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.