Though there are no hard statistics, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of Beijing’s expat families live in Chaoyang or Shunyi. But some have eschewed the bustle and gridlock of downtown and the quiet expanses of Shunyi in favor of more distant neighborhoods, such as Haidian, Changping, and Tongzhou. While these areas may seem remote compared to Central Park or Beijing Riviera, families living on Beijing’s outskirts cite factors like lower cost of living, minimal traffic congestion, and an enhanced China experience as reasons for staying put. beijingkids reached out to these enterprising expats to find out what it’s like to live outside the bubble.
From Chaoyang, Haidian District can seem like an entirely different country. And yet, this area is packed with universities and historical sites like the Summer Palace and Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace). Located in the northwest part of Beijing, Haidian is also China’s answer to Silicon Valley. Tech giants like Baidu, Youku, Lenovo, Oracle, and Microsoft have headquarters there, and alectronics markets like Zhongguancun E-Plaza hawk all manner of computers, phones, cameras, hardware, software, MP3 players, and accessories.
Chris and Sarah Willford
Children: Chris and Sarah Willford, and their kids Amelia (age 9), Lauren (age 6), Edie (age 4), and David (9 months)
Background: Hailing from the US, the Willfords have lived in Beijing for one year. Chris is a professor of international politics, American government, and international political economy at the University of Colorado’s International College of Beijing (located within China Agricultural University). Sarah is a stay-at-home mom.
Where do you live? We live on the campus of China Agricultural University (CAU). We wanted to live near where Chris teaches; the university also helps subsidize our housing.
Have you lived elsewhere in Beijing? In 2005, we lived on campus at Renmin University, where Chris was teaching. We prefer living at CAU because the apartments are newer and more conducive to family life; the housing is also cheaper than around Renmin.
How often do you go into the city? We go within Fourth Ring Road about three times a week. We visit friends, and tourist attractions like Lama Temple, Taoranting Park, and Tiananmen Square. We attend church every Sunday near Liufang Station within Third Ring Road. We like restaurants like Kro’s Nest and Haidilao. Sometimes, we go to the Pearl Market or shop for electronics and clothes at markets in Zhongguancun.
How do you get around?
We are bus and subway people. Since we have six people in our family, taxis will not pick us up. We’ll also take bike rides for short trips to parks or stores.
Where do your kids go to school?
Sarah homeschools our children using the K12 curriculum. K12 was our backup plan, but it became [Plan A] after we got to know the curriculum and discovered it was much cheaper to homeschool, with three school-aged children [in the house].
What fun things are there to do in your neighborhood?
We live close to Olympic Forest Park. We love the ponds and many different flowers and statues there. On campus, we are lucky to have athletic equipment and courts, such as a rock climbing wall, a running track, and a sand pit, plus basketball, tennis and volleyball courts.
Do your kids like your neighborhood?
Yes. After Olympic Forest Park, the children’s favorite places are on campus. There is a tower that looks like somewhere Rapunzel would live, and several little paths and flower gardens that they like to run around. They also love playing on the Olympic statue built to commemorate the Greco-Roman wrestling and [Paralympic] volleyball competitions. The girls also love Jinma Market, which has jewelry and manicures; they love looking – and occasionally buying – something.
Do many other expat families live nearby?
There are very few expat families with school-aged children near us. There are several expat couples and families with [a single small child]. The program my husband works for employs several expat faculty; we all live on or near campus.
Do you ever wish you lived downtown or in Shunyi?
Occasionally we do, so that the kids would have children their age to play with on days other than Saturday. Chinese children are usually only available then.
How has living in your neighborhood affected your China experience?
We enjoy a very enlightening, positive experience because of the high concentration of students and faculty in our neighborhood. They are so respectful of each other and helpful with our children. We went to a health clinic on campus and a staff member sent a student to help translate; this student became one of our most cherished friends. She sometimes goes with us to Jinma Market, and enjoys talking with the children, who teach her jokes and include her in their pretend play. She appreciates being able to practice her English. Since she is from Xi’an and hasn’t seen much of Beijing, we planned to take some trips around the city together; 798 is at the top of our list.
Do you see yourself living here for a while?
Certainly. Chris loves his job and we love discovering all the unique things about China. This discovery process helps us to better educate ourselves and our children.
Photo by Mitchell Pe Masilun