Journalist Nicole Webb worked her way up to become a newsreader at Sky News Australia, but then gave it all up on a whim to move overseas. After six years in Hong Kong and then Xi’an, China, she returned to Sydney a different person and completed her memoir, China Blonde. Read on for more about the transformative nature of her expat life and writing journey.
Tell us a bit about your pre-expat life.
I wanted to be a newsreader since I was 17 years old. I went to see my career guidance counsellor with ‘Hollywood’ on my mind, but given I couldn’t act, dance or sing, she soon set me straight. I loved books and had always admired newsreaders, so she suggested journalism. I figured that might still lead me to Tom Cruise, so I latched on to the idea.
After studying journalism, at 25, I got my first job as a television reporter in Tamworth for a regional news station (no Tom Cruise to be seen) and learnt the ropes for a few years before heading to the big smoke to freelance in Sydney. One of those networks was Sky News, where I worked as a news producer before getting a full-time job producing on their nightly business show. I also had my first foray into on-camera work conducting Health News interviews. Then, having been born in New Zealand, I got asked to read the weekend news for Prime New Zealand being broadcast out of Sky News’ headquarters, as long as I used my Kiwi accent! I worked for 10 years at Sky, eventually achieving my goal of becoming a news anchor for the main channel.
Why did you uproot your life and go overseas?
I met my husband, James, on a blind date when I was 35. He worked in hotels and warned me that they liked their staff to progress, which could involve moving overseas. After striving for my career for so long, I was scared to leave and lose my place at Sky News, so I told him straight up, ‘Nope, not me, I’m a career girl.’ He originally came to Australia from Britain as a backpacker, lured by Home and Away, so he was more than happy to stay.
A year after we were married, a job came up at the super-chic W Hotel in Hong Kong. He dismissed it. By that stage, I’d been a newsreader for a decade, and in a ‘carpe diem’ moment, I realised I could still be doing the same thing in another ten years. Life was too short, so I told James to throw his hat in the ring.
He did and he got the job!
Sky News agreed to keep my position open for a year, so off we went, Hong Kong bound! That same week, we found out I was pregnant.
How did you enjoy Hong Kong?
It was 2010 when we moved to Hong Kong and we ended up staying in the glittering harbour city for four years, so it’s fair to say we really enjoyed it. Those early months were tough though, while there were around 100,000 expats in the city, it was still isolating. Despite the mammoth crowds, stepping outside, I was one of the few blondes and there were many people who didn’t speak English. I’d given up everything familiar, from my job to my family, my friends, my pet, I couldn’t even drive because the traffic was mayhem. On top of that, James was extremely busy settling into a new job. He’d ring to say the boss wanted him to have a drink in the bar after work and I couldn’t join them for a glass of wine because I was pregnant. So, I had many ‘woe is me moments’ and my identity took a hit. For a while, I didn’t know who I was without the autocue and bouffant hair!
One of the things that pulled us through was the strength of our relationship. We had each other’s backs from the word go and that helped a lot.
Four months into our journey, Ava was born. Although we were sleep deprived in the ‘city that never sleeps,’ we ended up thriving as a trio. I came to love everything about Hong Kong and by the end, none of us wanted to leave.
How did you maintain your career?
I didn’t want to work fulltime in Hong Kong with a new baby, but I still wanted something of my own. It took me awhile to figure out what that was.
A good friend, also in Hong Kong, pulled me aside and pointed out not to forget that I had 20 years media experience under my belt in everything from public speaking to producing, writing and media training. With age, also comes credibility and wisdom, which counts for a lot, but it took me a while to get my head around that.
As a new mum, I needed flexible work hours, so I decided to try to freelance here and there.
My first job, through word of mouth, was to MC a corporate event. I’d never been an MC before, so I was extremely nervous, but figured, I’d just have to use the old ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ option. Ava was only nine weeks old and I was still three or four dress sizes larger than I used to be, so I had to find evening wear that fit me, put in some breast pads and off I went. I must’ve done something right because I’ve hosted this same event every year since, until 2020, sadly, when I couldn’t travel because of Covid.
I also started writing during this time. It was different writing for myself than for the news, so I was able to delve into the more creative style. In Sydney, amongst peers, I would’ve been too self-conscious to write random articles, but here in Hong Kong, nobody knew me, and that gave me the freedom to reinvent myself and be whoever I wanted to be! I had articles published on lots of websites, newspapers and magazines on everything from parenthood to politics, lifestyle, beauty and travel.
Two years in, buoyed by my writing experience, I started my blog, Mint Mocha Musings – the hotelier’s wife, an expat affair around the globe. It’s still going strong today. I don’t post as frequently in Sydney, but many of my articles are still relevant for anyone moving overseas, giving up a career, or living in China. It made me feel productive and gave me something I was able to monetize.
My visa might have said ‘housewife’, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. I put down my legacy on paper, as proof that I’ve lived and achieved overseas even as a trailing spouse – I much prefer the name ‘trail blazer!’
Why did you move to China?
To further his career, James needed to become manager of his own hotel. China was looking very likely as they were building 80 hotels a year. The eyes of the world were on this Communist-led country and its burgeoning economy. As a journalist, it appealed to me but still, we tried to avoid China as a family home, because it seemed too different, too foreign to what we knew.
