Sometimes, it all seems too foreign. But with a little effort, you can bridge the gap
After months, perhaps years, of planning, you made it to China at last. Now what? This place, with its tangle of roads and signs in Chinese, can seem so intimidating that you’d be forgiven if you’re tempted to stay indoors and watch your new ayi mop the floor. Or maybe you’ll be so relieved to learn one of your neighbors is from your home country that you’ll break down in tears when she invites you over for coffee.
It isn’t always easy for expats to break through the cultural and linguistic barriers that prevent them from fully experiencing China. Some people give up entirely, settling into a routine that includes playdates and entertainment just like what they had back home. But, with a little bit of effort, you’ll find it possible to escape your expat circles and learn to maneuver outside of your comfort zone. Heck, you might even make a Chinese friend or two. So let’s get started.
First up: the language. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, you’ll probably never be fluent – maybe not even comfortable. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Most locals are pleased to hear you attempt their language, even while they’re giving you those puzzled looks that indicate they have no idea what you just tried to say. So commit yourself to a study program – there are classes to fit all budgets and needs. And then use the language, everywhere you go. Make small talk with street vendors. Order in Chinese at restaurants. Get yourself a language exchange partner (see p60 for information on how to do this). If you do this every day, we promise that eventually someone, somewhere, will understand you. Between now and then, you’ll have plenty of awkward moments, to be sure. But trust us: It’ll all seem funny later.
What’s that, you say? Everyone you meet is a foreigner? And they all speak English? Well, we have a couple of options for you.
You could move: Find a more modest apartment building, perhaps one without gates and guards. You’re more likely to find middle-class Chinese in these buildings than in some of the fancy new high-rises.
But if you’ve finally hung the last pictures and unpacked the last box, this probably isn’t an option. In that case, the answer is likely to be in your own backyard. Or in your kitchen, anyway. Get to know your very own ayi. Invite her family to a restaurant for dinner. Remember her birthday. Show an interest in her kids. Many expats think of ayis as family members, and they build relationships that last long after they’ve left China. More than just an extra pair of hands in the laundry room, an ayi can help you understand the world around you.
Use your kids as an icebreaker. If you have younger children, take them to a nearby park, and bring bubbles or sidewalk chalk to share. In addition to the usual photo seekers, you’re likely to attract some local kids. The language barrier isn’t as much of an issue for little ones, so they’ll bond over bubbles while you try out your new language skills on their parents. You might also consider enrolling your kids in after school activities that are geared toward Chinese children. Ask co-workers where they send their kids, and you’re likely to find a few options, many of which are more affordable than the usual expat venues.
You don’t work? Try to volunteer at an orphanage or an animal shelter. This will give you entry into a part of China that tourists seldom see. Bring your kids if you can – it’ll be a healthy reminder that their expat lifestyle isn’t necessarily typical.
Visit a vendor: kite makers and other artists will likely be happy to show you what they know if you ask – which you can do, because you took our advice and started studying Chinese, remember? Join a martial arts class. If you live in the city, get up early and stroll through the parks before the tourists hit the streets, while the exercising elders are doing their thing. Take the subway or venture into a hutong.
By yourself? Did we just say by yourself? Gulp. Admittedly, sometimes it feels too scary, or just too lonely, to go by yourself. We hear you. That’s where the large number of expats in Beijing comes in handy. There are so many expats here that you’re likely to find a group that interests you. Check out the China Culture Center, the International Newcomer’s Network or the Fortune Connection Club. Visit The Hutong for cooking classes. Join the Beijing Hikers.
It won’t all be fabulous. There will be times when you want to scream in frustration. So do it. But then get over it, and get back to exploring. Let’s say you plan to be here for two years. That’s only about 100 weekends, total, and while that may seem like a lot of time (especially on the bad days), trust us when we say it isn’t nearly enough time to do everything there is to do in Beijing. So what are you waiting for? Open the door and kick yourself out of the house.