December 2015: I had left behind my friends, colleagues and life in Belgium to move to China where my husband had been posted. The kids started school 10 days after we arrived. With my husband at work and the kids at school, I was free to explore Beijing – something I had been looking forward to for months. I quickly found a daily rhythm and I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of living in Asia. But I missed my friends terribly. And that’s how I learnt the first of many valuable lessons in China: without friends, we are nothing.
Even for an extrovert like me, it takes a big, deep breath to walk into a room full of people I don’t know. But whether you’re an expat in China or you’ve just moved to the village down the road in our home country, finding friends tends to be the all-important step that’s required in order to make us thrive - so we have no choice but to get on with it. And get out there.
Here is how I recommend meeting new friends in Beijing – or at least what worked for me:
Hands down the best decision I’ve made in terms on finding friends. It took a couple of school/teacher changes but the bond my classmates and I have is very special. For the purpose of finding friends (and not getting bored out of your mind), I always recommend group classes rather than individual lessons.
Music has always been an important part of my life and I had barely landed in Beijing before I started looking for a musical outlet. I quickly got up on stage at open mic evenings (especially at Paddy O’Shea’s Irish bar) but it took me some time to find a group to join. Thanks to the WeChat group “all the singing ladies”, I came across “Jing Sing”. An a cappella group that sounded like…well, music to my ears. I auditioned in August 2016 and Jing Sing has since become one of the most important things in my life in Beijing - just like some of my best friends in Beijing are from Jing Sing. I love singing and my husband loves running! Soon after we arrived, he joined “Hey Running” and China has taken him to new heights. As an ultra/trail runner, he gets to explore this country with newfound, likeminded friends.
When you’re new to a place, you rely not only on your own proactiveness but also on other people’s friendliness. I was lucky enough to be invited to join several groups shortly after we arrived in Beijing but I am particularly grateful to two groups who took me under their wings. Namely “The Bikers” – a lovely group of expat women and fellow moms whom I met through my kids’ school - and the very active and super nice Italian women’s group.
Did you recognise that phrase from the title song of the Australian sitcom Neighbours? We were lucky to find a fantastic compound in Beijing that not only offers good housing but also a close-knit community. I have made some very good friends at Park Apartments.
If you have kids and they attend an international school in Beijing, chances are that there is a wide array of activities for parents on offer. Whether you become involved on a daily basis, volunteer for events or choose to show up to the occasional coffee morning, you will have plenty of chances to meet other parents and make friends with them.
Due to the language barrier, it is difficult to find Chinese friends unless they speak English – meaning that your potential Chinese friends are likely to be young and with a good understanding of foreign cultures. I appreciate my (few) Chinese friends very much and I want to thank them for letting me bombard them with questions about Chinese culture (and language) and for occasionally letting me use them as sources for my blog posts and articles.
Making friends takes time. But once you make it beyond the small talk at coffee mornings, parties or outings, you will soon find out whom you really click with and whom you have something in common with. I often find comfort in the feeling that we are all in the same boat. Most of the people I meet and interact with in Beijing are foreigners who, like myself, have started from scratch here. Chances are that we have more in common that meets the eye.
In May this year, I turned 43 and my husband had arranged a surprise party for me. As I stood there on a Sanlitun rooftop terrace, grinning from ear to ear, I looked around and realized that a mere 2 ½ years ago, I had no idea that the many friends who were there to celebrate me even existed. Long live changes of scenery and new opportunities. Long live new friendships and the certainty that you’ll keep the old.
When it comes to getting around in Beijing, I find that one tends to become more and more courageous as the months and years go by.
When we were new to the city, hailing a taxi and praying that we’d be able to communicate with the driver, was hard enough. Then our bikes arrived from Europe and we launched ourselves into the madness of Beijing traffic on two wheels. By then, we were still convinced that buying a car was a silly idea - yet in October 2016, the ol’ Volvo became part of our lives.
