Last Monday was Europe day. Schuman day. A day my family and I have celebrated with friends and colleagues for the past 13 years when we lived in Brussels. A day that inevitably took me back to my job for the European Union. The job I am currently on leave from to follow my husband to China where we’ll be based for the next 4 years.
The change has been significant for all of us. New job for my husband, new school for the kids and new well…life for me as a stay-at-home mom.
A new life, a new role - but could this also be called a new “identity”?
I meet many women here who have never worked. Or never had a paid job that is! Because let's not forget the amazing job so many women do at home. Juggling all practical things, following the kids, getting involved in school work and school networks, volunteering and so on. In fact, as a working mom I always used to appreciate these dedicated women....and I still do!
Let me try to describe the kind of working mom I was:
End-of-year party at school. Everyone needs to bring something. I would run over to the supermarket across the street from the office and grab 3 bags of crisps and some juice and soda on the way to the party. I would realise at 10 pm that we had no milk for breakfast the next morning - just after I realised that the kids had to dress up for carnival the next day and I had not bought (or made) a costume. I would google “how to plan your grocery shopping”, “how to make a family activity plan” and “how to plan meals”, make all those plans, stick them on the fridge and stick to them for about two days.
Get the picture? Absolutely disorganised and often feeling guilty.
But I really did love my job! Loved my colleagues the challenges and the social aspect of being part of a team. But on days where the stress levels were high (often self inflicted due to my many musical activities in my spare time) I dreamed about the opportunity to take time off work and do exactly what I wanted with my time. Then China happened.
When I’m here an afternoon like today in Beijing. Sitting at my desk, looking out on the sunshine, drinking tea, thinking about my lunch with a friend earlier today and preparing to meet the kids at the school bus, this is exactly what I dreamed about on those stressful days. So is this what I’ll be doing the next 4 years? I do not think so. Not because I’m bored or depressed but because working has always been a nice and fulfilling part of my life.
I'm still not at a stage where I’m looking for work. I’m not at a stage where I’m networking either. My plan is still to use this opportunity to learn more Chinese first and to take time to really enjoy this life where I often get up in the morning and think “right what do I want to do today”? I also know that, although the kids are growing and need me much less now, my presence and support in this new situation is important! That's one of the reasons why I’m taking my time to think long and hard about whether and when I want to look for a job. Another reason is freedom and free time. I will go to Europe with the kids for 6 weeks this summer. No saving up the holidays, no planning with colleagues. I just do it. THAT freedom is really special and at the moment more appealing to me than earning my own salary.
And now you wonder “now that you're a stay-at-home mom are the family activity plans and meal plans up and running and do you produce one delicious focaccia after the other for school parties”? Absolutely not! Some things just never change :-)
We landed in Beijing on 30 December 2015. 4 months ago today.
It seems like yesterday and at the same time it seems like ages ago.
Yesterday because the memory of landing that cold, smoggy December morning is still very vivid in our minds and ages ago because, compared to that day, we now have a daily life in China.
So what’s the status for our family after 4 months here? First let me tell you the practical status and after that we’ll move to the emotions :-)
Finding our way around the city
In a city of 23 million inhabitants, you don’t get a real overview in a matter of days or weeks but by exploring neighbourhoods one at the time (and boy do we still have many neighbourhoods to explore!). But we know that we live in the East, that the historical centre with the Forbidden city and Tiananmen Square are around 8 kilometres to the West, that we need to remind taxi drivers to take the airport expressway to go to the school and what line of the metro we’re on.
Getting around - and how
We have considered the idea of buying a car. But ironically enough, while owning a car in other cities makes life easier, for us seems like it’s simpler not to own a car here. And why is that? Well first of all, traffic IS heavy. I often try to imagine myself stuck in the rush hour (with hungry kids on the back seat). My friend who drives a lot in Beijing always has water and snacks in the boot because you just never know.
Secondly, the alternatives to driving are plentiful and cheap!!
Our bikes arrived in the container from Brussels and we had no idea how much easier they would make life here. My husband goes to work by bike and it’s also my principal mean of transport….or let me think…perhaps it’s Uber (we're huge fans!) and taxis. Beijing also has a huge, well-functioning and clean subway system. Often the best solution for going long-distance or during peak hours.
Housing and the neighbourhood
We moved to our apartment 6 weeks ago. That was, of course, the first real step to feeling at home here. Our daily lives depart from there now. We’re starting to bond with some of the neighbours, we know the location of the nearby supermarkets as well as the markets by heart. Cheap light bulbs, the best dumplings, flowers and train tickets: I know where to find you!
The kids’ school is great! We’re impressed (though less impressed with the tuition fees). Practically speaking the kids know their way around, our eldest son has made the course selection for his IB, we now remember to check the school calendar, invitations for events at school and to top up the kids' “smart cards” so they can buy lunch.
There is probably no other place on earth where the motivation to learn the local language is greater (if you want to integrate properly). For the simple reason that people do not speak English in Beijing. Remember my blog post about the language barrier? Well the linguistic status is that, as expected, after 4 months the kids have overtaken the parents by far and they know how to get by in Mandarin as well as how to recognize an impressive number of characters.
And 4 months on, what’s still difficult?
I’ve become familiar with the expression “bad China days”. Used among foreigners to describe those days where cultural differences, strong smells at the market, days with bad air quality, problems with VPN and the internet, very particular food and hearing people spit just become too much. Luckily, in our case, I’d say that those days are rarer now than in the beginning. But one thing is still difficult for the 5 of us: being away from friends! Of course also being away from our family but having lived in Brussels for 13 years, we were already living away from our (Danish and Italian) families - although now they are much much farther away.
This is, of course, particularly hard for the kids and finding new friends here will take time. As a parent, there is nothing you wish more than for your kids to experience new, long-lasting friendships again.
BUT dear friends and followers: I am writing this in Shanghai. We’re here for the weekend. We’re in Shanghai for the weekend. That’s such a cool thought. We want to explore China (and East Asia in general) we want to get to know this country, we want to be able to communicate with people. We want to feel that Beijing is our city, we want to show it to our friends and we want to one day miss it as much as we miss Brussels now. I truly believe all this will happen because Beijing is unique, exciting, spiritual and beautiful - as is the idea that we now live in China.