Interview with Timi Olga

An afternoon conversation with my best friend in Shanghai. She’s our young and funky cat-lady, full of colours, the one who designs my hair, shows me make-up tricks, shares her most intriguing stories and the one who gives me a shoulder to agonise on on a Bad China Day.

Name: Timi Olga Nagy

Place of Origin:  Budapest, Hungary

Time spent in China: 2 years

You came to Shanghai with your young family, following your husband who was assigned here by the Government of Spain. Was it a sudden decision and was it easy to leave your life back in Hungary and settle down here for a long period of time?

While it was a sudden decision, we’d already been planning to move somewhere abroad. Ivan, my husband, was working for Cervantes Institute in Budapest and in 2009 they announced 10 library management positions opening in 10 different international locations. Out of them 8 were in Arabic countries, 1 in Bulgaria and 1 in Shanghai. Since I’ve always been interested in China, it couldn’t have been easier to make up our minds where we’d want to go!

With two kids we had to take a lot into considerations. We thought it important to find some good local Chinese school for my son Leo, who was 3 at that time. It’s a great opportunity to learn this language now, which will prove very useful in the future. Alma, my 9-month old daughter, was small enough to get used to this environment quickly, so much so that now, after 2 years, she regards China her home, totally. Besides, I, as a young woman, can enjoy all the freedom on a daily basis. Shanghai’s always been an exotic place for me and now here we are!

Did you have any prejudices about Shanghai or China in general?

Actually, no, I did not really have any prejudices. A lot of people associate Chinese people with those who run the shoddy knick-knack stores in Europe. For me, China was more about their ancient culture, martial arts etc. The only problem we were worried about was air pollution but we’ve learnt to live with it.

Is Shanghai the best place for shopping (colours) and make creative/crazy ideas come true? 

So true! Shanghai is the paradise for shopping. For fashion styles and colours, both. Since everything’s manufactured here, you can find practically everything you like. For me, it’s always been important to live life „colourfully”, to fill my environment with as many shades as possible. Here I get so many inspirations that I started a blog a year ago, collecting some of my impressions there. The most incredible thing in Shanghai is that, besides finding all the high-end brands like Luis Vuitton etc, if you know where to look, you can get super cheap good at very low prices, like at Qipu lu market. Well, online shopping here is another big thing: since I learnt about Taobao, I’ve become an ultimate taobaoholic!

What’s your experience with Ayis? (domestic helpers)

They are a treasure! Since families here don’t have as much help (from grandparents, other relatives and friends), we need an ayi who fills in this space. Since we arrived, we’ve had two „aunties” and have been very lucky with them! They are genuinely nice and reliable and once we move from Shanghai, I guess they will be the most we’ll miss from our life now. 

Do you live the typical life of an expat housewife (Those with a driver, no job, on a thick expat package, living in a secluded foreign environment and having no contact with locals)? 

Absolutely the opposite! We came here to be part of the local society. We don’t want to isolate ourselves but have a similar lifestyle to them. I never really understood those foreigners who come here and then live as if they were still in their homeland. I think they miss out on a fantastic experience!

Is it difficult for your kids to adjust to this mega-urban, foreign-speaking environment? How are they coping with the language? 

They were very small when we moved here (Leo 2.5 years and Alma 9 months), and since we had Chinese ayis and mingled with Chinese friends all the time, for them Chinese comes as a natural language now. Funnily enough, especially to local Chinese people who always want to speak to them in English first, everyone’s surprised how well they communicate in Chinese. Ivan and I both believe that learning Chinese is the first precious gift we got from this country!

What keeps you busy nowadays?

I try to do many things at the same time. I’m full of ideas and since it’s the land of opportunities, it’s easier to make my dreams come true. Among others, I work for a Chinese company and we import European sweets and also planning to open my bakery to sell traditional Hungarian chimney cakes (Kürtőskalács) . Besides, as I mentioned before, I write my blog, do shopping on Taobao and am a full-time mother! 

What annoys you from back home after this China experience?

Hungarians tend to be pessimistic and they often focus on others’ misfortunes instead of happiness, ’cause this way they can see that their own life may be better than others’ or it’s easier for them to feel some empathy this way. Being content and satisfied can be a disturbing factor for outsiders! My motto has always been that nothing is impossible and with the right attitude you can fulfill all your dreams.

Do you get questions from back home that upset you?

Not really. I speak to my mum on a daily basis, who is my role model in life. She is very open-minded and likes Shanghai so much that she will probably move here soon.

Do you think it’s easy to socialise with Chinese people? Do you have many local friends? Is it easy to get on with them?

It is easy to get on with them but to go deeper and cultivate close friendships is extremely challenging. I’m amazed at this cultural diversity and I don’t see them as anything negative and I’m really interested in their culture. I believe that exactly the differences are what make life more colourful!

Speaking of cultural differences, is Hungary „East or West”?

Well, both! I guess that’s what makes Hungarian people special. And difficult!

Something you’d recommend that is unlikely to be found in a guide-book

The underground part of Shanghai. I mean just get lost and wander in the streets in the less well-known areas, where you can find semi-secret art galleries with their owners painting their pictures, for instance. Shanghai is a multicoloured city where you can find all sorts of genres and styles!

Pick a place for coffee or tea in Shanghai   

One would definitely be GZ in the Jingan Villas, which present writer-lady took me to! And Bandu, of course, on Moganshan lu.

Your favourite meal in China

Soy-bean noodles, with cucumber, carrots in some mildly-spicy sauce.

What would you most recommend travelers who plan to visit Shanghai?

Shanghai is about the clash of the modern and traditional, so they should pay close attention to the contrasts.

Last thing that freaked you out in Shanghai

We live in the Putuo district, in the largest residential complex of the city with 100,000 residents. Naturally, there are all kinds of people but some are insane: chucking rubbish out of their apartment windows. The other day a plastic bag, full of some slimy trash, someone threw from the 20th floor, landed just in front of me. Sometimes we see car window sills smashed because a beer bottle lands on them. I don’t understand why the management don’t act on this.

Budapest versus Shanghai

  1. Compared to Shanghai, all the other cities are boring!
  2. There are more smily faces in Shanghai, even if their lives are harder. They seem to know how to enjoy the little things they have!
  3. I believe Shanghainese don’t reach the „ emotional deepness” of Hungarians

Favourite Chinese singer

My sweet friend Ping An, who performs at Melting Pot every Wednesday and Saturday. He recently won a talent show and will release his own album soon.

If you could use only one sentence/phrase to describe it, what does expat life mean to you?

I don’t feel like an expat.

Your destination at Chinese New Year 

Well, this is a tough one. It would have been Phuket in Thailand, but we found out at the last-minute that my passport will expire in 2 months. Since it has to be valid for at least 6 months at the time of travel we had no other choice but stay at home and enjoy the new year celebration of the dragon!

Favourite recreational activity during the weekend

We dedicate the weekends to our kids. The best thing is that there are so many different places you can take them to: there are various kids parks in shopping malls and we all love the long brunches in Indian and Spanish restaurants! We like trying new cuisines every time.

What’s the hardest to get used to in Shanghai?

People throwing trash out of the windows and the way they drive here.

Three things you love about locals

I love their childish innocence, their friendliness and that they seem to appreciate what they have.

Is China a land of opportunities?

Of course, it’s full of opportunities! You just have to try a little and opportunities will find you. I, for instance, will soon start work in a telesale show, selling our imported sweets. Everyone who comes here to Shanghai, should have a business card ready asap and spread them all around town quickly.

Thank you, Macska!


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