The opportunity of living in a world away from the familiar comforts of home, engaging with an alternative culture and picking up the most spoken language in the world are among the main reasons why expatriates decide to make the move to Beijing. Whether or not we achieve these aims when we arrive, however, is a rather different matter. Living in foreign-dominated compounds, hanging out with a circle of expat friends and the difficulties of learning a new language means that foreigners don’t integrate as well as they would like. A group of students from Beijing City International School discuss the pros and cons of integration.
Thilo Braun, 14, Germany, has lived in Beijing four years.
Cheragi Castanza, 15, US, has lived in Beijing for two years.
Maher Kader, 14, Bangladesh, has lived in Beijing for 13 years.
Selina Wang, 15, New Zealand, has lived in Beijing for ten years.
Do you live differently here than you would in your home country?
Chergai: I think so. I live in a foreign compound, but I interact with lots of Chinese locals in my compound, so it’s definitely a different environment.
Thilo: It’s different in the sense that we live in a closer community. You have a certain group of people that you interact with a lot. For me, that includes wealthy Chinese people, half-Chinese foreigners or just foreigners who live in the same compounds as you. So it’s more isolated.
Selina: I live differently here than I would in New Zealand, because in Beijing, if you really like something other than what’s offered at school, it’s hard to pursue it – I play badminton at a junior level and in New Zealand there are loads of clubs for playing, but here, there aren’t.
Is daily life in Beijing harder or easier than it would be back home?
Chergai: Transportation is easier. In my city back home in the US, the only way to get from A to B is by car, but here there are lots of ways of getting round, like by taxi or subway. It’s really easy.
Maher: There are a lot of things that are easier. Like Chergai said, the subway and taxis don’t charge as much, and there are buses everywhere. But there is a cultural difference, and the language can be a problem.
Do you think it has become easier to live in Beijing during your stay? If so, why?
Maher: Yes, everything is more globalized after the Olympics, and
bilingual signs make it easier to get around.
Selina: There’s also the effort to improve the environment and make the city nicer.
Chergai: China’s booming economy is also a reason. A lot of foreign countries want to come here to start their businesses and to be part of the booming economy, so obviously China wants to make it easier for them to come in. Language is definitely one of those things.
Do you spend more time with locals or foreigners?
Selina: Mainly foreigners because the majority of my friends are from school. It’s more difficult to make local Chinese friends outside of school because of what they like to do. Locals often have different hobbies and different places they like to go to.
Maher: There’s also the language barrier.
Do you have many local Chinese friends?
Chergai: I do – I met them through some of the activities the school runs with local schools, and I’ve kept in contact.
Selina: I used to go to a local primary school , so I still have some friends from there.
Thilo: I don’t think I meet too many local friends from outside BCIS. But the school is one of the few that allows local Chinese students so I’ve met a few in school.
If you could bring anything to Beijing from your home country, what would it be?
Selina: I would bring the sweet fruit that you just can’t find in China.
Thilo: If I could bring anything, I would bring the fresh air from the countryside in Germany.
Maher: According to our religion, we have to be quite firm about not eating pork, and back home there are loads of pork-free restaurants because it’s a Muslim country. I would bring to China the no-pork rule – every time we go to a restaurant in China we have to say many times that we cannot eat pork just to make sure they understand it. Chergai: I’d bring some food back from the US. Probably some type of candy – there are some types that are made in the US and don’t leave the country, like the Bubblegum brand.
In what ways do you think your Chinese experience has changed you?
Selina: It’s changed my way of dressing, I think. When I went back to New
Zealand, I wore clothes I’d bought there, but when I look in my wardrobe I think that the clothes that I bought in China would just look weird in New Zealand
Chergai: My thinking is more global; I see things in totally different ways. For me, there’s more than one way of thinking now. In the US, our ideas are different from the Chinese.
Thilo: I agree with Chergai. I’m more open-minded now, and I think that’s developed through the international school system.
Maher: I think I’ve become more aware. But also, if I’d grown up in my home country I would have a strong Bangladeshi accent, but I’ve grown up here in an international school so I have a neutral accent, I’d say. China has made me more of an international citizen.
So is it important for expatriates to integrate into Chinese culture while living in Beijing?
Chergai: Yes, because it makes life easier for them. If they don’t integrate, learn the language or any of the culture, it’s harder for them to get around. If that experience is possible for them, they should take advantage of it.
Selina: I think if expats integrate, they will find that their lives here would be more fun and more involved.
Maher: Sometimes even I wish I had integrated more – when I go out to get something and can’t get my message across clearly, I feel everything would be a little bit easier if I was “in” with the culture.