Living With Kids: Kate Lao Shaffner
I think sometimes the biggest times of growth in our lives come when we shake things up a bit (or a lot!). Today’s Living With Kids story is such a great example of that. Kate and her husband took an opportunity to sell their home, take a new job and move to the other side of the planet with their two small kids. And not only that, they rent an apartment in a building with Kate’s work colleagues, which means she might find herself riding in the elevator after work, arms full of groceries, with her boss.
Kate has a great perspective on being happy with what you have and really making the most of your surroundings. Come say hello…
I’m Kate. I teach English and US Government at an American school in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I spend my days plotting ways to encourage kids to fall in love with literature and understand how important it is to be engaged citizens. (Well, that and grading papers!)
Teaching is new to me; I’m only in my second year. It’s been the best kind of challenge. The best part of teaching is the students — I love them! Before moving here to teach, I was a journalist for public radio. I occasionally still do some freelance reporting. I live with my husband, Paul, and our two daughters, Anna and Lucy.
It’s hard for me to describe Paul without feeling like I’m bragging! Sometimes I feel like his secret goal in life is to make my life wonderful. He is always thinking of ways to show his love — whether by bringing me coffee in bed every morning or enabling me to pursue big dreams. Paul is a fount of knowledge (probably because he is curious about everything) and a jack of all trades. He’s steady and a little bit soft-spoken — the kind of person who only gets more and more interesting the better you know him. People are constantly marveling at the things he knows and the things he can do.
Even though this is just our second year in Taiwan, he’s the one even old-timers will call if they want to know how to get to a remote waterfall, they need help identifying a local bird, or they want advice on local travel.
Our oldest daughter, Anna, is eight. She started reading at age three and has had her nose in a book since. (She recently finished Pride and Prejudice! Yikes.) She is a thinker; her questions about life and death, God, and justice stay with me and sometimes keep me awake at night. She loves to “have conversations” — she will come up to me and say things like, “Let’s talk about politics.” (Sometimes I politely redirect to another topic.) For fun, she writes plays, interviews her little sister for her podcast, and plays Minecraft.
I asked Lucy, age five, to describe herself in three words, and she said “fun, playful, fun.” Ha! So accurate. She has such endless, happy energy, Paul and I often just watch her in astonishment. She is the most extroverted extrovert I know, never turning down an invitation to play. When the apartment intercom or the doorbell rings, it’s almost always for Lucy! She loves to sing and talk — even when no one is listening. It’s very entertaining to eavesdrop on her conversations with herself.
Lucy and Anna have in common a sensitivity and concern for people. Their hearts are easily moved when they hear of anyone hurting. Sad news means lots of tears. When Anna has a bad day, Lucy will cry along with her (and vice versa). If there are conflicts, it’s usually because our kids fit into first born/last born stereotypes — it drives Lucy crazy when Anna “acts like she’s a grown-up” (her words) and Anna gets upset when Lucy rejects unsolicited advice.
Paul and I feel so thankful that our daughters are such wonderful adventure buddies — we love nothing more than to wake up on a Saturday and spontaneously decide to drive up to the mountains for a cup of coffee with a view, or down to the beach for a swim. Thankfully, our kids are almost always up for an adventure. They’ve braved insanely long road trips and many a red-eye flight with aplomb. They are such good companions!
I spent much of my childhood in Taiwan before moving to New York for college (that’s where I met my husband, Paul). One of the things that drew Paul and me together was our love of travel and adventure. We spent our first two years of marriage in Tanzania before settling in State College, Pennsylvania, just in time to have Anna.
We were happy in Pennsylvania. I LOVED my job in public radio, and Paul had just been given the opportunity to spend a month every year in East Africa as part of his job, which was a dream come true. We owned a beautiful house within walking distance to Paul’s work, the kids’ school, and the public library. We had just bought a brand new car.
That said, there were some things we didn’t like. We didn’t relish saying goodbye to our tiny children at 7:20 AM and not seeing them until 5:40 PM. Paul was exhausted from the endlessness of working an 8 – 5 and going to grad school, and he didn’t have a particular desire to move up the career ladder. I lived and breathed my job, but being a journalist meant some stressful evenings covering events or breaking news.
Most of all, Paul and I had long discussed the possibility of moving back to East Asia at some point while the kids were still relatively young. We loved the idea of the kids growing up knowing my culture, and it seemed like giving the kids the opportunity to learn Chinese while they’re little would be a priceless gift.
One afternoon, while I was miserably trying to come up with child care options for the summer, we heard of a teaching opportunity at my alma mater in Taiwan. I remember writing a tentative email to the school, just to see if a job would even be possible (considering my lack of experience). I assured Paul that nothing would come of it. But then the HR director urged me to apply.
