Larsens Don’t Care for Food,
Local Opera or Stares;
Ford Provides Lots of Perks
A Closet Full of Hormel Cans
By JAMES T. AREDDY
Copyright THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 2, 2005; Page A1
CHONGQING, China — As one of Ford Motor Co.’s managers in China, 30-year-old John Larsen is exposing his family to a culture they couldn’t imagine back home in a Michigan suburb.
But when his wife and kids — ages 2, 4 and 6 — moved here last September, they preferred to stay inside a 19th-floor Hilton hotel suite, where the family lived for nine months. The rarity of fair-complexioned, American children on the sidewalks of the gritty industrial city of Chongqing makes the Larsen family a crowd-stopping spectacle.
“It’s not very fun and my kids hate it,” says their mother, Laurel, 31. Over a bowl of her homemade vegetarian chili in the five-star Hilton, the Cincinnati-born woman added, “When we go home and close the door, we feel like we are back in America.”
As corporate ambitions bore deeper into China, foreign companies are sending families to less-developed cities like Chongqing. Such places offer huge, untapped markets for companies. They also provide accelerated career opportunities to young executives eager to punch their ticket on the way to upper management. But the postings can feel like a detour into isolation and culture shock for some families.
Chongqing is a city of 32 million people, but Westerners are still rare here. The city is nearly 900 miles west of Shanghai, and about a decade behind it in terms of economic prosperity. So-called bang-bang men hang out on the streets, hungry to earn a few cents lugging stones, machinery or even garbage on their bamboo poles. Residents walk on sidewalks covered in cooking oil and spittle. Even the weather isn’t a selling point: Fog trapped in by the surrounding mountains creates generally soupy skies, made worse by pollution.
American companies are drawn to cities like Chongqing because they are cheap; the average annual wage here is $1,500, about half of what it is in Shanghai. Merchandisers see markets for all kinds of products. In Chongqing, for example, car ownership is just 1.3 per 100 people, a fifth of the rate in Beijing.
A tall, confident man with wispy brown hair, Mr. Larsen sees many benefits to the move. He likes his job, developing marketing strategy for Ford. He’s glad his children are seeing a different way of life. The private school that the older two kids attend provides an excellent education, he and his wife agree.
Still, the adjustment has been more challenging than they expected. “We thought we would be eating a lot of Chinese food and the kids would be learning Chinese quickly because they’d be immersed,” says Mr. Larsen. So far, that hasn’t happened.
A marble lobby dominated by a waterfall and piano bar makes the Hilton the swankiest address in this part of China. English is the first language and a concierge takes care of smoothing over any rough spots. A blue-lettered “WELCOME” mat marked the entrance to the Larsen’s three-bedroom suite, converted from six guest rooms. It cost $4,300 a month, paid mostly by Ford. When the family needed to step outside, their driver, Jojo, waited in a black Ford Mondeo sedan, provided by the company.
Ford picks up most of the rent for its expatriate employees and encourages them to live in hotels because the conveniences help workers “remain focused on running the business,” says Ron Tyack, a senior Ford executive in China.
Expat perks are being scaled back in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and especially Hong Kong, parts of China where rapid development has made it easier for foreigners to adjust. But perks remain a must to lure Americans and their families to cities like Chongqing.
Shanghai and Beijing each have a dozen international schools, many with hundreds of students. Chongqing has one international school, in a converted house, with 40 pupils ages 2 to 17. Ten hospitals in Beijing offer foreign-grade medical care. Chongqing has a single Western-style clinic, located in the Hilton, that rotates a different doctor through every few months. Even breathing is easier in Shanghai. Chongqing has 88 fewer days of good-quality air than Shanghai during the average year, according to Chinese government statistics.
Perhaps most shocking: The Starbucks chain, which boasts nearly 100 coffee shops between Beijing and Shanghai, doesn’t have one in Chongqing.
In recent years, “the demographics of the expats have changed,” says Joseph Verga, a 45-year-old financial controller for Ford, who lives in Chongqing. When he moved here two years ago, “there wasn’t a baby” among his U.S. co-workers, he says.
