Living in Beijing, especially as a homeschooling family, we often feel like we could be on a perpetual field trip. I, more than the kids even, would love to abandon the structure of textbooks and worksheets, as well as the confines of our apartment to seize every cultural opportunity this city has to offer. National Art Museum today, Lama Temple tomorrow, Peking opera the next day. I wonder how long we could go on like that before we would finally see all of the important sites in Beijing.
On the other hand, attempting this would be an overly ambitious endeavor. We would exhaust ourselves, maybe even fall asleep halfway through the Peking opera on the third day. Coming from the outer reaches of Changping, any trip into the city can be an ordeal, involving hours in transit whether we go by car, metro, or bus. Then, there is the equally long journey back to Changping in time to eat a proper family supper and the mounting costs of such a field trip.
Museums, galleries, performances, and the like fall into the category of “Big C” culture. These are occasions to engage our host country at its most artful and inspirational. There is also another type of culture, called “Small C.” “Small C” culture is simply what we encounter every day living in a country that is not our own. Taking advantage of these cultural opportunities include watching my kids play with other kids in the park, negotiating with street venders, and snacking on jianbing from their favorite cart.
On holidays and the occasional weekend, we spend a considerable amount of time ambling around the Great Wall. The end-ofthe-hike reward for the kids on chilly afternoons is a chance to warm up on our friends’ kang. Myles and Brigid race each other to occupy the warmest spot. After a small amount of bickering, both find there is more than enough heat to share. I will never find a kang comfortable, but my children happily sprawl out on the brick platform, lamenting that our own apartment is not so well equipped. They may not realize it, but I certainly see how they have come to appreciate this Chinese invention and unique aspect of “Small C” culture.
“Small C” culture also has an inevitable food component. Sometimes for my kids it means helping their playmates’ grandparents in the kitchen roll dumplings, even when those same playmates have deserted them for something more exciting, like video games. Other times it means eating something, like fish, in the local preparation. Myles always sighs that Americans are missing out on the best part of the fish when they do not serve it with the head. It has also come to mean discovering the regional differences between foods served just inside the city limits. Dishes found in Changping, for instance, may be unheard of in Yanqing, and vice versa. Investigating this further showed us that these two neighboring counties do not even speak the same dialect. And on one occasion, exploring Beijing’s “Small C” culture has even meant saying yes to a donkey burger.
Our homeschooling lifestyle has allowed us to have a great deal of flexibility in being able to complement our studies with outings in Beijing, though not as frequently as we might like. But the real lasting cultural lessons for our family have happened far from the museums and performance halls in the city. Merely living in Beijing is a cultural opportunity of its own.