When my husband was offered the job in Beijing, quite a few people who know me well were worried! "But Lise isn't facebook banned in China"? "How are you going to survive"? Clearly I have the reputation of being very active online and I cannot deny that :-) Well fear not my dear friends. I'm here and I have one new friend to thank for it: VPN!
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and, to simplify, it gives you the possibily to mask your IP address and pretend that you're in another country while you're actually in China. Some of you may have bought an account in a desperate attempt to watch a particular football match live online:-)
And why is it necessary to have VPN in China?
Well the Chinese government blocks websites such as youtube, facebook and twitter aswell as the google browser.The only well-known and rather good browser that's accessible without VPN is Yahoo.
So how do you get a VPN?
Very simple: BEFORE you go to China, buy a VPN account. You can for example use Express VPN or Astrill with a minimum duration of 1 month. After you have purchased the VPN, you need to install it on your laptop/mobile device BEFORE you go to China. This is done via a simple installation link that's sent to you by e-mail when you buy the account. When you land in China, you simply turn on your VPN together with your wifi or mobile network and voilà...you can now access social networks, google, youtube etc.
In our family we have ended up buying 2-3 different VPN accounts because, for some reason, they were not working properly with several devices connected at the same time. So that's the only thing you have to be aware of.
But this is how we all get around "The Great Firewall".
When we announced to friends and family that we were moving to Beijing, many gave us horrified looks. Many people openly expressed that they thought we were crazy! Bringing 3 kids to Beijing...THE capital of the world with the worst air pollution reputation? But here we are.
Since the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has tried to up its game when it came to air pollution and the new Air Pollution Control Law took effect on the 1st of January 2016.
But how bad is it and what's the impact on our everyday life?
The Air Quality Index helps you estimate the impact on your health of the level of the so-called PM 2.5 particulates. It indicates the PM 2.5 concentration in the air (Micrograms per cubic meter).
Here it is:
Good: 0 to 50
Moderate: 51 to 100
Unhealthy for sensitive groups: 101 to 150
Unhealthy: 151 to 200
Very unhealthy: 201 to 300
Hazardous: 301 to 500
And how do we work around these numbers as a family: We quickly realised that we needed to have simple rules for when to wear masks and when to avoid going outside. We check the app "BeijingAir" every morning and the system we're currently using is:
Above 100; you have to wear a mask
Above 150; If on the weekend, we cannot force the kids to go outside
Above 200; better to stay inside
Many families are much less strict about masks so we might need to revise our rules at some stage
I would lie if I said that we can always feel when the air is bad! Frankly there are days where we only know thanks to the app. Also because the sun can easily shine and the sky be blue although the air quality is bad!
As for the school, the Western Academy of Beijing has an excellent air quality policy and is constantly monitoring the air, purifying and limiting the outside air that comes into the building. If I've understood correctly, the school will remain closed if there are 3 consecutive days of an AQI of 200 or above (this happened in December 2015 during the first ever "red alert" in Beijing). To Samuel's great disappointment, this does not mean that there is no teaching. Classes take place online if the school premises are closed :-)
Yes, we need to take the air quality into consideration every day but I would not say that it defines our days and our stay here in Beijing.
Let me tell you: going to a Chinese supermarket is never boring! And this comes from someone who normally hates grocery shopping! You always stumble upon interesting products. Food you've never seen before, food you have no idea what is, food you just put in the basket and try not to think about the heavy metal it might contain :-) You tend to think that western chains such as Walmart, Carrefour and Auchan are like in Europe/the US. But this is China and the big chains adapt to the market and culture here. And that's what makes it fun and interesting to browse those stores too!
But being in Beijing with 3 kids and wanting to "soften" the initial impact of living in China, we also try to buy "western" products here. The good news is that you can get almost anything. The bad news is the price! If you thought everything was cheap in China, think again.
As soon as a product here is imported... ka-ching!!
Examples (in order of priority):
Wine!! Guests that come to visit us in China should know right now that you have to pay for your stay in wine :-) for example: a normal, average Bordeaux wine that will cost you 6-7 euros in Europe will cost you around 150 - 200 rmb (20-30 euros!)
Cheese: probably one of the saddest discoveries for someone like me who loves cheese. To give you an example, a (small) piece of parmesan cheese costs around 70 rmb (10 euros). And for a part Italian family like us, Wisconsin wannabe parmesan cheese doesn't do the trick!