Shortly after Mr. Verga and his 42-year-old wife Marybeth were dispatched to China, they trekked through Tibet. She filled their apartment with paintings from Vietnam and a clay warrior statue from Xian in western China. But after Ms. Verga became pregnant, she decided she didn’t want to go to a Chinese hospital. So this spring, two months before her due date, she flew home to Detroit to give birth to her son in a U.S. hospital. “There’s not one thing that’s the same,” about Chongqing and the U.S., she says.
Before Ford started making cars here in 2003, the city — familiar overseas as “Chungking” — hadn’t seen so much foreign attention since serving as an allied supply post in World War II. Decaying hillside mansions are a reminder that Chongqing was a capital for the Nationalist government before the civil war that brought communists to power in 1949. Today Chongqing is the main jumping-off point for tourist cruises on the Yangtze River toward the famed Three Gorges Dam.
The government is eager to boost interest in places like Chongqing, which gets just 5% of the $8 billion of foreign direct investment that Shanghai takes in annually.
The first time either of the Larsens saw China was when Ford flew them to Chongqing last summer for a visit after his job offer. The couple, who have been married eight years, realized they would be in for a big change. But there was never really much debate whether he would take the job. Ms. Larsen jokes that she knew that in accepting his marriage proposal she was also agreeing to someday follow him to China.
Her husband caught the China bug after being assigned by the Mormon Church to do missionary work in Taiwan at age 19. While there, he learned to speak and read Chinese. Today he speaks Mandarin Chinese well enough to conduct business meetings. Before moving to China, Ms. Larsen’s international experience consisted of living in London for 18 months and a vacation to Cancún, Mexico.
Like many foreigners in town, Ms. Larsen says she won’t touch Chongqing’s signature cuisine: “huoguo,” or hot pot — a fondue-like dish so loaded with fiery chilies that its aroma seems permanently suspended in Chongqing’s air, along with diesel fumes. Supermarkets feature chicken feet jutting out of crushed ice and slabs of pork dangling from sharp hooks.
Neatly dressed in slacks, a black argyle V-neck and bright white blouse, Ms. Larsen shows off her solution to the food challenge: A closet full of cans, stacked to the ceiling, with labels like Green Giant, Crisco and Hormel — items lugged to Chongqing in suitcases or mailed from overseas. Her birthday present in February was a silver, side-by-side U.S.-sized refrigerator-freezer.
Laurel and John Larsen and their children, James, 4 years old, Emma, 6, (standing) and Eliza, 2, held by her father, wear Chinese-style clothes made by a local tailor.
Food is a bargain in Chongqing. Ms. Larsen spends only $50 to $100 a week on groceries, compared with $200 to $300 in Michigan. With the help of her small network of expat wives, she has found one store that has Oreo cookies and another that stocks Fruit Loops cereal and canned refried beans. The children see little in the markets that resembles the food they remember back home. Ms. Larsen says they don’t give her much sass when she tells them: “here’s what you’re eating.”
Recently, the Larsens faced an important new food complication. Four-year-old James was diagnosed with celiac disease during the family’s summer visit back to the U.S. The boy now needs a diet free of gluten, which is found in wheat. In the U.S., Ms. Larsen prepared two cartons of special wheat-free foods to take back to Chongqing.
Entertainment in Chongqing is hard to find, the Larsens say. At a drive-through “safari park,” the children looked through car windows and watched tigers devour live chickens tossed from a ranger’s jeep. Enthusiasm about visiting pandas was marred, Ms. Larsen says, by seeing the zoo’s grubby bathrooms. The Larsens attended a Chinese opera, featuring two actors with painted faces, one in a horse costume. Tickets cost only $2, but the family, unimpressed, left at intermission.
One pastime Ms. Larsen has designed for 2-year-old Eliza is spotting dogs near the Hilton hotel. A look down an alley found no animals one Tuesday. After an hour, the little girl had glimpsed two mutts. “He’s going to his house,” Eliza said as a scruffy brown dog jostled along a sidewalk crowded with scaffolding equipment.
Chinese men and women made way for the tot to amble down on the sidewalk. Nearly everyone reacted to the rare sight of a foreign child, pointing, giggling, staring and sometimes touching her. “Eliza’s kind of like the monkey on show,” her mother said.
