This interview is a bit different from our usual profiles of people we meet while traveling. In this case, it’s a family affair. Matt and I are endlessly inspired by our cousin Rob, his wife Julee and their three kids. This adventurous family of five moved from Houston, Texas to Ningbo, China when Rob’s company offered him a position as Deputy Technical Manager for a plant.
Today, three years into the immersion, Rob is the only foreign worker on site, which he says provides for unique opportunities and challenges. Together, the family takes every opportunity to travel through China and around the region, gaining a unique perspective on the world with every step.
In this interview, American engineer Rob Casey talks about the family’s full immersion, living in Ningbo, China.
- Hey Rob, thanks for chatting with us! Let’s begin with a snapshot of Ningbo. How long have you and your family been there? Will you tell us a bit about the city?
Ningbo is on the east-coast of China, about 3-hours south of Shanghai. We have lived here for 3 years and recently made the decision to stay for one more year. Ningbo is small by Chinese standards, but the population is somewhere between 5-8 million people, depending on where you draw the city-limits.
We live in an apartment in downtown and have the ability to walk or ride bikes to just about anything we want to do. When you need it to have a “small-town” vibe you can easily stop into one of your favorite restaurants or bars where you know the staff by name (and likely most of the people there as well), or if you need the energy of being in a bigger city, you stop into a speak-easy or one of our cocktail bars for a perfectly made drink.
- Moving to another country with your family must be daunting. Will you tell us about your decision process and initial reactions to the cultural shock?
We spent several months wrestling with the idea of making the move to Ningbo, and we finally realized that we likely couldn’t screw up our kids if the move turned out to a be a major bust. Our kids were 8, 4.5 and 2 at the time. The first few days were an intense mixture of jet-lag and culture immersion, as we struggled to get taxis and find the necessary comforts to help us adjust to our new life. My wife is the eternal optimist and was the one that pulled us through the first few weeks. Once we settled in and started learning our way around the city (as well as the necessary words to order a cold beer or a glass of red wine) our level of happiness took off exponentially.
- How have you as a family integrated into the local community?
Julee has become extremely involved with the local community. She has a leadership position with an amazing charity, “One World One Dream,” that raises money to provide funds for local women with breast cancer. She is also extremely involved with the Ningbo Foreign Ladies group and works to organize monthly lunches and dinners. She also serves on an advisory board at our children’s school.
I started brewing beer a year ago with a good friend, and we have recently started selling our beer at one of our favorite bars in Ningbo. We stay pretty busy with this, as the demand for quality beers has far exceeded our expectations. Another friend recently bought a still and I tried my hand at making gin earlier this year.
I try to balance my hobby of making and drinking alcohol by staying physically active. I ride my bike home ~25 km home from work in the crazy Chinese traffic most days, and I am always looking for running races to compete in. I ran The Great Wall Marathon last year with my best friend from the States, and I have a few races on the horizon for the end of this year.
- You are amazing about using this opportunity to see other areas of China as well as countries around the region. Where you have visited during your residency?
We came over with the realization that this may be the only opportunity we have with the kids to see this part of the world. We decided to take full advantage of this opportunity with the goal of seeing as much of the world as possible. We even gave our kids the option of using our vacation to either go home and see their extended family, or to keep exploring new places. Much to the dismay of their grandparents, it was a resounding “yes!” for avoiding the States until we move home for good. Few things have ever made me prouder.
Within Mainland China, we have visited Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou and Sanya. We have also visited Hong Kong multiple times, Japan twice, Bali twice, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Macau and Singapore. We also took a break from Asia last year and went to France and The Netherlands for a few weeks. We have trips scheduled for Cambodia and The Philippine’s this year and Australia and New Zealand next year.
- What have been the biggest challenges to living in another country, especially one as different as China is from your home culture?
Living and travelling abroad requires a lot of patience, especially when tired kids are involved. We are constantly faced with stressful situations and I am still trying to find ways to laugh when things don’t go our way. Julee does a much better job at this and I have been trying to learn from her.
We thought that the lack of a car would be a major issue, but China has plenty of transportation options from bikes you can rent for $0.15, or the ability to take a 30-minute Didi (Chinese version of Uber) for around $5.
- What do you hope your kids will take away from this experience?
I want our kids to inherit our wanderlust and have that desire to experience everything. While I am fully capable to enjoy a 2.5 week vacation in Thailand, I can’t help but find myself thinking about where we should go next. I want them to have a great appreciation for this world and the many amazing people and cultures in it.
“There isn’t much in this world that pains me more than people being brought up with a mindset of exclusion – whether it is based on race, sex, religion, etc. We try to show our kids the beauty in other cultures and religions,” says intrepid traveler Rob Casey.