Transport is not a problem in Beijing. You can always get from A to B quite easily. When we want to avoid traffic, we take the subway. When we want to sit back and relax, we order a Didi (private taxi), biking feels like the most natural way of commuting and when we move as a family - especially outside the city, we take the car. However, in a city of 25 million inhabitants, there are situations where you need to get somewhere quickly and avoid traffic at the same time. Where the subway would seem like the ideal solution, you often have to walk far within the stations to change lines.
So I went and got myself a scooter. Or rather; my husband made the final decision for me and surprised me on my birthday with a brand new Niu. One of China's most popular electric scooter brands.
Here it is. Goes up to 40 K/hour, can drive up to 50 K on a full battery, is completely silent (which can be dangerous as cyclists can't hear me and we share the same bike lane). But all in all an extremely convenient way of getting around Beijing.
(Published by Global Times, Metro Beijing section on 19 April 2018)
What do you do when you have an important decision to make? You may choose to ask your friends and relatives for advice, weigh your options on your own or perhaps make a list of pros and cons. But one Beijing based family took to an untraditional method when it was time for them to decide whether to leave Beijing – and where to.
Victoria and Sam have been in Beijing for 3 years together with their two children aged 8 and 6. In early 2018, they had to decide whether to stay in Beijing, move back to America – or consider a third option. “Identifying your criteria for a happy life is never easy” says Victoria “so we had to think of a way that would allow us to take everything into consideration”. When the family moved to Beijing – their first posting abroad – they thought they would be moving back to New Jersey when the contract ended but as it became clear that there were other options, deciding where to go after Beijing was no longer that easy. When Sam suggested basing their decision on an algorithm, Victoria was slightly sceptical at first but the couple agreed that such a pragmatic approach was worth a try. “We used an excel spreadsheet to write down possible options of where to live and criteria that were important to us. As simple as that” she smiles. They considered the school for their children, family spirituality (the ability to practise their Christian faith), finances, work opportunities, personal safety, health – and finally contact with the middle eastern culture (Sam was born in Egypt and Victoria has Palestinian roots). They looked at options for potential places to live and the places they put on the list were Princeton (New Jersey, US), Bayonne (New Jersey, US), Shanghai, Arab countries, Virginia (US) and finally staying in Beijing.
On a scale from one to five, Beijing scored highest on a number of areas such as family unity (dynamics and quality time), personal safety, finances, career and convenience of life. At the same time, it scored lowest on family spirituality and the contact with the middle eastern culture. Shanghai got the exact same score as Beijing. Although moving to an Arabic country may have brought the family closer to their roots and religion, personal safety as well as finances and career would have been a concern in that part of the world. The family knew the quality of life would be fairly high in both Virginia and Bayonne, New Jersey and although the race between the two locations was close, Bayonne ended up with the highest score. A winner had been found. But home may very well be where the heart is – and not where the spreadsheet says it is. The family has decided to move to Princeton instead. Interestingly enough, Princeton was the family’s base before they moved to China. They are about to move back to the house they own there and in many ways, they will take up where they left off. Victoria and Sam could very well become trendsetters for their out-of-the-box approach but in a time of technology, algorithms and big data, the formula for a happy family life may lay in our gut instinct and our emotional connections after all.
Thank you to our lovely friends and neighbours Victoria and Sam! We will miss you - but see you in Princeton ;-)
Tianjin was on my China bucket list. Not because it's famous for anything - but more because it's a big city that's really close to Beijing. It took me (and my beloved class mates) over 2 years to finally take that 35 minute train ride to Tianjin. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Before I let the pictures (and the captions) do the talking, here are some facts about Tianjin:
Sources: Chinatoday.com, Wikipedia
Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage. - Catherine Douze
I've always said that China is all about seizing opportunities for me - so what do you do when you absolutely love tea and a Chinese tea enthusiast offers to take you to discover the world of tea at the tea market? You say yes thank you!