Milk: a liter of fresh (Chinese) milk will cost you around 30 rmb (4,5 Euros) compared to around 1,5 Euro in Europe. There are decent UHT brands (we buy the German or Australian ones) for around 12-15 rmb.
Beef: while pork and chicken come at reasonable prices, beef is very expensive! Check out the photo below!
Frozen pizzas; around 50 rmb a piece (7 euros!) You think twice before stocking up on them for the teenagers!
Fruit: imported fruit such as apples costs a lot! Generally over 1 euro per apple (although it can be found cheaper at the market!).
Flour: a 2 kilo bag of flour costs around 50-60 rmb (7-8 euros).
On a more positive note, some things are cheap! Examples are: Soft drinks, local fresh vegetables, fresh made local (sweet) bread and buns and dumplings.
It is also relatively cheap to go to chinese local supermarkets but it can sometimes be difficult to find what you're looking for. Especially because all labels are in Chinese.
Over all, the cost of living here is much higher than we expected and we believe that, if you avoid western restaurants and cafés, it would be cheaper to eat out every night than to cook. So I don't think I'll bother anymore :-)
We still haven’t found a place to live. The Oakwood Residence is still our home and it looks like we’ll stay here until the 1st of March. So why has it been so difficult to find the right home?
We want to live in the central part of Beijing. Of course, in a city of 23 million people, that “central part” is huge.
The international schools in Beijing are outside of the city (close to the airport). But we feel we are city people and an (expat) community outside of the city is not where we see ourselves. This means that the kids have a 30 min commute to school by school bus but they are ok with that.
Living in the city limits us to apartments and there are plenty of them! But finding the right one is not that easy!
Why is that? Here are some examples:
Most diplomats have to live in a compound with security. Then there is a requirement from the EU delegation that limits our choice very much: If above the 6th floor, there have to be 2 fire escapes….and quite a few Beijing compounds have only one. And with most modern buildings having around 30 floors there is not a lot available below the 6th floor.
Many Beijing apartments oficially have 4 bedroom but are in reality “3 + 1”. This means that there are 3 bedrooms + a tiny room of approximately 6 square metres for the “ Ayi” (the live-in help).
But with 3 kids (of whom 2 are teenagers and ideally need their own space), we need 4 proper bedrooms.
We almost said yes to an apartment in a lovely compound in the perfect location. But, dear friends, I got cold feet.
It was a Chinese style apartment. We are talking dark, wooden floors, carved out dragon panels on the walls, chandeliers, golden wall paper with Chinese signs etc. And while all of that is authentic and lovely, it was a far cry from the light, nordic style we’re used to. So I pulled the break. At the end of the day, I will be spending a lot of time in the apartment :-)
We rented out our house in Brussels furnished. This means that we only brought a sofa and 3 armchairs. And for that reason, we need to find a furnished apartment. Luckily it’s not difficult to find a furnished apartment but again the style of the furniture is very Chinese.
I’m beginning to feel the pressure. The agency we work with has been extremely patient and has shown us God knows how many apartments. But for one reason or another, it’s never quite what we’re looking for.
So there you go. A list of first world problems when all that really matters is a roof over our heads :-)
I remain grateful every day.
Saying goodbye to friends in Brussels was hard.
13 amazing years of friendships, fun and happiness. And then of course saying goodbye to the family in Italy and Denmark. Goodbye for 4 1/2 years. Arrivederci - we're off to the other side of the world. For 4 years.
The container made it to the port of Antwerp from where it would start its voyage to Beijing...and we made it to the airport. We could finally relax once we had checked in our 15 suitcases, paid for excess baggage baggage and, most importantly, finished the paperwork for our cat Pumba who was coming with us.
We arrived in Beijing at 5 am. As we got off the plane we could feel it and smell it immediately. The air quality was bad. Really bad that day. Welcome.
(We've been very lucky since then and I'll write about the air quality issue soon!)
We were reunited with Pumba at the airport. She was shaken and very thirsty but otherwise ok.
After 1 hour in a small, humid office, signing another million papers for her, she got the green light by a vet provided that she'd be in quarantine for one month at our hotel apartment.
The Oakwood Residence (our home for the first couple of months) turned out to be wonderful and we felt welcome from the very first day.
With some of the stress, tiredness and emotions over, we finally had time to look at each other and say "What the h*ll are we doing here?" :-)