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.