Around three weeks ago, my great Italian friend Alessia had organised for a group of us to go to a tea market located on the north third ring road. Chinese teacher and tea enthusiast Lucy was going to meet us there. Lucy is a larger than life character. Always super elegant, this time dressed in red from top to toe, speaks perfect English and is extremely knowledgable. Lucy took us to one of the many small tea shops where a lovely young woman was waiting for us. She is the daughter of tea producers from southern China and was proud to let us sample various types of tea - both from the family farm and other producers.
Lucy had prepared a booklet for each of us with basic information about the different types of Chinese tea. We were introduced to green tea, yellow tea, white tea, Wulong tea, black tea (called red tea - hongcha - in Chinese) and dark tea.
Here are a few of the interesting facts we learned:
Shop til you drop
I decided to buy two of the teas we tasted:
Off she goes. I've just said goodbye to our Ayi (househelp). She is going back to the Henan province where her three children live with her parents-in-law. She is ecstatic as she hasn't seen her kids (aged 5, 7 and 18) since the beginning of October. She'll be gone for almost two weeks (needless to say our house will be a mess by the time she gets back) and I wish her a happy new year with a hong bao (red envelope) containing a month's salary. It is "standard procedure" to pay Ayi's double salary for Chinese new year but the twinkle in her eye tells me she never took it for granted.
This year, the Chinese New year's eve falls on the 15th of February (this coming Thursday) . By then, over one billion Chinese will have reached their home towns for what Forbes calls the world's largest human migration. On Thursday, the Chinese will be gathering around the table for a family feast. There will most certainly be 鱼 Yú (fish) 饺子 Jiǎozi (dumplings), 春卷 Chūnjuǎn (spring rolls) 汤圆 Tāngyuán (sweet rice balls) and other dishes that are believed to bring good luck.
Staying in Beijing: don't expect dragons
For our first Chinese new year in 2016, we decided to stay in Beijing. Although we could see and hear fireworks almost non-stop for 10 days, we were somehow disappointed. The city seemed empty (as empty as a city of 25 million people can be) and a far cry from the carnival atmosphere I had somehow expected. There was no drumming in the streets and red dragons were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that dragon dance is not really a Beijing tradition and that the silence was due to said largest human migration. The journey home has begun for most and, already last week, it became difficult to get taxis, many deliveries are postponed until after new year, many shops and restaurants are either operating with new year opening hours or closed (although most shopping malls remain open as normal).
But those who choose a staycation, are still in for a treat - because this is China and it's never boring. Many of the city's parks and temples Temple welcome Beijingers to their temple fairs and that is certainly a fun day out! During the fairs, parks are beautifully decorated and boosting with entertainment, vendors of different kinds, food stalls and also religious rituals.
I'm outta here - popular destinations
Chinese new year is (alongside the national day in October) the busiest period for travelling in China. Popular cities and sights tend to be completely overcrowded hence many foreigners prefer to travel elsewhere for Chinese new year. Admittedly also to escape from the cold weather.
I've asked around and here is where 10 of my Beijing friends are going this new year:
Amy: Sri Lanka
Rose: New Zealand
Can you see a trend? South East Asia is indeed a very popular holiday destination for CNY.
What about us?
This Chinese new year is going to be a special one for the Floris family. Partly because of a very exciting project - partly because - for the first time- we're going our separate ways (thankfully only for 10 days).
My daughter Rebecca and I are flying to Nicaragua tomorrow, Wednesday. Our family has, since 2011, supported the Charity "Carita Feliz" - a centre for Children and youngsters of very little means situated in Granada, Nicaragua. The organisation was founded by my countryman Peder Kolind who sadly passed away in 2015. This will be my third trip to Nicaragua but Rebecca was only 6 years old when she visited the country (where her dear Uncle Diego also happens to live). She is super excited about our trip and has been very active in sourcing donations (both clothes, electronics and money) for the children who are less fortunate than her. I will be posting some reflections from our trip on my website www.lisefloris.com.