Paul and I were suddenly faced with a massive decision: did we want to pursue this? Could we actually quit our jobs and move across the planet? Did we actually want to leave Pennsylvania, or were we just clinging to an old dream? We decided to go for it. Within three months, I was offered the position, we put our house on the market, and got rid of almost everything we owned.
We love our life here. I really enjoy my new job. I see Anna and Lucy in the hallway multiple times a day, and I sometimes even join them for lunch. Paul was able to keep the part of his job he loved the most — his yearly trips with students to Tanzania. Our kids are learning Chinese, and we get to see my family (who now live in the Philippines) multiple times a year. It was such an incredible lesson to learn — that you can can actually just decide to change your life.
We live in the outskirts of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city. When we first decided to move here from Central Pennsylvania, I was so excited to return to city living, but it turns out our new home is actually quite rural! We are literally surrounded by pineapple fields.
Our home is a two-bed, two-bath apartment provided by my employer (an international school). We’re on the seventh floor, which means beautiful views of the surrounding fields, mountains, and the nearby city on clear days… but it also means some extra shaking when there are earthquakes. (Earthquakes are — by far — the worst thing about living in Taiwan. I hate them.)
Our apartment complex is adjacent to the school. If I peer out my dining room window, I can see part of the track and the high school building. My commute to work (and my kids’ walk to school) takes all of five minutes.
One thing that makes our living situation unique is that all our neighbors are my colleagues! Like many international schools, our employer provides free housing as a benefit. Our across-the-hall neighbor is the 5th grade teacher, Lucy’s kindergarten teacher lives directly below us, and my principal and his family live three floors down. While living in such close proximity to my colleagues can have its challenges (I’m never QUITE sure how much my neighbors can overhear), we genuinely love it.
It is amazing to have kids knocking on our door after school every day (and at 9 AM on Saturday mornings), asking if Anna and Lucy can go outside to play. We love it especially after our previous experience living in a neighborhood with very few young children. In some ways, it feels like we’re living in the past, when kids played kick the can on the street until nightfall and you’d go next door to borrow a cup of sugar (this actually happened last week). We benefit in so many ways from community living here; a movie night with friends might require nothing more than a trip down the elevator.
Here’s my favorite story about our community: Paul was away on a work trip, and in the middle of the night, the kids and I woke up to a strong earthquake. We could hear objects falling and glass breaking in the living room. As soon as it was over, I got a string of messages in our staff housing group chat asking if everyone was ok. One friend messaged me privately and simply said, “I know you hate earthquakes and Paul is gone. I’m here, standing outside your door just in case you need company.” It was the most thoughtful thing. I let her in and she stayed with me until the fear subsided.
Back in America, I remember dreaming with friends about one day living in an intentional community, where you could have friends next door but everyone still had their own space. It’s crazy to think we’re actually living that right now.
The school has various policies for how they assign apartments to incoming teachers, based on seniority and family size. But since there are more staff than apartments available, we had to wait a while to find out which apartment would be ours. I remember watching YouTube video tours of potential apartments and dreaming of all the potential. When we received our housing assignment about a month before our move, a staff member kindly did a video tour so we could see exactly what our future home would look like.
We went from a three bedroom house (with a huge yard, a full basement, and multiple living spaces) to a two bedroom apartment, but we don’t feel a lack of space at all. While typical Taiwanese apartments can be compact (with tiny or sometimes nonexistent kitchens), our kitchen here is bigger than our kitchen in the US! We have high, high ceilings and huge sliding glass doors (and balconies) on two sides of the apartment. Living here doesn’t feel like a downgrade at all.
While there is certainly fun and excitement in house hunting and getting to choose your home, I am thankful we were simply assigned an apartment. Somehow, it’s easy to just be thankful with what we have when options (and the temptation to endlessly compare) are removed.
Paul and I were watching a show the other day. An American commercial came on (for a phone provider) and we both turned to each other and said, “I really don’t miss America.” Ha. Obviously, we miss friends and family we left behind (some days, this is painful), but we genuinely don’t feel too homesick for the material aspects of living there. (Aside from people and my job, the top things I do miss? Craigslist, Target, Amazon Prime, and autumn weather.)
To be fair, I think it’s easy not to feel homesick because in many ways, I still can’t believe I get to live in Taiwan. Again, I grew up here (albeit in another city), so I am still living the high of re-experiencing the things I’d missed all my adult life. I sometimes still tear up when I walk into a grocery store and see food items I spent more than a decade craving. And it also seems like such a gift to be able to do all the things I’d regretted not doing as a child.
Also, we get to go back to the US at least once a year (Paul goes back three times a year for work), so there’s not much time to miss anything. (Top three things I have Paul bring back for me: books, Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter, and corn tortillas.)
