Besides split pants and diapers, the major differences between Chinese and expat households can be illusive. We followed the Songs and the Dagnachews to find out what goes on behind the scenes of a modern Beijing home. A day in each household revealed that both families place equal importance on family time and education, with a second language ranking high on their list of priorities. Their rituals may be different in nature, but their values are the same.
The Chinese Family
Sam Song and his wife Frances have lived in the northern Beijing neighborhood of Wukesong for the past 15 years. Sam is a surgeon and Frances is a medical director; their son Michael (7) attends Peiying Primary School.
Because they have the help of Sam’s parents, who live close-by, there is no need for an ayi. The grandparents help with much of the cooking and shopping, as well as picking Michael up from school. Despite the extra help, Frances still does all of the housework. The Songs recently moved into a new apartment sans TV. Concerned about maintaining Michael’s good eyesight, the Songs have no plans to purchase a television and find life without it allows them to spend more time together as a family.
Monday to Friday
7am Everyone wakes up.
7.15am Frances makes a simple breakfast for the family, usually consisting of milk, mantou (steamed rice buns) with red pepper paste, and rice congee. Though everyone enjoys breakfast together, they only have five minutes to chow down.
7.20am Sam takes Michael to school on the back of his bicycle.
7.30am Frances leaves for work, traveling by subway.
School Michael attends six classes a day. Subjects include Chinese language, painting, science, mathematics, English, music, sports, dancing, and even etiquette.
Noon Michael’s lunch, provided by the school, typically consists of three dishes with white rice. His favorite is meatballs.
4pm Michael’s grandfather picks him up from school. They walk back to Grandfather’s home where Michael does homework for two hours.
6pm Sam and Frances arrive at Grandfather’s home where they have a big family dinner prepared by Grandma. A typical meal consists of meat, rice congee, fried vegetables and cucumber salad.
6.30pm The Songs finish dinner and walk or cycle home.
6.40pm Michael finishes his homework, practices piano for 40 minutes, and listens to English for another 40 minutes. Once homework is out of the way, there is 30 minutes of storytime or playing with Dad.
9.30pm Bedtime for Michael.
Weekends are a busy time for the Songs, filled with lots of extracurricular activities for Michael. Michael’s long list of classes at the local Youth Activity Center include ping-pong, piano, wuxiandian class (where he learns to create small projects with electricity), English and painting.
On Sundays, the family attends mass. Unlike many Chinese families, the Songs come from a long line of Christians. After mass, Frances has religious study, while Michael attends Sunday school.
Sunday afternoon is the only unstructured part of the Songs’ week, leaving them free to chill out at home, do homework, visit a park (their favorite is Yuyuantan Park), or take a trip to the countryside.
The Expat Family
Danny Dagnachew, his wife Marlo, their son Melake (7), and daughters Tshyona (5) and Adey (3) hail from Baltimore in the US. They’ve lived in Beijing for the past three years. Danny is the owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Ras (currently relocating), while Marlo works as an art teacher at Beanstalk International Bilingual School. The kids also attend Beanstalk – the girls go to the kindergarten, while Melake is in the primary school.
Danny’s family has an ayi to help cook, clean and watch the kids. She speaks very little English, but the children have no trouble communicating with her in Chinese. Sometimes Melake acts as a translator for the family.
Monday to Friday
6.30am Marlo wakes up with the girls.
7am Typical breakfast fare is coffee (for Marlo), toast, cereal and milk.
7.30am Marlo and Melake bike together to school.
8.30am Danny or the ayi takes the girls to kindergarten.
Noon Tshyona and Adey eat a packed lunch, which ranges from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to salad and fruit. Melake has school lunch, with the option of Western or Chinese food.
School Beanstalk is a bilingual school where approximately 30 percent of classes taught in Chinese. Melake takes several classes in Chinese every day, including reading, writing, art, music, and wushu. His English-language classes include science and mathematics. Tshyona and Adey take the same subjects at a more elementary level. In addition, they have naps and storytime.
4pm Everyone finishes school. Danny picks the girls up by taxi.
4.30pm Marlo and Melake ride home on their bikes.
5pm Everyone enjoys snack time at home. Snacks include yogurt, carrots and/or potato chips.
7pm Danny, Marlo and the ayi prepare dinner. They usually have guests, so it’s not unusual to have eight people at the table. Ethiopian, Chinese or Italian food is usually served. Tshyona and Adey’s favorite is white rice, while Marlo loves tofu and all things spicy.
7.30pm Melake finishes his homework. If Tshyona and Adey have finished their homework, Marlo reads them a book. If time permits, before bed they watch a movie (Up has been voted as the family favorite). Then it’s bath time.
9pm Everyone is asleep. Technically, bedtime starts at 8.30pm, but rounding up the troops can take some time.
Sleeping in until 9.30am is part of the Dagnachew weekend. Though Danny and Marlo lounge in bed with cups of coffee, the kids inevitably join them, singing songs and braiding Danny’s hair.
The Dagnachews like to go out for lunch. Favorite places include Grandma’s Kitchen, Coups restaurant and bakery, and Starbucks (the girls love the muffins).
Saturday afternoons are normally spent buying groceries, while Saturday evenings are reserved for date night. Danny and Marlo’s favorite date spot at the moment is newly opened Club Le ZaZou in Sanlitun Village.
Sundays are appointment-free and filled with trips to Fundazzle, Tuanjiehu (in the summer), Si’de Park, Blue Zoo, or an afternoon at the movies. Come dinnertime, the family often has friends over to enjoy a home-cooked meal.