As for our dad and brothers, they are off to South Korea for 4 days. They will be staying in Seoul and will also go to visit the border with North Korea.
Exciting times. We're counting our blessings again.
Happy new year and see you in the year of the Dog.
Beijing is a city that offers a high quality of life. Even with its 25 million inhabitants, it's a rather easy city to live in. We have wide avenues, parks, shopping malls galore, plenty of historical sights, a huge, clean and well-functioning subway system, an uncountable number of restaurants and finally, Beijing also happens to be a cyclist-friendly city!
Cycling plays an important role in the Chinese culture and society - and being able to go everywhere by bike was one of the things I was really excited about we moved here. However, my enthusiasm faded slightly as I started to notice that I mostly got surpassed on the bike lane by electric scooters (boy are they silent and easy to crash into!). But it turned out that the come-back of the old-fashioned bicycle was just around the corner. In the summer of 2016, the city became coloured in orange. Sharing bike company Mobike put their first bikes on the pavements of Shanghai in April of 2016 and Beijing followed suit a couple of months later. Mobike still seems to have the biggest market share but there are dozens of other companies (characterised by different colours of bikes). Shared bikes are a major hit in China - and by the end of 2017 there were 50 million users across the country. So what's the problem?
Scan, pedal, ditch
Common for the providers is that the bikes don't have docking stations. Users simply scan the QR code that is stuck behind the saddle and the bike unlocks. After you use a shared bike, you just leave it where ever you want. 非常方便 - very convenient. But this convenience is causing a major problem, not only in Beijing but all over China. Shared bikes are everywhere! On the pavement, in the streets, in open parking lots and even on the highway. They block the pedestrian crossings and absurdly enough, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a parking space for my normal, old-fashioned Dutch bike.
The shared bike companies are doing what they can to keep the streets neat and free from layers, even mountains of shared bikes. Several times a day, I see lorries that pick up, re-arrange or add shared bikes. I took this picture down the road from us yesterday.
But what happens to the bikes that are removed from the streets? Despite being so young, shared bikes in China are already being put to rest in massgraves around the county. This is a picture of a pile of shared bikes in Xiamen in the Fujian Province.
While one must not forget the benefits of shared bikes (such as less pollution and congestion and more physical exercise) it seems like authorities have lost control of the situation and manufacturers are failing to realise that the market is already saturated.
We arrived in Beijing two years and ten days ago. It somehow feels like a lifetime and a heartbeat ago at the same time.
We landed on a gloomy December morning in 2015. The pollution was through the roof that day and in true newbie style, we had brought masks in our hand luggage and were barely inside the airport terminal before we all had them on. Boy has our attitude changed since then!
I still remember the feeling of checking into our temporary accommodation (the fancy Oakwood residence). We stood there in the middle of the small apartment, overwhelmed by everything, looking at our 15 suitcases, three sad children and our utterly confused cat. All I could think was right! you wanted it. This is our new life – get on with it now.
When I think back, there were three major challenges that characterized the first 6 months in Beijing:
Homesickness: While we’ve lived away from our families for many years, not having our friends close by really took a lot of getting used to! For the kids, going to a new school and not seeing their old friends was really tough in the beginning.
Language barrier: Not only had we already been to Beijing once, we had also been warned. Yet, for some strange reason, we still didn’t think that language would really be an issue. I have written about the language barrier quite a lot on my blog and I've reached the same conclusion every time: hardly anyone speaks English in Beijing and the frustration of not understanding and not making yourself understood is constant.
Not knowing anyone: A week after we moved to Brussels back in 2002 I locked myself out of the apartment. I had my then 3- year-old and my 6-month old baby with me. It was freezing cold and I couldn’t get into neither the apartment nor the car. I had no choice but to knock on a random door. Our upstairs neighbors lent me their telephone so I could contact my husband. I found that not knowing a soul in Beijing was one of the toughest things in the beginning. Not so much for practical reasons but more from a human perspective. However, at the same time, I believe it brought our family closer together. We only had each other.
