In my last post, I said that my husband and I came up with the brilliant idea of foregoing weekend extracurricular activities for the kids so that we could use Saturday as our “Family Adventure Day” and get out of the expat bubble here in Beijing suburbia and explore China.
Our first attempt to actually follow through with our plan led us to the discovery of Taoyuan Valley—an excellent place to hike and get away from the crowds.
Our second Family Adventure Day didn’t go so well.
We’ve been in China now for one year. The ease we had in returning to China after our summer break in the States shows just how much we learned during that first year. The second year in a new country is so much easier than the first.
Though our transition last year went as smoothly and easily as it possibly could have, I look back on my family’s first year in China, and can’t help but notice that we didn’t explore China all that much. For most of the year, we were consumed with finding a house, getting settled, figuring out how to get around, and helping the kids find their groove and thrive in it. For the most part, we worked hard to find our comfort zone and then we decided to stay there.
When my son was only two, my husband told our friends that his first child was a genius.
Okay. Maybe he didn’t say those words exactly, but he did like to inform anyone who would listen that his two-year-old son knew the whole alphabet (upper and lower case), could tell you all the letter sounds, and could count and recognize numerals as well.
During these cringe-worthy revelations, the realist that I am, I’d take it upon myself to divulge the rest of the story. Between the obligatory ooooh’s and ahhh’s from the poor recipient of this information, I’d fold my arms and my usually soft-spoken, barely-there voice would speak up with an uncharacteristic sarcasm. “What he’s not telling you,” I’d say, “Is that he knows all of that stuff only because we’re lazy parents who use the iPad as a babysitter.”
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a family event at a conservation club, the grounds of which had a large building, a shooting range, and a pond for dog races. Having attended several United Kennel Club (UKC) Coonhound events growing up, I recognized the use for the pond right away—at one end of the pond was a tree and at the other, a coop rigged to release multiple dogs at the same time. I watched so many dog races at ponds similar to these, looking at it evoked memories of weekends spent at the coon club watching water races or running around with other kids burying a treasure we had gathered inside an old coffee can. (If you’re curious what a coonhound water race looks like, check out this video.)
My husband and I were both born and raised in the United States but experienced very different childhoods. He also had noticed the pond—oblong, man-made, and obviously serving some purpose—but hadn’t quite figured out its use. As my dad and husband stood around outside, Hubby finally asked him if he knew what the pond was for.
In my last post I talked about the frustrations of living in China. Simple errands—opening a new bank account, changing phone plans, returning items to the store—become complex projects. Even mundane tasks—buying groceries, driving a car, communicating simple sentences—can become grand accomplishments.
And yet even if I sometimes have bad days and miss home, there are many things I love about being an expat, and I wouldn’t want to give them up by moving back to the States. Here are eight things that I love most about expat life.
When I first arrived, the other expat moms I met here didn’t bother to sugarcoat their experiences in China. “I’m going to be real with you,” they said. “Be prepared to have good days and bad days. When things start to go downhill, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘It’s China. That’s just the way things are.’ And then move on.”
I’ve been pretty fortunate since arriving that my good days have far outnumbered the bad, and yet one day last week, I was walking home and the sights and smells and sounds of China—the tuk-tuks driving by, the language I couldn’t understand, the slight smell of smog in the air—left me wishing for home.
About eleven years ago, while I was living in Korea, a running friend and I tried to register for the Great Wall Marathon. When we realized how cost-prohibitive it was for nonresidents of China to run one of the most difficult marathons in the world, our plans never materialized.
I stored the idea away. And for the next several years, every time I’d amp up my running or fitness routine, the Great Wall Marathon would move to the forefront of my consciousness. I’d play with the idea for a while and then tuck it away again, thinking maybe the Great Wall could still be a someday.
Once the weather turns nice, my family loves to be active outside where the kids can get their wiggles outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Here in Beijing, that can get tricky. Not only does the weather need to be nice, but the Air Quality Index (AQI) needs to be favorable. When the stars align and both of those things happen on the same day, you better believe we’ll take advantage of it.
When we moved to Beijing, we decided to live in the suburbs (Shunyi District). This meant we were far from the parks and activities that downtown Beijing could offer us, but we were close to the international schools and where most expat children live. When we first arrived, we wondered how many amenities we would find in the suburbs so far from the city center, but soon after we arrived, we were fortunate to discover a stunning park area a short drive away.
Several months ago I took my children to a coffee shop and treated them to a smoothie. One cup for the two of them to share would be plenty . . . at least I thought so at the time.
Their faces tell the story:
Any time we move into a new country, a part of us will change. We have to. We learn a new language (or at least pieces of one) or other tricks to enable communication. We learn cultural taboos and make sure we don’t commit them. We embrace the differences when we can. When we can’t embrace them, we endure them and try to be positive.
Perhaps the biggest culture shock in coming to China was not the language (having lived in Korea, I was accustomed to getting by with minimal language) or the air quality (I was prepared for the worst and ended up being pleasantly surprised).
The most difficult challenge was the seemingly flippant regard for others’ safety and well-being—mostly on the road. In a previous post, I discussed the morbid Chinese reaction to car-pedestrian accidents. You can read that here.