Showcase: Click here for a photo slideshow illustrating Ed Poels and his family's experience in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI — The rare snowfall here dropped only 4 inches that December, but it was white and fluffy and packed well — just like the snow Ed Poels remembered from his childhood in Grand Island, Neb.
So he went early to pick up daughter Samantha at her nursery school, and they began building a snowman in front of their high-rise apartment building.
A crowd started to gather. By the time the snowman was finished, more than 50 Chinese people were watching the Poelses put an American stamp on their lives as U.S. expatriates in China.
Poels, 50, has lived in Shanghai for nearly 11 years. He's married to a Chinese woman, and they run an export business that helps U.S. companies obtain products from Chinese factories.
When Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman brought a trade delegation to China three weeks ago, the Nebraska business officials gained a taste of what it means to live and work here.
But that's the everyday reality for Poels, one of 45,000 Americans living in Shanghai, according to the U.S. Consulate here. Poels' life is one of simple pleasures and minor inconveniences, of unique opportunities and nagging concerns about school choices and health care.
To many Americans, China may seem a faraway place with an impenetrable language, different culture and unusual foods.
To Poels, it's the home he's chosen.
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On a recent summer Sunday morning, Poels and Samantha — who turns 5 next month — went searching for breakfast on the streets near their apartment building.
They passed sidewalk vendors and dodged traffic before entering a dim sum restaurant and ordering pork dumplings to go. Poels watched as restaurant workers behind glass windows formed the tasty, golf-ball-size dumplings, cooked them and packed them into small boxes.
Meanwhile, waitresses kept a watchful eye, smiling at the precocious, bilingual girl who is sometimes dubbed a “JV,” or “joint venture,” because of her American father and Chinese mother.
Samantha can seamlessly switch between English and Chinese, depending on which parent she is addressing. Her mother, Weiqing, speaks English, but Poels claims little more than survival language skills in Mandarin and less for other Chinese dialects. He can't read the Chinese characters on signs, menus and documents.
That's not a problem for business deals because English is the standard. But in other settings, he sometimes asks his daughter to help translate.
Poels says language differences are just part of what makes Shanghai an interesting and lively place to live. It can be a bit of a rush, he said.
“You gain a greater sense of self-awareness of what you can and can't do. You have to adapt,” he said. “But it becomes a source of fun, in finding ways to get it done. And you learn how to appreciate other cultures.”
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China is just about halfway around the world from where he started. He grew up in Grand Island with 11 siblings — seven brothers and four sisters — and graduated from Grand Island Central Catholic. He earned a degree in psychology from Creighton University in 1984 and then lived in Omaha for a few more years, bartending and working on a master's degree.
In 1986 he started paying off his ROTC scholarship with an active-duty tour in the Army. Later he got married, left the Army, and began working for a series of businesses such as Office Depot and Raymond Geddes, a school supply company.
Those jobs taught him about overseas sourcing — how to line up foreign manufacturers to produce products for U.S. companies. He traveled to China and elsewhere to set up deals.
By 2001, however, he was tired of working for others. His first marriage ended after 15 years and he quit his job to move to Shanghai and start his own export business in October of that year.
The timing worked out well for him. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Poels was already in China and able to help handle arrangements for companies that didn't want to put someone on a plane.
Since then, of course, business travel has picked up. But Poels said companies still find it valuable to hire him for his expertise.
His company, Asia Sourcing & Trading Depot Ltd., tends to be a liaison between U.S. retailers and Chinese factories. He can help with design and packaging, or oversee quality control.
In the past he worked with Omaha's Oriental Trading Co. on how to formulate various products, such as finger paints. He has handled deals for licensed products such as notebooks with pictures of celebrities such as Britney Spears. He helps make bags for Harley-Davidson.
For one product, Poels figured out a way — which he patented — to make a gel pen with layers of different-colored ink inside a clear pen stick.
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Someday, Poels said, he and his wife may retire and move to the United States, partly to give Samantha more educational options.
But for now, he likes his job. He likes sailing his 19-foot sailboat at a nearby lake. And he likes his family life in Shanghai.
The three share a spacious apartment — similar to a three-bedroom apartment here, larger than the apartments for typical Chinese families — on the 26th floor. It has balconies that overlook the sprawling and ever-developing city.
The balconies also hold what passes for crops — mainly a few tomato plants — for the Nebraska native who grew up on an 11-acre farm.
Inside, the house is filled with photos of Samantha and framed examples of her artwork. There are Barbie dolls and Mickey Mouse puzzles in the living room and an entire playroom full of other toys.
Poels sends Samantha to a Chinese preschool with classrooms for foreign youths. After kindergarten, she'll have to move to another primary school — probably a Chinese school that will teach her to read and write Mandarin — and then eventually to a private international school.
He laments the challenge of lining up outside activities for her. There is limited access to swing sets, jungle gyms, basketball courts and other places for kids to play. And there aren't a lot of organized sports — except for the most promising Chinese athletes.
Samantha's mother, in fact, was tapped as a potential volleyball prospect as a child and had the chance to enter China's training program. But her father rejected that option, correctly realizing she would never be tall enough to make the national team and would be better off getting an education.
Weiqing wound up working for a company that did business with Poels. They met and married in 2004.
Currently Weiqing, 39, is wearing a cast on an arm broken during a bike ride to pick up Samantha at school. Poels was not happy with how his wife was treated.
Hospitals are crowded, he said, and he doesn't trust the diagnoses and treatments. If you're injured, he said, it's better to take a taxi to the emergency room than wait for an ambulance without a paramedic.
Similarly, Poels expressed concern about product safety in China.
For example, the Samsung refrigerator in his apartment was built for the Chinese market. It has electroplated blades on the icemaker, he said, while the same appliance made for the U.S. market would have stainless steel blades.
Quality is going down for some goods made for the U.S., too, Poels said, thanks to relentless price pressure from retailers and rising expenses for factories.
Wages are up in many Chinese factories, and the currency rate has dropped from more than 8 yuan per dollar to just over 6 yuan per dollar. The result: Chinese manufacturers wind up with fewer yuan for the same sale, yet they are paying more yuan every month for their labor force.
Meanwhile, U.S. retailers have been exerting strong pressure on manufacturers to hold the line on costs.
In order to keep selling a bargain school backpack for the same $5.99 as last year, Poels said, manufacturers use cheaper nylon and less stitching. Don't be surprised, he said, if the backpack bought at a back-to-school sale has a seam rip out within a few months of use.
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The midday sun was hot as the Poelses went out for a Sunday outing. Samantha pedaled down the sidewalks on her bike with training wheels, reluctantly stopping at the intersections to wait for her parents, then forging ahead.
They crossed busy streets where traffic doesn't yield to pedestrians and vehicles careen around corners. Finally they reached the park, where Poels bought bird seed so Samantha could feed the pigeons.
The park had some grassy areas, but they were tucked behind low hedges and fences. People were expected to stay on the wide, paved walkways.
But when the sprinklers came on, Poels lifted Samantha over the fence and cheered her on as she ran through the water sprays.
The woman who sells pigeon feed, an unofficial arbiter of park decorum, shouted for Samantha to get off the grass.
Poels ignored her until the running and soaking was over, and he helped a laughing, wet Samantha back onto the path.
Later, he confided that he wanted Samantha to do more than just cool off. In a country with a culture of conformity, he wanted to nurture her independent spirit.
In short, he wanted Samantha to be more of an American in China.
“Her mother would never let her run through the sprinklers. In China, it's not allowed,” Poels said. “In my case, I know it's not allowed, but I'll wait for them to whistle me on it.”
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