For many expats, full immersion into Chinese society is not feasible or necessarily desired. Foreign-born Beijingers run the gamut of cultural immersion, from honorary locals to "lopats" (a combination of expat and local) to purely expat. However, the one thing most families have in common is the desire to give their children access to a second language and the love of another culture.
Which Family Are You?
Canadian Terry Boyd-Zhang, her Chinese-born husband Zhang Xiangzi, and their children Caleb (7) and Saira (4) have embedded themselves fully in the Chinese community. For example, Caleb is in Grade 1 at Haidian Experimental Third School, and Saira attends the Beijing Language and Culture University daycare program. Avoiding the expat lifestyle has helped the Zhang children connect with their Chinese family and heritage, while the family has avoided many of the financial pitfalls that come with the higher standard of living that most expats expect. When asked about her family’s lifestyle choices, Boyd-Zhang simply shrugged, "We didn’t think about it. Xiangzi is Chinese."
Ethan Perk, an American, and his Austrian wife Claudia Hofer both speak fluent Chinese, having lived in Beijing for over 10 years. Their children Yannis (5) and Yara (3) both attend the local Happy Baby kindergarten. Moving in both expat and local circles has allowed the Perks to raise their children in a more multicultural environment. "Our neighborhood is real Beijing, and my kids are both native speakers. Their Chinese is amazing," says Perk.
Australians Sonia Cahill and Dan Baird may not speak any Chinese or have a deep understanding of the culture, but they do recognize the valuable opportunity their girls have to learn a second language. Zali (6) attends Yew Chung International School, where she’s taught in a bilingual classroom, and Asha (3) is at the local Kindergarten of Stars. "The reason I persist is that we are a monolingual family from an isolated country, and have an opportunity to provide a second language to our children while we are living here," says Cahill.
East Meets West
Born in Canada, Boyd-Zhang’s children couldn’t speak a word of Chinese when they were placed in their Chinese language-only schools. "They were very lost for four to six months – it was very hard. In hindsight, we’d give them more language training before starting school," says Boyd-Zhang. There were days when Caleb would hate going to school. "They had naps in Grade 1 and he hadn’t napped in three years. He’d just stay awake while they slept," says Boyd-Zhang.
The differences in child-rearing techniques can be a strong deterrent for expats who are considering a change to a local lifestyle, or at least sending their children to local schools. One of the most contentious issues is the prolonged use of naps during the school day.
Kindergarten of Stars enforces two-hour naps as part of their daily schedule, resulting in the Cahills’ younger daughter, Asha, being wide-awake at her normal bedtime. Sonia Cahill commented that while in Chinese families it’s common for a 3-year-old to stay up well into the night as extended family members watched on, this habit is not practical in a two-parent Western household. The naps caused such a disruption that the Cahills decided to cut Asha back to half-days (not a popular decision with the principal). Boyd-Zhang has felt similar pressures from her school community – specifically, about the clothes, or lack thereof, worn by her children during the winter months.
After prolonged exposure to a Chinese environment, parents should expect to see some changes in their children. For Boyd-Zhang, it was her children’s recent preference for speaking Chinese at home. Cahill, meanwhile, not only noticed her children improving their language skills, but she also endured a stage when Asha would spit on the floor. "Culturally, it wasn’t an issue for her," she says. Meanwhile, Perk has seen his children’s language skills reach native fluency.
The Language Barrier
Neither Cahill nor her husband speaks Chinese. She warns non-Chinese speakers to be mentally prepared, "You have to get in the right frame of mind. Otherwise, it can be a cultural battering." Even Boyd-Zhang, who has studied Chinese and lived in China on and off for 15 years, finds communication difficult. Unable to read her son’s school notices, she relies on either her son knowing what the letter says or her husband’s translation. Similarly, Cahill relies solely on a native Chinese-speaker – in this case, her husband’s secretary. "It’s challenging as a parent – you feel completely incompetent," she says.
Cahill finds homework issues particularly frustrating, and relies on the family’s ayi to provide help with assignments. "Yesterday I was looking at Zali’s homework and I couldn’t read the characters," she said. A parent’s inability to understand homework tasks and letters home can lead to children using their language skills to get the better of mom or dad. "Sometimes I have to write ‘Zali says it’s too hard’ on her homework. Whether or not she’s telling the truth, I don’t know," says Cahill.
At The Gates
Playdates are not part of local life, and Boyd-Zhang has found this a barrier to meeting other mothers in her community. Meanwhile, Cahill says she’s the only parent who actually picks her child up from school; the local Chinese children go home with their grandparents or an ayi. "It’s a different mentality – as a parent, it’s kind of lonely." Perk’s son has made the distinction between local and expat by himself, preferring to keep his Chinese and expat friendship groups separate. "He knows he’s a foreigner, that he’s not Chinese," says Perk.
This doesn’t mean that local parents are not keen to get to know expat parents, simply that they socialize in a different way. Perk met many of his Chinese friends through professional circles. "I built their trust in me by working alongside them."
Opportunity of a Lifetime
For Boyd-Zhang, an international school was never an option; one reason was the prohibitively expensive cost. "Maybe later we’ll send our kids to an international school, but not for now," she says. When discussing the schooling options in Beijing, Cahill notes, "There’s no middle ground. There’s local or there’s the expensive international schools."
Finances aside, parents who have chosen to go the local route have found it to be very rewarding – for themselves as much as for their children. "No, I wouldn’t choose an expat lifestyle. I like China and things Chinese. Maybe I was Chinese in my past life?" jokes Boyd-Zhang.
Though Perk says the experience has been "really enjoyable for the kids," he believes parents who plan on staying only a year or two in the capital should consider whether a local school is worth the challenge. "The language is so hard," he says.
However, Boyd-Zhang encourages parents, regardless of their length of stay, to consider adapting a more local lifestyle and immersing their children in the environment. "Local school – it’s not so scary. It’s tough, it’s different, but it’s not scary."
Advice From Parents Who’ve Been There Before
"Talk with your kids and discuss it, but know that it’s going to be tough. Take someone trusted with you to the school to communicate with the teachers – a language partner or your ayi" – Terry Boyd-Zhang
"You have a fantastic opportunity to give your children the gift of language. We’ve had mainly positive experiences with local schools, but choose one that is right for your child" – Sonia Cahill
"The biggest challenge is that it’s so different. A friend of mine lived in Italy and placed his kids in a US school. He said it was such a waste of an opportunity, and that really struck home with me" – Ethan Perk