That was then – and this is now
China is treating us well. We’ve been very lucky with the way things have turned out – and although it’s difficult to speak on behalf of all five of us, it is safe to say that we’re happy in Beijing.
We found a home. After some house hunting set-backs, we finally moved into our apartment at the end of March 2015. We chose a lovely compound called Park Apartments and finally having a base (and our container from Belgium) became the start of something great.
The School – best decision. Enrolling the kids at Western Academy of Beijing was probably the best and most important decision we made. There is a vast choice of international schools in Beijing and we didn’t have time to do a thorough market research. Yes, I admit it; we based our decision almost entirely on the amazing campus and the very friendly people at WAB's admissions office (one of whom – Elke- has become one of my very good friends in China).
Work and non-work: The very reason we came to China was my husband’s work. And the very reason I’m blogging right now is probably that I’m not working at the moment. Both situations took some getting used to. There were new colleagues, new assignments, new work methods and new intercultural challenges for my husband – and new considerations about self-reinvention for me. It is working out very well for both of us.
Discovering Beijing and the rest of China: We had agreed before moving to Beijing that we were going to make the most of these 4-5 years and that we would explore our new city and this grand country whenever possible. Not long after we arrived, I figured that it would be nice to have a concrete plan so I promised myself that I would travel to all of China’s provinces and autonomous regions before we leave. So far, I have been to Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Shaanxi, Hebei, Guangdong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Shanghai and Beijing. In other words, 10 down, 24 to go. I’d better get planning!
Learning Chinese: We didn’t give our kids a choice. They had to learn Chinese at school. Luckily, the Western Academy of Beijing strongly encourages students to learn Chinese. After all, it is the language of our host country. Knowing that I would be on leave from my job, I had made it one of my personal projects to learn Chinese so I had my first lesson almost two years ago. Since then, I have changed schools, changed class mates, done myself proud, cried tears of frustration, almost given up and passed an exam with a pretty good score. My level is still not high but if I plan to soldier on, I owe it to my amazing teacher and my classmates – who are so much more than classmates to me.
The all-important hobbies: We’ve always been an active family and both the kids and my husband and I have had hobbies that were very important to us. After checking out various different facilities (and again failing to explain what we were looking for) we managed to find a gymnastics team for our daughter and a chess club for our youngest son. In the summer of 2016, my husband and I managed to find exactly what we were looking for too. Being passionate about marathons and (ultra) trail running, “Hey Running” was exactly the group he needed. As for me, when I was given the chance to audition for Jing Sing a cappella group, I couldn’t even imagine how much joy that free soprano spot would bring me. More importantly, our hobbies have led to close friendships.
Family bonding: Moving to another (far-away) country is a family affair. Your family’s happiness becomes your main goal and time spent together as a family becomes even more crucial when you live abroad. We still struggle to get everyone together for family movie nights and outings. But ultimately, that is a good thing. It normally means the kids prefer to hang out with friends. Friends they’ve made in China.
We will be in China for at least another 2 ½ years and I can’t help but to wonder what’s next?
From a professional point of view, I do not see myself looking for a job – or rather looking for a full-time job. I plan to continue writing and blogging and I hope to further develop some of my ideas related to writing. I look forward to singing and performing more and am super excited that Jing Sing is in the process of recording an album. My next Chinese exam (HSK 3) is coming up in March and I hope to pass it. There are six levels of HSK and while I believe that reaching level 6 before we leave China could be a good, tangible goal, I just don’t know if it’s realistic.
We will of course keep on exploring China and I cannot wait to book the next trip. On the top of my list right now are the Yunnan and Fujian provinces.
It is no secret that I get a kick out of China. Both my family and I try to make the most of the opportunities that come our way. My dream is to leave China in a few years with the feeing that I managed to fully grasp China and the Chinese . I am completely aware that there is only one way to make that dream come true: keep exploring and crack on with learning Chinese.
