Beijing to Bombala

When Meixian (Mei) Li met her now husband, Hugh Kater in Beijing she never dreamt they would end up on his family farm near Bombala, in southern New South Wales, raising their family and living with nature and the seasons.

But she couldn’t be happier, Mei says, with their “simpler” life.

“Having the time and patience to watch the seasons unfold is something I never really understood in the big city because it is temperature controlled everywhere and you eat whatever food you want as it is always available in the shops.

“But here, you understand how nature works and how you have certain things at a certain time of the year.”

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First visiting the farm before they got married ten years ago and being struck by its beauty and “wide open spaces”, Mei and Hugh were living a “big city life together” in Beijing with no thought of living elsewhere.

“It was a life of parties, big jobs, meetings and business trips staying in five-star hotels,” she says.

Mei was working for a large US law firm doing their business development in Beijing while Hugh was the General Manager of the China Carbon Forum, a non-profit organisation with a remit covering environmental policy and the renewables and clean tech markets.

For Mei, it was also an opportunity to return to her family roots in Beijing after 20 years living in the US.

While the seed wasn’t firmly planted on that initial visit, Mei says they started to ponder the idea of moving to Australia when she was pregnant with their daughter, Padma.

“At the time we were debating whether to have the baby in Beijing or Philadelphia, where my older children live, or in Australia,” she says.

“And I really wanted to be here in Australia.”

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Moving to Canberra first, Mei says they travelled back and forth to the farm on weekends, a 400-kilometre return trip.

“I think we started talking seriously about moving back (to the farm) around COVID time,” she says.

“And I was really pushing, pushing it more than Hugh. I think he wanted to be really sure I wanted to do it.”

Drawn by its proximity to family, with Hugh’s parents on the farm, Mei says the ability to work remotely was also key, with Hugh taking his CSIRO job with him while she was able to continue her Masters in Counselling by commuting back to Canberra for a couple of classes each week.

Thinking she would also look to work remotely after finishing her Masters, possibly in telehealth, Mei quickly picked up local employment with the Monaro Family Support Service as their support worker based in Bombala.

Mei says her background in family law, together with her studies in mental health counselling, have integrated in her work with families and individuals in need.

“I understand the nature of fear when people are in distress and how it effects decision making,” she says.

“And I try to bring that to light and how people gain insight into what they are capable of in terms of their strength. So, it is all strength-based support.”

Citing her work as “rewarding”, Mei works with “supporting Mums with baby issues, with toddler issues, with teenager issues or working with parents and the school.”

Or sometimes, it is “just as simple as going for a walk to have a chat”, she says.

“It is really working with different parts of the community and has been a really good way for me to become a part of the community.”

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Embraced by the local Bombala community, a town of just 1000 people, Mei says “everybody has been just wonderful to me”.

“I am one of three Chinese people in town, maybe four, so people know who I am.

“I have never been able to reach so many people in a community because I lived in Beijing, so Bombala with 1000 people is a really good place to get to know people and form real connections”.

Also citing her daughter’s school as being a good place to meet people, Mei says their “social life is full”.

“There is always a fundraiser for something. This weekend we are going to a lunch to raise money for Currawarna, the aged care facility that was closed and hopefully we will raise enough money to reopen it.

“Then there’s garden club meetings and the school. So, there’s always something on.”

While Mei says there are “certain comforts of the city you have to not care so much about” when moving to the country, there is so much “more” they have gained.

“I have more time,” she says.

“I have more connections with nature, more connections with the family. I just walk out the door and look at my garden and there is just more life all around me.

“That’s more.”

And Mei says she knows she is really a local now, recently taking out first place for her sweetcorn at the Bombala show.

“I have gone from second place with my tomatoes when we first moved here, to first place with my corn,” she laughs.

“For Hugh to go all the way to Beijing to meet his wife and bring her back to live in Bombala is pretty amazing.”

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