From Lake Oswego to Shanghai (and back)
Kessel family makes the most of a remarkable experience
By CLIFF NEWELL
The Kessel family had to give up a lot when it decided to go live in Shanghai.
Like friends, American food, football, backyard grill, car, and their dog, which they had to board out to relatives for two years.
Most of all, they gave up the Lake Oswego lifestyle they had come to truly enjoy over the previous nine years.
All to live in a city of 16 million people.
But Todd and Marcie Kessel, and sons Jack, age 11, and Owen, age 9, decided that the chance to live in China was an offer they couldn't refuse.
'Life is too short not to have adventure,' Todd said. 'All in all, it was a great adventure.'
It all started when Todd, the Pacific sales director of electronic parts for the Brady Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisc., got the chance to work and live in Shanghai; something he and Marcie had been slowly warming up for in the preceding months. Todd had already been making business trips to Asia for two years and Marcie had gone to China for a vacation.
Then came the offer, a look-see tour of China, and a very short window to make the decision.
'It happened so quickly,' Todd said. 'It was amazing how quickly we had to make the decision. I'm not a big city person, and Shanghai is like New York City times 10.'
But eventually the answer was 'go.' For three reasons, according to Todd.
n 'Career-wise it was good to expand my business horizons to know how to do business with China.'
n 'It was a great opportunity for our family to see another culture.'
n 'Educationally it was a great thing. The academics there would really expand our boys' horizons.'
Marcie said, 'When you actually live in a country every day, that makes a huge difference.'
Of course, adjustments were difficult for a while. Food was a biggie. Marcie was seriously worried about the boys not eating for a couple weeks. The Kessels were also Americans used to driving their cars anytime they wanted. In Shanghai they had wheels - bikes - and their feet for travel.
But there was fun from the very start. Like helping people make the proper pronunciation for 'Oregon'; trips to temples, museums and gardens; quickly becoming part of an expatriate community of people from all over the globe.
'The neatest thing was talking to the people,' Marcie said. 'Chinese people love western children. They like to look at their eyes.'
Jack said, 'They started staring at us and waving, 'Hello, Hello.''
Todd said, 'They asked, 'Can your sons come to our home and play with our daughters?''
Generally, the Chinese seemed to find all Westerners as fascinating as Owen and Jack.
'The people were lovely,' Marcie said. 'I never ran into anybody who didn't like Americans.'
'In two years there we had no issues with the people,' Todd said. 'Chinese pick out the things they like most about Westerners. With Germans it's cars. With the French it's wine. With Americans it's our lifestyle. They love the American lifestyle, our freedom, our ability to do whatever we want.'
The reason why was quite evident. The Kessels saw that freedom is not growing in China as quickly as the economy.
'We attended a Catholic church in China, and one time I noticed a guy in the corner,' Marcie said. 'I was told he was a Communist Party member. But as long as you follow the rules, you can conduct business.'
'The censorship was strong,' Todd said. 'You would be watching CNN and all of a sudden the screens would go blank if something came on that the government didn't want you to watch. It was the same for the Internet.'
'We couldn't get through on the phone and we'd hear this clicking,' Marcie said. 'Could someone be listening? Probably.'
But overall, life was fresh and fun in China. There was one new experience after another, and many of them were delightful.
Especially entertaining were the 'fake markets,' where fake Rolexes and many other imitation products could be purchased.
'I became this expert shopper,' Marcie said, and she learned so much that she is now starting what could be a very successful jewelry business.
'You have to play the game,' she said. 'You had to talk and negotiate. We always took our visitors there.
'My goal was to always get something dirt cheap.'
But the Kessels saw the dark side of China, too.
'We were worried about medicine and the lack of doctors,' Todd said. 'They have a lot of counterfeit medicine over there. We had a scare when Owen broke his wrist, but fortunately it wasn't too serious.'
Marcie was a good ambassador for her country, volunteering to work in orphanages. She felt she was doing a lot of good, doing simple things like holding children considered 'unadoptable.' But it was also heartbreaking service. Tears quickly come to Marcie's eyes when she talks about it.
'They're not out seeking to help others like we do in America,' Marcie said.
The Kessels lived in a big, comfortable house in a compound. But they lived right next to an area with many poor people, and Marcie was glad they did for the sake of their sons.
'They saw some down and out places,' she said. 'Not that they didn't have compassion before, but seeing people in those conditions was an education for them.'
There was so much more for the Kessels than China: Visits to India, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and more. But when their two years were up, they decided to go back home to Lake Oswego, USA.
'We could have stayed longer,' Todd said. 'But the time was right to go.'
'Our experience will carry into the future,' Marcie said. 'We will always carry a little piece of China with us.'
Coming home was an easy adjustment. The first thing they did was barbecue steaks night after night to make up for steak deprivation in China. They even got their dog back, and it seems to be adjusting well.
Still, while home may be sweet, this is a family with a streak of adventure.
'Once you do something like this, you get sort of a fever for traveling,' Todd admitted.