Taiwan itself is a dream in so many ways. The food is delicious (and cheap!), there’s a national health care system(!), and everything is so efficient. And the people! They’re so kind and helpful, especially to foreigners. The other day, Paul filed our taxes in under 15 minutes. He walked into the tax office and someone walked him through the entire process.
The kids love it here, too, thankfully. It was fascinating to observe the different ways my kids dealt with the transition. Anna loved Taiwan immediately, but she had more trouble making friends. Lucy talked about missing the US every day for a year, even though she had a dozen playmates immediately. They both miss their paternal grandparents (thank goodness for FaceTime) and still talk about their old friends. The other day, Anna asked me if she could call someone a friend even if they haven’t seen each other in a long time. I know she is still processing what it means to move away.
When we moved, we basically started over. We used a relocation allowance to ship what we could fit into a space the equivalent of a small U-Haul. Virtually everything else was given away or sold. It was such an interesting (and emotional!) exercise to have to decide what should ship and what should go.
We ended up bringing a few furniture pieces (a dry sink inherited from Paul’s grandparents, a Craigslisted dining table, a couple of old dressers) and filled the rest of the space with art, clothing, books, and toys. Let me tell you: it’s all the rage these days to get rid of stuff and simplify, but there’s nothing like moving across the planet to downsize in a hurry! We’ve found ourselves living a minimalist lifestyle by default. Even now, everything in our house has a home. We don’t even have a junk drawer. I love it. It is so easy to keep a house tidy when you don’t have tons of stuff.
It’s interesting to me that our current apartment is, style-wise, nothing like our previous house. Our old house had a completely different feel — warmer colors, overstuffed couches around the fireplace. Like so many, I’ve been drawn to a more minimal, modern aesthetic recently, and it was fun to have the opportunity to start over. While I know some might find the high ceilings, terrazzo floors, and white walls cold or unwelcoming, we’ve decided to embrace the spareness as a feature instead of a limitation and decorate in a way that highlights its natural feel.
I almost chickened out of sending home tour pics to Gabrielle because so much of our furniture is from Ikea. I felt worse when I perused the home tour archive — so many gorgeous homes with great character. (Comparison is the thief of joy!)
Back in the US, I loved scouring Craigslist, yard sales, and my in-laws’ barn for furniture — I was all about having a one-of-a-kind home. Here, I’m scouring Ikea… and pretty much only Ikea. There ARE other places to buy furniture here, but they are usually out of our budget, and I haven’t found good second-hand options. We also had to furnish our place in a hurry, so Ikea it was. With that in mind, oh, do I feel lucky to have an almost-never crowded Ikea half an hour away. What a gift! Plus, I love the challenge of taking ubiquitous pieces and finding ways to make them our own.
In hindsight, I think we did a pretty good job choosing what to give away and what to ship. My favorite things in our home are the ones that hold memories. I’m grateful we didn’t leave all our most precious things in storage back in Pennsylvania, even though we aren’t sure how long we’ll be in Taiwan. It’s nice to be rooted for however long we’re here.
The art in our home reflects our family history, whether it’s a (pretty terrible) drawing I did in high school, a photograph of a boy we once fostered, antlers that came from a deer Paul’s dad hunted in the woods around their house, or a print of an anti-war poster from an anniversary trip to Vietnam. The wooden folding chair dates back to Paul’s grandparents, and the pillow on it is from Afghanistan, a gift from some of our closest friends.
There are quite a few items that have made it through our multi-continent moves. I found the large tinga-tinga painting (hung above the dresser in the entryway) in a guest room when I was studying abroad in Tanzania — the previous guest had left it behind, thinking it was too big to pack. Our living room rug is from a college trip Paul took to Morocco — he hand-carried the rug, rolled up, on a train back through Europe in order to get it home. We are lucky to have many friends who are artists — most of our coffee mugs, much of our art, and even our coffee table are hand-made gifts from friends.
My only regret is not bringing more books! I was told books are a waste of shipment space, and I foolishly listened. I got rid of perhaps around a thousand books before we moved here, only bringing a box of my favorites. Even though English-language books are expensive and sometimes hard to find, I’m slowly working on rebuilding my personal library. The perk of only having access to expensive books is that my collection here is more curated than it’s ever been!
As I’ve previously mentioned, we have frequent earthquakes here (some serious enough to move furniture and topple items). As a result, some of our decorating decisions are an unfortunate result of having to move things around after earthquake damage. We still have a big, blank space above our bed — I removed a large piece of art from that space after the last big earthquake and haven’t yet found something to replace it.
In terms of work — it can be tricky to live surrounded by colleagues. I once lost my patience with one of my kids on our way out the door, only to have to share the elevator with my principal (who studiously avoided eye contact) only seconds later. I have the impulse to check to make sure our windows are closed if we want to talk about anything private, or even just vent about a rough work day. When you live with your colleagues, it is REALLY important to get along. I feel like our collective conflict management is a notch better than average because it is to everyone’s best interest that there are no festering grudges or misunderstandings.
