Listen: Former newsreader Nicole Webb speaks about having to adapt to the complete lack of privacy in China that comes from living so closely with so many people
Nicole Webb is a familiar face to many of us, after spending years as a journalist and newsreader on Sky News. But after living the dream for 10 years, Nicole gave up her coveted TV job, and moved to Hong Kong with her new hotelier husband and a precious baby bump. Although it was her next destination that was the real culture shock.
Life in Hong Kong proved to be good. She had her little one to care for, her blog Mint Mocha Musings to write, a group of supportive girlfriends and freelance media work. But the craving for a bigger adventure persisted, so she gave up her life in the fragrant harbour city and moved to Xi’an in mainland China.
“I remember googling it and it looked quite attractive as far as Chinese cities go. Very quintessential China with all the red lanterns strung up everywhere and temples and pagodas – I just said to James, I think we’ve got to do it,” Nicole explained.
Although she had lived in Hong Kong for four years and had visited mainland China before, to say she experienced culture shock would be an understatement.
“Because of China’s rapid urbanisation, a lot of them are farmers that have moved into the city, so it was just like going back in time. Everyone is smoking like it’s the 70s – inside and out – people are urinating, babies on the street with their little split crotch nappies, people are spitting on the footpath. The crowds were just insane and I was used to that in Hong Kong, but the big difference was English was just so much less spoken than it was in Hong Kong.”
Nicole said that whenever she stepped outside of the hotel with her blonde three-year-old daughter, they would be swarmed.
“It was like being celebrities, but in China. Because many people there had never seen a white person in the flesh… So, they were really fascinated and that was really quite overwhelming at first.”
Nicole relates how frightening it was the first time an old Chinese man picked up her daughter, without asking, and held her above a busy crowd of people.
She also had to adapt to the complete lack of privacy that comes from living so closely with so many people. Total strangers would enter her house without knocking or have picnics on her balcony, and medical procedures would be conducted in full view of all the other patients who were waiting.
“It took me a while to work this out, but it is just because 1.4 billion people are living in this country, so there is no such thing as privacy. Even in their homes, there are several generations under one roof,” Nicole said.
She was also gobsmacked after a visit to a newly opened IKEA store, where locals napped on the beds, or picnicked at tables in the store, just as if they were at home.
But in between the funny cultural misunderstandings and misadventures, Nicole learnt to respect a culture steeped in tradition and a people who are so patriotic and proud of their country’s achievements.
“I asked a lot of them about the censorship and they would say ‘What Censorship?’ Whereas for us, clearly there is censorship everywhere. The TV would often turn to black when there was something they didn’t want you to see.”
She said many Chinese people aren’t concerned about censorship or other government intervention in their lives – they are just happy to have a roof over their heads, food to eat and the chance to go to university.
“You forget that 40 or 50 years ago it was a country in poverty and they would greet people with ‘Chi la ma?’ which means ‘Have you eaten?’”
Nicole said the people she met and the friendships made will be the most cherished aspect of her time in China. She is now back in Australia with her family and has reflected on her Chinese adventure in a funny and light-hearted memoir called China Blonde.
You can find out more at nicolewebbonline.com.