- I’d love to know more about your basketball team. How long have you played? What is the background of your teammates? Has it helped you to make friends and feel like part of the community?
I was lucky that our company is big enough to have several different sports and teams. I am on a basketball team with some of the engineers in my company, and we play against other groups in our organization. I have never been the best at basketball, but what I lack in skill I try to make up for with my competitiveness. This doesn’t always work for me, and has lead to me fouling out of a game a few times, teaching my coworkers a few English curse words and breaking a few ribs. However, I absolutely love the bonding that comes from competing with and against your friends.
- Making craft beer in China, that has to be a crazy experience! How did you get started and what’s happening now?
Back in May 2017, my friend Andrew and I were sitting on the balcony of my apartment having a few drinks. We started talking about we felt like had fallen in a trap of going to the same restaurants, same bars, and drinking the same beers. We had both been on the hunt for some quality craft beers, but wound either coming up short or having to shell out $6-10 a bottle. Once we found out that we had both brewed before coming to China, we jumped in and started to purchase the equipment that night.
We brewed our first all-grain batch in June 2017, and while it wasn’t very efficient, we ended up with an amazing IPA that was extremely satisfying. We then began to build our own recipes and play around with different hops and malts. We got a little ahead of ourselves and realized that we had way too much beer for our small group of friends to drink, so started to give a few samples to our friends. Almost everyone that tried it wanted to buy a few 6-packs, so we started brewing more often and eventually made the jump from 20 liter batches to 45 liter batches to keep up with the demand.
We found that the people really loved our IPAs so we decided to make that our focus. One of our friends asked if we could supply some beer for one of the parties at her bar, and within one hour all 80 beers were gone. We noticed that she had an empty tap on her machine, and we offered to start selling her kegs. We now rotate between 4 different recipes at her bar (2 IPAs, one APA, and a blonde ale) and we struggle to keep up with the demand. Our friends organized a party at her bar with proceeds going to “One World One Dream” and we ended up finishing three kegs of beer in less than four hours.
We are currently talking with the owner of an amazing restaurant and brewery in Ningbo about renting out his brewery and using his licenses to help us increase our capacity. We have both committed to staying in Ningbo for another year and we are interested to seeing how far we can take this.
- What advice would you share with a family considering relocation to another country for work?
As long as you think the place you are moving to is safe and that your kids will have the ability to have friends, don’t hesitate for a second. These three years have provided some of the most amazing opportunities for our family. While we definitely have aspects of our life in the States that we miss, we wouldn’t trade it for a second. We have all made adjustments and sacrifices, but it is more than worth it.
- What are your plans for the future?
I just extended my contract for another year, so we will be in Ningbo until August 2019. I have told my company that I am interested to remain in China if an opportunity is available. If our brewing continues to be successful, then we may find ourselves faced with a tough decision next year, but we will take it one day at a time for now.
Rob’s Quick Picks:
Although it is a small city, Ningbo is one of world’s busiest ports.
One place every visitor to Ningbo should experience?
Lao Waitan is the main restaurant and bar scene and a great place to go for dinner and drinks. It is also a great place to walk around as it is right on the river and offers amazing views of the city. Gulou Street is also a cool place to walk through as it has the city’s original drum tower.
Tangyuan. It is a ball made of rice flour that usually has a sweet sesame paste inside. It is amazing!!
Least favorite local food specialty?
Stinky tofu. And yes that’s a thing. It’s fermented tofu and it has a very distinct smell!
Most memorable trip around the region?
Thailand. Starting with the thrills of Bangkok, switching to the chill pace of Chiang Mai, going to the clear blue water in Koh Yao Yai and ending at an amazing family-oriented resort north of Phuket. Awesome people and amazing food.
Country or city that surprised you the most:
Bali, but not for the reason most people would think of. For me, it was the people. They are all so truly amazing, peacefully, and thankful for everything they have. The city is filled with their daily offerings (canang sari), and I always feel humbled about the many things in life I complain about.
Place you dream of visiting next:
The Philippines (tentatively scheduled for December 2018)
Book that has inspired travel:
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.
Your go-to travel essential:
Bose headphones and a bottle of wine!
If you enjoyed this interview, you might also enjoy these stories and links:
A few years ago, I also interviewed Rob for my “Travel Secrets” column for Paste magazine about how to pack for a family of five. Read that story here and discover great tips to PACK LIKE A PRO!
Why do we use the word “expat” for some and “immigrant” or “migrant worker” for others? This discussion is vital to our understanding of what it means to travel and work in a global economy. For more on this important discussion, here’s an excellent BBC story about the weight of our words: The Difference Between an Expat and An Immigrant?