjoy your days. Life is too short to spend it all earning money. Chengdu has better food, they say. Friendlier people, more affordable housing, and so on. Basically the only argument anyone had for staying in Shenzhen was that it'd be easier to find a new job if you lost your current one. Like... really, that's the only reason to live in Shenzhen?

Well, that and the air quality. Note: Chinese get into very long debates on the internet about the relative air quality of different cities. They pull out PM2.5 and PM this and PM that, all kinds of pollution numbers i never heard of. Shenzhen is considered one of the best cities in China because - in spite of it being right in the Pearl River Delta, factory capital of the world - it also has sea breezes, so the smog just blows away. Chengdu, on the other hand, is in geological depression that is renowned for trapping clouds.

I don't care too much about air pollution. I know it's very bad for your health and i know anywhere in China will be worse than here, but i also trust things are improving. Cleaning up the air is one of the top government priorities, and when the CPC is serious about something, it will get done.

But i do care about clouds. It turns out the Sichuan basin is the cloudiest place in the world. The only comparable spot is the Faroe fucking Islands. Seattle, nothing. Even Scotland isn't this bad. Chengdu and Chongqing get about 2 months of sunlight each year, total. For the rest it's overcast. Hot and cloudy. Cold and cloudy. Nothing and cloudy. Apparently that's why Sichuan cuisine is spicy, because it's supposed to balance out the clouds. I'm not sure any amount of spicy food could make me happy with never seeing the sun.

On the other hand, we just had 5 days straight of sun and i spent all of them inside with a desk lamp on. And at work i'm behind a screen all day too.

Anyway, the point is, the 网友 consensus is if you care about quality of life, Chengdu beats Shenzhen hands down. But what i found the most interesting was that the only people who asked the question were Sichuanese. Aside from Tibetans, nobody in China actually chooses to move to Chengdu as a destination in its own right. People in China choose between a good job in a tier one city or the comfort of their 老家.

And that's when i started thinking about my mom again. Because a lot of the positives about going back to Chengdu were things like being in a place where you can look after your parents when they get old, being in a place where you have your extended family and school friends, all that sort of stuff. And it made me marvel how strong it is, the tie that binds you back to your 老家, that even decades later you want to go back there.

And then i started wondering again - as i have many times before in this journal - where is my 老家? When i am 60, will i go back to somewhere? Will i consider my quality of life better in a place where my family is?

I guess not, because by the time i'm 60 all my family will be dead.


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