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.
We’re walking around Florence. About an hour's drive from our lovely hotel in the Tuscan hills. It’s hot and sunny, the ice creams are yummy and we’re sharing a bottle of prosecco at lunch to celebrate this beautiful city (any excuse works, innit?). Next (and last) stop on this seven-week European summer holiday is Rome. Rome where our two sons were born and where we lived until 2002. I am, of course, over the moon about this exciting opportunity to show the kids around and relive wonderful memories from back then. Yet I catch myself thinking that I would actually rather drive to the nearest airport and fly back to Beijing. Than be in ROME for three days.
I think I owe you an explanation
The kids and I left Beijing on 19 June and my husband joined us later. Our tour d’Europe has taken us to our 3 home countries: Denmark, Belgium and Italy. We have enjoyed bright, Scandinavian summer nights, hygge with the family, two days on my brother’s sailing boat, mussels in Brussels, catching up with friends, one beautiful Sardinian beach after the other, family lunches by the seaside with piglets roasting on the fire, food, food and more food – and last but not least the time to bond as a family!
But travelling is also tiring and seven weeks of living out of a suitcase have almost come to an end. This normally puts me in a reflective mood. Exactly like one year ago today when I wrote about going back to Beijing after the summer. This time, I realise that a year makes a huge difference and that my love for Beijing has grown fonder.
We know the city better now. While bikes are still our most used mean of transportation, the car we bought last September has given us a bit more liberty and allowed us to explore the beautiful areas around Beijing. Although the language barrier is still very much present, we understand a bit more Chinese now. I’ve made new friends and as for the friends I made in the very beginning, I have slowly opened up to them – and they to me. I have enjoyed being part of the party planning committee at our compound “Park Apartments” and I thrive on that sense of community.
But two particular events are nominated for “the-best-thing-that's-happened-since-last-summer-award”:
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities we're given in China, I will go back to Beijing with a sense of happiness and serenity. Reassured that our friends and relatives in Europe are doing well and ever so pleased that I have friends who are waiting for me in China. Just like last year, I am ready to get into everyday life again and the excitement about new projects makes me extra eager to get on that plane.
Our bags are packed and the anticipation is high. The plane leaves at 3 pm today and we're off for 7 weeks of family, fun and sun (most likely mixed with Danish and Belgian showers). This will be our second summer holiday in Europe since we moved to China and it would be fair to say that we've done a "copy paste" of last year's plan! First Denmark for 3 weeks and then we're off to Brussels, Belgium. Our home for 13 years and home to the majority of our closest friends. Next stop is my husband's native island of Sardinia. Then one week to Tuscany and we'll end with 3 days in Rome where both our sons were born.
Getting ready and organised in Beijing
On Friday I sat down with our fantastic Ayi (househelp) in an attempt to explain the "timeline" of our holidays. It was complicated. Not only because it had to be done in Chinese but also because I could hardly remember the details of our plans - let alone explain them to the poor woman!
Our talk went something like this: "We leave on the 19th ["6th month, 19th day" in Mandarin] - or rather only the kids and I leave that day. My husband stays 2 weeks longer! There will be painters in the house and there'll be a lot of ...erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* dust. Do as much as you can but don't worry if you have to skip some hours. As long as you remember to feed the cat those 3 weekends - ah no wait! not that weekend because our neighbour's son will do that...I think...let me just double check *typing message on WeChat*. And when you have time, please....erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* vacuum clean the airconditioning.....erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* filters."
Yes we're privileged to have someone to look after the apartment and our cat Pumba. We can leave with peace of mind.
Bring on the koldskål!
Life in China is good but there are, inevitably, things we miss in Europe. Number one of course being family and friends! But here is list of what the different members of our family miss at home. Home being 3 different countries in our case.
When the seven weeks are up, I will, like last year, write a post about what we miss and look forward to coming back to Beijing for.