Ms. Larsen and her daughter took a route back to the Hilton over a pedestrian bridge, where merchants sell sunglasses, combs and belts. One woman’s habit is to thrust a mirror into the little girl’s hand each time they pass, Ms. Larsen says. She says she feels obligated to buy it, even though she is tiring of the routine. At first, the woman asked only one yuan for a mirror, Ms. Larsen says, but now she charges eight yuan, about 99 cents, for each one.
As Ms. Larsen settled up, a middle-aged man bent down for a closer look at Eliza, while a bang-bang man leaned on his bamboo stick and watched. An elderly passerby gave Eliza’s cheek a quick pinch. Everyone tried to be friendly, but Eliza, unsmiling, said nothing. She kept her head down, eyes fixed on the new mirror.
Foreigners are such a rarity in Chongqing that even Ms. Larsen gawks at times: “There’s a Westerner we don’t know,” she says, on one drive through town. Only about 25 of Ford’s 2,500 employees in Chongqing are foreigners. The Larsens say they know literally every expat family living here.
Ms. Larsen says she hasn’t learned enough Chinese in her two hours of weekly lessons to make even basic points to the family baby sitter. She often calls her husband on the cellphone to seek translation help. Looking over the skyscrapers outside the hotel window, she says, “Real life is happening out there, and I’m not connected.” Even so, she adds, “What would I do out there?”
Her offer to volunteer at an orphanage was turned down, she says. Her major diversion is teaching two Pilates-style exercise classes each week for expat women, plus dance classes for little girls. Instead of paying her, a few dollars are collected per class for a local school for the blind.
A centerpiece of expat social life is a Wednesday “ladies’ lunch,” where funds are raised for the blind school and news is swapped about which store has taco shells or sour cream. The women make visits to the fabric market, using calculators to bargain, then use gestures to show a tailor what they want made.
While she hasn’t made friends with locals, Ms. Larsen says she values her new expat friends. They are people who simply wouldn’t be in her orbit back home, she says, including a woman from Cuba and a woman closer to her mother’s age.
From the Hilton, every morning a white van picked up the older two children, Emma and James, for the 20-minute drive to the place in China they enjoy most: school. Ms. Larsen prizes the 7-to-1 student-teacher ratio at the Yew Chung International School, which Ford covers at an annual cost of $13,000 per child.
National flags wrap along the ceiling of Yew Chung School. Children from a dozen countries sit shoulder-to-shoulder at little desks. Emma’s class groups 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds. She studies Chinese each day and practices with her father at night. She is reading English above her U.S. grade level.
“I think I’m going to be a snob when I go home and walk into the public school,” Ms. Larsen says. “They go a lot faster [here].”
With two years still to go on their assignment, the Larsens recently decided to move out of the Hilton and into a five-bedroom house in a new gated community designed for expatriates. Ford pays almost all of the rent. The couple say they want their kids to have a more “American” experience, in particular a yard to play in and the responsibility to clean it up. There’s also a local pool and a playground in the area.
Mr. Larsen has recently needed to spend part of each week at Ford’s new plant in Nanjing, several hours away by plane, near China’s east coast. Ms. Larsen says his absences sharpen the isolation she feels in the new house, away from the helpful, English-speaking Hilton staff. But she says she accepts that her husband’s new assignment is a sign of his value to Ford.
The Larsens credit life in Chongqing with deepening their family ties. “We have to be friends with each other,” Mr. Larsen says. They have taken trips to Thailand and South Korea, and made plans to visit Bali and Hong Kong’s new Disneyland. Ms. Larsen says she is also trying to get out of urban Chongqing more on weekends, going to places such as parks around the mountainous region.
But they are always aware how far they are from home. Mr. and Ms. Larsen returned from dinner one evening to a find a poem from their 6-year-old daughter Emma, complete with a child’s misspellings, taped to their bed-stand. It read:
Amarica is my place!
I love Amarica.
It was fun.
It was so fun.
I miss it.
I miss my frieds.
I love Amarica.
Amarica was my place and it still is my place.