The first time our family visited Beijing was in 2010. We had already done some travelling back then but it was the first time I arrived somewhere and thought "Wow, I've landed in a different world!"
Since then I hadn't had the chance to explore Mainland China so what did I (and many friends back in Europe) THINK it would be like and what is it REALLY like to live here?
Time for some myths and facts:
Myth: The air quality is so bad that you will have to wear masks every day!
Fact: We've been in Beijing around 2 months now and so far I cannot say that the air quality is turning out to be a big problem! It's perhaps still too early to say but it's a part of life you very quicly get used to. On bad days, we tell the kids to wear masks (we do the same :-)) and they have quickly become used to having one at hand and know where we keep them at home. For more on this issue, see my blog post from 18 January 2016.
Myth: The Chinese are very loud!
Fact: In public spaces such as supermarkets and metro stations you will often hear shouting. Whether it's promoting a product or giving practical information, it's often shouted into a microphone! And I mean shouted! In some chain stores (such as Uniqlo) the staff will welcome each costumer very loudly with a "Huānying kuàlè" (literally "happy welcome").
Check out this short video video on the noise pollution in the street (but must admit that I don't know if it's from Beijing). https://vimeo.com/2738024
Myth: It's dirty everywhere!
Fact: Hmm well I wouldn't call Beijing the cleanest place on the planet but to be fair, the streets are clean! The cleaning truck or a man/woman sweeping the pavement are never far away! For inside spaces (except perhaps for glossy western malls), sometimes it's best not to look too closely at the floor or into the corners. For example: I have stayed at two very typical Chinese hotels in Beijing in the past and cleaning levels were definitely not up to European standards. From the outside and in the lobby everything looked good. But the rooms! You don't easily get over stepping on the previous guests' used condom by the side of the bed 😳...but that was an extreme case!
And then there are the toilets! Ladies get used to 80% of all public toilets being 'squatting toilets' (and bring your own toilet paper). I took this picture at a McDonalds by Ditan Park on Saturday.
Myth: People spit all the time!
Fact: First of all, in China spitting is not seen as something rude or disgusting! It's perfectly normal to spit and both women and men do it. For me, the spitting itself is not so bad but what for me, as a westerner. is rather disgusting, is the...how to describe this...gathering of spit (to hock up everything from your throat) before you spit on the street (or out of the car window). I have failed to catch spitting on video but I found this picture online :-)
Myth: The Chinese are rude!
Fact: Perhaps some things here would be seen as rude in other countries but in general I have to say that we find people here extremely kind and helpful!! You just have to accept that some services (such as the Taxi driver getting out of the car to help you get your suitcase into the boot) are not available here! And forget about people letting you off the metro before they get on!
I hope this has given you an idea about what to expect if you ever travel to or move to Beijing. I hope the above doesn't seem too negative! There are differences, surprises and frustrations but never enough to overshadow the great experience of living in China.
I know I already published a post about grocery shopping in Beijing but because of the interest in this topic (both from my readers and from myself :-)) I have decided to show you my local Chinese supermarket and what went into my newly acquired shopping trolley today.
I've been warned about buying frozen goods (as apparently they may have been thawed and refrozen) but Rebecca and I love bao - these soft buns that contain either pork meat or vegetables. So I got a pack of them but couldn't read what they contained. Turned out it was a not very tasty onion and spinach combination.
We do have a couple of supermarkets with "western" goods near our apartment - but this supermarket is much closer and perfectly fine for most things. It also has the authenticity I like! In fact, I have never seen other foreigners here.
I do not buy fresh meat here! It's not packed but just sort of lying on a table in huge pieces.
There are also things I can't get here. For example cereal (except from porridge powder :-)).
I'm very excited as I've just received confirmation that I will start my Chinese course on 23 February. For absolute beginners.
And I know why I'm so excited about it: I have never visited (or lived in) a place where knowing the local language would be more useful!
You notice the language barrier as soon as you get out of the airport and need a taxi to the city centre. In general, taxi drivers here do not speak a word of English! So you THINK that you can just say "Sheraton Hotel" or "the Hilton" or where ever you're going but no! Taxi drivers know places by their Chinese names - not by how we pronounce them in English. A good example is IKEA. You can try as hard as you want, but if you don't know that IKEA is pronounced "Yi Jia Jia Ju" in Chinese, you won't get anywhere! It is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to always have a piece of paper for the taxi driver with the place you're going to written down in Chinese. There are also a number of small practical books and apps available to expats and tourists in Beijing with a list of hotels, sights, restaurants, compounds etc. translated into Chinese. Also, almost all hotels have a card you can always carry with you and show to taxi drivers. You can see some examples in the pictures below.
Then there are the shops and services. I have surrendered to pointing, indicating, drawing...whatever. I often have to leave the supermarket without what I was looking for because I'm not able to explain what I need. A recent example was hair removal cream :-)
Both Rebecca and I have been to the hairdresser's here. That's an experience! They are extremely kind and helpful and somehow love to deal with western costumers. We communicate via an app! I will type in for example "how much for a haircut" in English and it will be translated into Chinese for them. They will then type in the reply in Chinese and it's translated into English (-ish) for me. It's just part of the fun.
Of course we also come across Chinese people who speak English very well! Without knowing English, they wouldn't have been able to do the jobs they're doing. Examples are: the front desk staff at the hotel, the lovely Nicole from the real estate agency, the staff at "SOS international" hospital, some staff at restaurants in tourist areas and of course local staff at the kids' international school.
I'm motivated to learn Chinese. Not only because the kids are learning it so fast that I feel they're breathing down my neck :-) - but I strongly believe that you can get closer to a country and its people by making an effort to learn the language. Now I've said it so let's get started!
We've been in Beijing just over one month. Newcomers for sure - but still, our everyday life here has started. In our family, the "base" of our everyday life is: The kids go to school, daddy goes to work and mommy is currently enjoying her freedom (watch this space to see if that feeling changes :-)).
We're still staying at the aparthotel so this may not be an exact typical day after we move into our apartment but I wanted to share at least an example of what a day looks like for me here in Beijing.
7 am: Breakfast is "served". We've continued our "keep it simple and have cereal" tradition :-)
7.40 am: We take the kids to the lobby and wait for the schoolbus that passes at 7.45
7.45: Kids and husband are off and I have no excuses not to go to the hotel gym and work out a bit.
8.30: Catching up with the news. All eyes on Iowa today!
10.20 am: In a taxi on my way to a meeting with the high school counsellor (about Simon's subject choices for the IB diploma course).
12.30 pm: Meeting over and I managed to have a coffee with Elke from Belgium. Now back to the city. It's a glorious day but I decide to do my nails so go to the Ginza mall close to where we're currently living. Have some lunch there. Full lunch with soup, rice, juicy meat and vegetables. All for 30 Rmb (4,20 Euros). If you avoid western restaurants, it very cheap to eat out here!!
4 pm: Passed by the supermarket and am now waiting for the kids' school bus to arrive
4.30 pm: The kids ans I take a taxi to our new apartment and meet Francesco there. It's the first time they see it and their reaction is good (phew!). Still looking very empty but here is a picture from the living room. It's on the 22nd floor.
6 pm: Stuck in traffic on our way back to the hotel
7 pm: Cooking some kind of Indian sausage dish with rice. How have I lived so long without owning a rice cooker. Am definitely buying one when we move!
8.30 pm: We have all had dinner (Francesco normally eats later as he's back from work late) and we have our traditional "family time". Tonight we watch a couple of episodes of "the Office". So funny!
10.40 pm: Rebecca is fast asleep and the parents are tired. Boys switch off the lights when you go to bed ok?