Off we go. Thank you readers and I'll be in touch over the summer Xx
(Published on Beijing Parents + Kids June/July 2017. All rights belong to City Weekend)
Morning after morning, as I blearily regain consciousness my right arm independently reaches for the nightstand where my phone has been charging. My face is lit not by the warm touch of sunshine but the artifcial blue glare of WeChat and Facebook as I scroll through my messages and newsfeed.
Social media is especially important to me as an expat mom, giving me the chance to share my life in Beijing and proudly document the confidence with which my children have taken to this foreign land. However, as a self-confessed Facebook addict, the perils and positives of smartphone use and etiquette have floated at the periphery of my mind for years.
During the day (and night) my smartphone is very rarely out of reach. If I forget my phone at home I feel anxious. I’m convinced someone is trying to get hold of me or that something has happened with my kids at school. I return to get it — to find silence. Only the number of red dots from WeChat notifcations have increased drastically during the 15 minutes my phone and I were separated.
I decide to switch off for a week; to discover what effect a smartphone-free life would have on my family and myself. The rules are simple — I can only use my phone to make and receive calls, all
other functions (and 4G) are out of bounds.
While much of the handwringing over excessive smartphone use focuses on the amount of screen
time our kids are getting, we, as parents, need to consider the effect our own digital lives have on
our children. Studies show that when we stare at our phones in front of the kids, we make them feel
unimportant. A little girl interviewed for Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect said “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring to my dad because he will take any call, any text, any time. Even on the ski lift.” We’ve all experienced that stab of insecurity when a friend surreptitiously glances at their phone during what you thought was an amusing anecdote — imagine that gnawing feeling of inadequacy stemming not from your friends but your parents, your family.
We moved to China with the noble intention of strengthening our family ties and spending more time together. It worked out well during the first few weeks in Beijing when we supported each other through the challenges of relocation. But as the time flew by, we settled in, our lives got busy and the card games, daily episodes of The Office and Chinese character quizzes were replaced by evenings spent in our own rooms, wrapped up in our individual digital lives. A device-free dinner is the only rule we’ve (sort of) managed to implement.
Although I like to think of myself as a conscientious smartphone user, switching off fully for a week allows me to give my undivided attention to my family. On the fourth day my daughter and I make candles together while we chat and listen to music. I can tell she enjoys the activity and attention, and without the distracting bleeps of WeChat or interruptive compulsion to take photographs, I also feel at peace.
On the morning of my seventh and last day of smartphone detox, I am on my way to interview
Dr. Nicole Bush at Oasis International Hospital. I get completely lost. With sweaty palms, already 15 minutes late and having called twice to ask for directions, I start to realise that I might have to give in and switch on 4G so I can receive a location pin by WeChat. But by a small miracle, I notice the hospital further down the road. It is a close call.
Dr. Nicole Bush has 13 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist and a chat with her reveals that children’s excessive use of electronic devices can affect not only their emotional balance but also their social interaction with others. Children tend to isolate themselves when on their devices and in small children, excessive exposure to devices can also increase the frequency of melt-downs and tantrums. The quality of sleep is often compromised when children get too much screen time and from a physical point of view, looking down at a device several hours a day can have a long-term effect on your child’s posture. As a common-sense tip for parents, Dr. Bush suggests that we treat any device in the same way as the treat cupboard in the kitchen. If you wouldn’t give your kids access to that cupboard at any time of the day for as long as they want, then don’t give them free access to electronic devices.
A phone free future?
While I did not get my family on board for a smartphone detox, they supported me throughout the week — even when I failed to transfer pocket money or had to deny access to my Taobao app. Through my experience — especially my almost-missed meeting with Dr. Bush — and discussions with friends and family, I have come to the conclusion that living without a smartphone, particularly in China, as a parent and someone who depends on social outlets, is simply not realistic. But a detox is still something I would recommend to anyone. I have accomplished much more in this week, from the flow of my writing to getting all my Chinese homework done. Best of all, my family had my undivided attention and it was liberating to enjoy quality moments with them without the distraction of my phone buzzing. It turns out I might not be suffering from nomophobia (no-mobile-pho-
bia) after all.