(no big drama - I'm just talking about learning Chinese)
Yesterday was our last Chinese class before the Christmas break and it's safe to say that I wasn't in a studying mood. As a matter of fact, I childishly begged my class mates to distract our teacher as much as possible with conversations in English and questions about next semester. But alas. It's kind of hard to keep the smalltalk going for 3 hours. Especially not with our Laoshi Xin. So there was no way out of finishing chapter 27.
All of chapter 27 is based on the grammatical structure ba (把). I wouldn't really know how to explain this structure in English but if we imagine for a moment that we use ba in English, a sentence would sound like this:
I ba bicycle put downstairs bicycle shed inside (Wǒ bǎ zìxíngchē fàng zài lóu xià de chēpéng lǐ le -我把自行车放在楼下的车棚里了) - Or please ba cup put table upon (Qǐng nǐ bǎ bēizi fàng zài zhuōzi shàng 请你把杯子放在桌子上). In other words, it clarifies what happened to the object.
The ba structure has been following (or should I say haunting?) us for over a year now. It is a commonly and frequently used structure and I do not doubt its usefulness - just like I don't doubt the frustration it is causing me. But last week I felt that I had finally cracked the code. Even the more complicated ba structures were starting to make sense to me. Like when you use it for "I mistook something for something else" or "I'm changing that into that" and so on. Towards the end of yesterday's lesson, while I still had an ounce of confidence left in my ability to read and comprehend sentences, it was time to read the transcript of chapter 27's listening exercises. On page 181, I lost my confidence again.
The first 3-4 sentences were rather easy. An old man goes to visit his son in Paris and bla bla bla. Then it was my turn to read - just when it all went grammatically pear shaped. The old man (who went to see his son in Paris) wrote down the street name where his son lived on a piece of paper so he could find his way home. Then gave the piece of paper to a taxi driver but when the taxi driver read it, it said "no way through". Get it? The street signs were in French and he mistook the name of the street for "No way through". But nono. Of course it was not the mistook I had already mastered (kan chéng). I must have read the sentence 7-8 times. Huílái shí, tā bǎ zhè zhāng zhǐ jiāo gěi sījī, sījī kàn dào shàngbian xiězhe cǐ lù bùtōng. I read it in a robotic way. As only someone who doesn't have a clue what she's reading would read. All I could think was "teacher, please put me out of my misery". Or someone ring the non-existing bell so we can be dismissed. A classic example of a Chinese learning curve; flying high one day and falling low the next.
I've described the language barrier in China before - and the linguistic babysteps we're making in an attempt to hopefully conquer it one day.
If I haven't given up on learning Chinese yet, I owe it to my amazing 同学们 - classmates. And to our one-of-a-kind teacher Xīn. My class mates and I spend six hours a week in the class room at Qiáo xuéxiào (the Bridge School) together - and a whole lot of time outside the classroom.
We laugh, share our frustrations, go out together, make fun of ourselves and talk about whatever life throws at us.
What's the secret to such a well-functioning group? I believe it comes down to what we have in common. To mention but a few, we are all mothers, we originally came to China as accompanying spouses (although some of us now work either full-time, part-time or freelance) and we all thought that learning Chinese would be beneficial to our stay in China or to our lives in general.
Want to meet my classmates and teacher and see what we're up to together?
Here we go...
(from left to right in the first picture):
Egle (Lithuania) : Our no-nonsense funny Baltic beauty.
Rebecca (UK): Super smart and lifts us up with her great sense of humor.
Elisabete (Portugal): Has a heart of gold and is super disciplined.
Lăoshī Xin: A truly special Beijing ren who is doing her very best to motivate us and transmit her love for Mandarin.
Amanda (US): Learns characters at an incredible pace and has been amazing at settling in with us crazy ladies as the latest addition to the group.