There’s a humorous kind of awkwardness, too — my kids’ friends, who are also my colleagues’ children, sometimes innocently overshare and I’m left with the knowledge that, say, a particular coworker likes to spend an hour with his iPad in the bathroom every day (snicker). It’s a little awkward to make eye-contact in the school hallways directly after hearing something like that! I don’t want to know what my kids overshare about me!
People are often surprised or sympathetic when they hear we had to sell our house to move here. It was the only home our kids had ever known and we had put a great deal of time, effort (and money!) to make it our own. But here’s the thing. While I loved the house and I do miss it, I don’t miss owning a house at all.
It is so freeing not to own. There are no massive expenses that seem to come out of nowhere. Our old house had great bones but there were definitely parts that were outdated and needed work. There was always a list of things to do, and when we crossed off one project, there was always another. It is an amazing feeling to have an ugly bathroom and know it does not reflect on me! Would I ever choose our kitchen cabinets? No way. Do I mind them? Not even a little.
I love that everyone in the building has the same fake-rattan ceiling fans, tiled bathrooms, and drop ceilings. I know there are many who derive a lot of joy from renovations, but I’m not one of them. Rather, I delight in making the most of what I’m given.
It would be dishonest not to note that another reason we love not owning has to do with money. We previously had an incredibly low mortgage rate and enjoyed knowing we were building equity, but so much of our monthly paychecks went to taxes, insurance, maintenance, massive plumbing repairs, etc. Now, our housing is FREE. While we do pay for our electric, that amount is deducted from my paycheck every month. The only bill we pay on our own every month is for cell phones. I almost feel like I’m cheating at adulthood — it is glorious! We took a huge salary cut when we moved here, but because of all the benefits (and the fact that our kids are no longer in daycare), our disposable income is about the same.
I hope my kids remember how much we delighted in them. I hope they remember our spontaneous excursions and how their parents truly enjoyed each other’s company. I hope they remember long weekend mornings piled on our bed. I hope they remember how we tried to live our lives purposefully. I hope they remember how much I loved my work while loving being their mom. I hope they remember what a kind husband their dad was, and choose their own partners wisely. I hope they see their parents’ lives as an example of how you don’t have to follow one single path, but that life can surprise you in the best ways. I hope they remember that mom and dad didn’t always have the answers or know exactly what they were doing, and that was ok.
And while I don’t want them to forget how bittersweet it is to leave the only home you know to move somewhere completely new, I hope any sadness they remember is outweighed by the gift it is to embrace a new country and its culture, language, and people. I hope they look back on our move to Taiwan as the root of much joy.
Last year, the rest of the family went to visit my in-laws in the US and I stayed here alone. All my friends were so jealous, giving all sorts of suggestions for how to relish the time on my own, but I was just sad! The thing is, I really enjoy my family’s company. I am so fortunate to love working and also so fortunate that working makes me eager to soak up family time when I get home. What a full life I have.
I will miss that — miss the wonderful balance of enjoying a fulfilling job that’s mine alone and then going home ready to enjoy the shared life of family. I imagine someday, when I have all the time in the world to focus on work or hobbies or really, anything I want, I will miss the little hands tugging on my arms and the little voices interrupting my conversations. I already miss weekend mornings with the whole family piled in our bed.
I wish someone had told me to baby my oldest. Her maturity, and the fact that she is the big sister, makes me forget that she is still so little. I sometimes expect more from her than I should. I wish someone had told me early on that the best thing you can do for your own well-being is to prioritize your marriage. Actually, I’m sure someone told me that, but I’m not sure I listened. I’m so thankful I’m learning that now, even eleven years in. I wish someone had told me, back in the days when I was home all day with a newborn, not to worry so much about what everyone else is doing. I was afraid to miss out on a career. But there’s always time to start something new, and sometimes all it takes to completely change your life is to write an e-mail.
Reading Kate’s story was so inspiring! What a brave thing to do to take your family across the world and start something new, not really knowing what it will be like. But Kate’s attitude is so admirable — family, simplicity, hard work, loving your kids. Those are the things that matter so much more than how many square feet your house has. I’ll admit I had a tiny panic attack when she mentioned getting rid of so many books — but the idea that when you are forced to have less, the things you do have become so much more curated and collected.
So what about you? Could you do it? Get rid of most of your belongings and move across the country or the world? Would you love the freedom of being out on your own? Or would not having easy access to friends and family make you nervous? And what about living a few floors away from your boss? Would you worry about having your home life and your work life so intertwined?
Iringa baskets (we bought ours where they’re made in Tanzania, but you can get them here.)
Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham – you can follow him in Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.