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 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.
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.
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.
I’ve been overseas long enough to know that the media doesn’t always give an accurate portrayal of what life is really like in certain parts of the world.
For ten years I lived in Seoul, Korea and every time North Korea came to the forefront of media coverage, I would get a flurry of questions: “You guys all right over there?” or “Korea is so dangerous. I can’t believe you live there.”
Every time, my answer was the same: “Life carries on as normal. You would never know North Korea is stepping up its antics yet again.” In reality, although you would never guess it from media coverage, even with the North Korean border only thirty-five miles away, we were much safer in Seoul than we would have been in the USA. You could lose a wallet on the subway in Seoul and would get it in the mail a week later with the money and credit cards still inside. Instances like this, in which Koreans won’t even pick up dropped money from the street, don’t surprise me at all. But those kinds of realities don’t get media attention.
I understand that media coverage can distort our concept of what it would be like to live in a certain country, so it was hard for my husband and I to anticipate what the reality of living in Beijing would be. What we, like most others, knew of Beijing was what the media chose to tell us, and the only thing the media liked to talk about when it came to Beijing was the air quality. I remember watching this video and sharing it with a friend while my husband was interviewing for his position.
Finally, the cold winter weather is getting warmer. This past Sunday was beautiful. The Air Quality Index (AQI) was low (below 50) and even with the chili breeze, my family was itching to get out and explore.
I mentioned in a previous post that living in the suburbs makes it difficult for us to get into the city, especially since every Saturday and Sunday we have commitments like Kung Fu lessons for my son, Skype calls to family back at home, and church on Sundays. We live far enough out that a commute into downtown takes up a lot of time, but we just couldn’t help ourselves on Sunday. We came home from church, grabbed a snack and left right away. During our explorations, we found a treasure that will surely become a favorite place for my family—a park I know we’ll go back to many other Sunday afternoons.
Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Living in China certainly has its challenges, but it also has its perks, among them being that my children get Chinese holidays off from school, allowing us extra time to travel and explore. This week my children were off from school as China welcomed in the year of the monkey.
Every time we travel from the United States to Asia, my family faces a dilemma—what is worthy of the weight and space in our suitcases. It seems simple enough, but when you live in a host country where some things are hard to find (or incredibly expensive), and you are limited in the number or suitcases and weight you can take with you on the plane, leaving the US entails a momentous job of packing, weighing, and re-packing. On every trip we usually end up leaving something behind that we had just bought but don’t have the space for.
You might be surprised at what makes the packing list, what gets cut, and how that list has changed since we’ve had kids. On one pre-kids return from the States, my husband filled almost one whole suitcase with canned cat food. Yes, you read that right—a suitcase full of cat food (we fought about that one and I still give him a hard time about it). My own vices are food items (people-food, that is)—baking or cooking ingredients that are hard to find or too expensive to buy here. I’ll sometimes fill entire suitcases with things like coconut flour and wheat bran and date crumbles.
A Beautiful Mess. If you come to my home unannounced, this is most likely what you’ll see.
After over four months of living in Beijing, I step back into my house on a cold, wet winter day, and as I hang up my coat, the heater blows on my numb fingers. The kids’ toys are scattered everywhere, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, and the vegetables in my grocery bag need to be cleaned and chopped for dinner. The sum of all those things—the mess included—makes me breathe a sigh of gratitude. It feels like home, and when we were still in Korea and looking ahead toward our move, I wasn’t sure that Beijing would ever feel that way to me.
I didn’t want to come to China.