What does a Beijing housewife's normal Monday look like? Let me show you some pictures from the errands I had to run today (up until the kids came back from school).
When we moved to China, my husband and I had a clear agreement. We were not going to buy a car! We'd seen it on the news, heard it from friends; Beijing is a congested, polluted city, the subway is fantastic, the taxis are cheap as chips, Uber is even cheaper, it's a bike-friendly city, you can hire a driver for the day to go outside the city, the kids take the school bus - ok you get it? no need to buy a car!!
The first couple of months in Beijing, we were still convinced that owning a car was absolutely unnecessary! Everything was easy by taxi - and when our bikes arrived on the container in March, a whole new and beautiful world opened up to us!
So this is when I defend the undefendable decision I guess?
Around May/June I started warming up to the idea of buying a car. It's true that 80% of the time, I felt no need but there were situations where I found myself thinking "right now it would be convenient to have a car".
There are 5 people in our family. When going out all of us, we needed 2 taxis. Slight inconvenience. Ok you're not convinced?
Grocery shopping: There is a good western supermarket very close to where we live - and they deliver BUT it's overpriced and sometimes it's nice to go to the big supermarket and buy in bulk, Not always ideal to be in the middle of the street with a number of carrier bags, trying to get a taxi.
Get the picture? Add an ironing board and floor mop to the carrier bags if it helps....
School: Yes, the kids do take the school bus to and from school but I felt that I might be able to be slightly more active at school if I go there whenever I want, It's about 10K from our apartment.
Rain: Recently I found myself with our niece Margherita who was visiting from Italy. It rained all day one day and we wanted to go to the market, go to a lunch place I like and I wanted to treat her to getting her nails done. Well from waiting for taxis under the rain and going to 3 different parts of the city, we came back soaked in the afternoon. "Ok you've lived 13 years in Belgium and a bit of rain scares you'??
Ok WHO AM I KIDDING?
We didn't NEED the car. We bought it because it offers freedom. I love my bike but I also love the freedom behind the wheel! Want to go somewhere NOW? A nice day trip outside the city? Pick up guests from the airport and pay them that extra service? A luxury, I know but YOLO as they say!
Meet our old Volvo
We agreed that a used car would be perfectly fine! So we bought - well a very used car. A Volvo S80 from 2003. 100.000 kilometres already but in perfect condition. In fact, back in the day it was a luxury car. Automatic transmission, leather seats, car phone (museum object nowadays), TV (which works!), DVD player and even a fridge. All well looked after by the Swedish embassy where it was used for official visits etc.
So yes. We contribute to the pollution and we're not too proud about that. But honestly - the ol' Volvo was a good decision. You can see pictures of "her" (and our first self-drive family trip to the Thousand Mountains scenic area) in the gallery below.
Did you know that?
It's normally not that simple for foreigners to buy a car in Beijing! You must enter a lottery to buy a licence plate. Also, there is normally a test to sit in order to get your foreign drivers licence converted. Furthermore, in an attempt to limit traffic, there are rules about which number plates can circulate on which days. Many expats who work in the private sector in Beijing have a "package" that includes a car and private driver. We don't - but as diplomats we are exempt from the above rules and could therefore buy a car.
When my friend Signe was here to visit is in April, I had my first "I-need-to-get-out-of-here-and-go-to-Starbucks-NOW-moment". We were walking around the food stalls at the Wangfujing market and the heat, the smell, vendors shouting and the live scorpion skewers suddenly became too much for me. So we escaped to Starbucks (and I don't even like coffee). I was cured and ready to go back into the "real Chinese world". Many westernes experience "time out" moments like that and the good news is that Beijing allows you to have "the best of both worlds". I'd like to illustrate this with some pictures. Join me on my Chinese day and on my western day.
Day 1 (Chinese day):
I just buy some "normal" chicken (sorry forgot to take a picture) and some carrots.
On my way back from the supermarket I see this guy at the traffic light. And this is not an uncommon sight. Trying to sell a turtle. A reminder of the way animals are often treated here in China.
With the sad image of the turtle in my mind I drop off the groceries at home and go for another bike ride. To one of the hutongs. Where you go back in time in a beautiful way and where public toilets are...well...
On my way back home I'm reminded that Beijing still is the Capital city of a developing country. Check out the cables that are being repaired...
Day one impressions: Wow I live here now! I'm one of them :-)
Chicken and carrots: 40 kuai (6 Euros)
Lunch (pancake and diet coke): 10 kuai (1,5 Euros)
Total: 7,5 Euros
Day 2: Western day
It's time for the kind of day where I stay in my Western comfort zone :-) I start at the mall....
Impressions, day two: Good to know that for the blue days I can somehow find comfort in what I know and what reminds of "the West".
Money spent: let's not go there 😊
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.
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.
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?