Lise Floris henwestare at our phones, we make our kidsfeel unimportant
Cooking has always been one of my least favourite chores and since we moved to China I have really tried to find the passion for cooking by buying new cook books, strapping recipes from magazines and watching cooking channels - including my friend Jens's genius youtube channel peking papa. But alas. Ask me to host a dinner party and I'll be quite happy but everyday cooking, not so much.
But I have a solution for that. An incredibly privileged solution! Like 99% of expat families in Beijing, we have an Ayi. A maid. She comes a whopping 5 times a week for 4 hours. She tidies up, washes and irons our clothes, cleans and...cooks. I still have to get used to having a maid so I am still as disorganised as when we lived in Belgium. I would like her to cook but I forget to plan ahead, buy the necessary groceries or ask her to pass by the market so she can pick up what she needs. But all that is going to change now thanks to my new purchase! A cookbook of everyday French dishes with all the recipes written in English AND Chinese! Ladies and gentlemen I give you "Cuisine mei wenti!"! Mei wenti means "no problem" in Mandarin. The book is divided into sections with starters, main dishes, side dishes and desserts and includes useful information about the differences between Western cuisine and Chinese cuisine. For example, point 6 is "MSG is not usually used" [in Western cuisine]. Yes this book is the kind of idea I wish I had had! Just like other great ideas that cater for expats and tackle the language barrier here in China. But the woman who DID have the idea is called Olivia Guinebault and I am very happy that my neighbour Anna passed me her contact. However, I am very curious to see if the book lives up to its promise on the front page: "Daily cooking becomes a pleasure". Well if not for me then for the Ayi :-)
As I'm sitting here in font of the pristine Mediterranean sea, the count down has slowly begun. 6 weeks in Europe are coming to an end. 6 unforgettable weeks with friends and family in my native Denmark, our adoptive Belgium and my husband's native Italy. There were also a few days for me in the UK and in Lithuania but you get the picture. Tour d'Europe. Europe in all its splendour, variety, multiculturalism, multi-linguism, rain, sun, forest, city, beach. The Europe we left 7 months ago for a 4 year posting in Beijing. During our summer in Europe, I've lost count of how many people (understandably enough) have asked me "what's it like to live in China?". With time, my reply became sort of a standard reply: "well it's very interesting. Fascinating. Another world! The first 2-3 months were tough and there are still challenging moments but all in all it's a positive experience". And that IS pretty much what it's like. But as we return in 3 days time, how does that general reply translate into concrete things? And what have we missed about Beijing?
1) Our cat (ok this is not necessarily in order of priority :-)).
Our cat Pumba came with us to Beijing from Belgium in December and she's stayed in our apartment Beijing this summer. She's being looked after by our Ayi (house help) and by our Danish friend Janni. Yes we're looking forward to cuddling Pumba again!
2) Friends and acquaintances.
You don't make friends over night. It takes time for both kids and grown-ups but there are certainly people in Beijing we're looking forward to seeing again! We look forward to catching up! Many of our Beijing friends have been away from China on vacation like us and many will be in the exact same situation as us and perhaps (at least temporarily) re-live the culture shock most of us experienced when we first moved to China. I like the thought of us supporting eachother when the blue moments arrive.
3) Everyday life.
Holidays are wonderful! But they're somehow not reality. Reality is the everyday life that awaits us and we feel rather positive about getting back into the daily routine. Work, school, language course, sightseeing on the weekends, social gatherings etc. I should, however, specify that only 2 out of our 3 kids are looking forward to going back to school - and back to Beijing!
4) The unknown.
Yes, we have a daily routine like most people but it's still very hard to predict what our life will look like over the next few months/years. Which adventures (and challenges) lie ahead, where life leads us and how we will manage to integrate in China. So call me crazy but I love the unknown. I love what I'm still to explore. So bring it on Beijing!
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 :-)
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?" :-)