Eventually, it was clear China wasn’t going anywhere and when Xi’an came up, the most quintessential ancient Chinese city we’d seen, we said ‘Yes.’
It was September 2014 when we landed and my first thought was, ‘What have I done?’
Bigger cities like Shanghai had large expat communities, but not Xi’an. It had a population of 9 million and was like stepping back in time. People smoked like it was the 1970s, it was crazy on the roads, and groups gravitated to us, fascinated by our blonde hair, especially Ava’s. It was frightening and daunting, but I immediately knew this experience would make a great book. Journalists all like to think we have a book in us, I just didn’t know what mine would be about. At least not until I stepped foot on Chinese soil. I blogged profusely, trying to capture such an incredible time in this fascinating country.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
No, not at all. My biggest fear was losing Ava. Once I lost sight of her in the gigantic lobby bar, which opened to this bustling street from several entryways. My heart was in my mouth. It turned out she was just playing hide and seek behind a couch.
How did you source material for your book?
From my daily observations and experiences, but I also put my journalism skills to good use and interviewed as many people as I could, face to face, to try and push past Western stereotypes and get to know the real people of China. Using a translator, I spoke to individuals from all walks of life: my 30-year-old hairdresser, a 91-year-old World War One veteran, party officials, young people, old people, as well as long-term expats in China.
I grouped the interviews under every theme I could think of from education to health, women, politics and culture.
After two and a half years in Xi’an, the call came for a job back in Sydney. By then, we were well and truly in the swing of things and weren’t ready to give up expat life, but jobs in Sydney are hard to come by so we felt we couldn’t say no. It was time.
How did the book shape up from there?
When I came home, I realized that although I’d been writing for years, I didn’t know how to write a book. I had to learn how to take a blog post and turn it into a chapter and then get each chapter to flow into the next. Talk about a steep learning curve. I took as many courses as I could on writing memoir, plotting, planning, grammar, you name it. I found a mentor, Bernadette Foley, and joined her monthly writing group, which three years in, I still belong to.
After many rounds of edits, Bernadette helped me to write a proposal. She acted as my agent and sent it to publishers. I faced inevitable rounds of rejections and now I understand why many writers give up. Getting a book published can seem like an insurmountable task.
Eventually, we connected with Brio Books, a hybrid publisher, who immediately understood me, where I was coming from and where I was going. They worked with me on branding and we spent the next year on the process of editing, cover design and typesetting. Working with Brio Books, Bernadette has played a huge part in bringing China Blonde to life and it will officially be published under the ‘Broadcast Books’ umbrella in September 2020.
Can you share the China Blonde blurb?
From a TV newsreader in Sydney to a hotelier’s wife in the heart of China – this is a true story of reinvention, love, and finding your place in the world.
Nicole Webb and her husband, James, are always up for an adventure, so when James is offered a job in the ancient city of Xi’an in north-west China, they jump at the chance. Nicole, James and three-year-old Ava pack up their home in Hong Kong and fly into a world they know nothing about – a place where they know no one.
CHINA BLONDE gives us a very personal insight, told with a journalist’s eye view, into the lives of those who embraced Nicole with open arms. Her experience along the way will resonate with anyone who’s ever built a life in a new home – be it across the city or across the world.
What is the key message you’d like to convey in China Blonde?
A section from a longer version of the book blurb sums it up. ‘We follow her search for friendship and acceptance where she discovers, no matter what your culture or background, we’re connected the world over by the common thread of humanity.’
Do you have any tips for writers?
When starting out, learn the craft. Do as many courses as you can whether it’s online, or in person. Belong to some sort of writing group to ensure your early chapters are critiqued and have other eyes on them. Find a mentor/writing coach if you can. After that, it’s all down to sheer persistence.
What advice do you have for those considering an expat adventure?
Do it! It will undoubtedly be the most terrifying but also the most exhilarating experience of your life. You just need to understand that it takes time to settle. It’s a bit like a pregnancy in my view, it takes nine months of discomfort and feeling out of sorts before you come to terms with it. You have to be patient and believe that eventually, you’ll find your tribe and while you may never feel like you truly belong, you’ll hopefully feel at home.
The person with the job often goes into ‘situation normal’, whereas the other spouse has to put themselves out there finding a home, schools, doctors, where to shop for groceries, friends etc, which can be incredibly overwhelming and lonely. If this is you, make sure you find something of your own, even if it’s something small. Whether it’s learning the language or volunteering or starting a blog, whatever it may be that allows you to indulge in your own passions and keep a little bit of your own identity.
I’ve started another book. It’s contemporary fiction, so I’m on another steep learning curve. Set in Hong Kong, it tells the stories of four women expats from all walks of life.
I’m also working with a former head of the Speakers Institute to put together a keynote speech on ‘How to live a life less ordinary’, which focuses on how to successfully make change whether it’s moving countries, chasing a new career, or having a successful relationship.
You can follow Nicole on:
Website: http://www.nicolewebbonline.com (Note: signed copies of China Blonde can be ordered from this website.)
Next time: Yasmin A. McClinton on Being a Sensitivity Reader
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