You’ve arrived in a foreign country. This is a chance to reinvent yourself, everything is exciting and new, and there’s an adventure around every corner. That is, at first.
Once the novelty wears off even slightly, excitement can turn to bewilderment, sometimes driving newcomers to a state of isolated frustration that we seasoned expats know all-too-well. That’s where a solid support network comes in.
This city’s most famous newcomers’ group is the International Newcomers Network (INN), an organization founded in 1996. According to Mary Peng, its president of six years and a volunteer since 2004, it is the largest and oldest volunteer newcomer association on the mainland.
Religious and cultural organizations can also bring people together and provide an immediate sense of community. Jewish families might seek out the Chabad House in Lido and Christian families can connect with Beijing International Christian Fellowship. Families may also find a support network through their embassy community. In fact, expats can find their fellow countrymen and women via groups like InterNations, which has an active Beijing chapter.
Since many expats move here for work, the workplace community is a natural place to find support. There are frequent networking events, and organizations such as 85 Broads and Viva Beijing Professional Women’s Network specifically enable women in business to connect with each other.
INN, on the other hand, is a unique phenomenon. The organization’s mandate is simply to welcome newcomers – any newcomers – and help them integrate into life in Beijing. With over 2,000 members from more than 200 countries, INN is a platform where people can share information, make new friends, attend events, exchange resources, and find a sense of belonging.
“We are the intersection,” Peng explains. “Like a Venn diagram, if you were to draw circles around all the other organizations through which people find community in the city, we are where they all overlap.”
That’s because INN is a completely volunteer-run organization that doesn’t rely on sponsors. People from all cultures, religions, professions, and walks of life are welcome. There is no membership fee and events charge only enough admission to cover overhead costs like transportation, venue rentals, and refreshments.
This past January, Ines Leung and her husband moved to Beijing from the US and are expecting their first child this month. She is an example of someone whose positive experience of acclimating to local life was a direct result of her involvement with a newcomer organization. She described INN as her “main gateway of resources and friends.”
The various activities include weekly coffee meet-ups in different parts of the city, INN “Night Out” events for those who work during the day, and “Trekkie” day trips to explore major attractions and parks.
Most importantly, however, INN offers answers. For newcomers, everything about this country can feel foreign and overwhelming. They inevitably have questions about public transportation, basic utilities, domestic help or drivers, housing and landlords, schools or education options, food safety and air pollution, banking and finances, visas, and more. These are just a few of the topics that continue to be covered by INN at its monthly meetings. The website also contains a vast library of information and resources.
“I was searching online for information about expat tax implications when I came across INN,” Leung says. She promptly started attending all of INN’s events and volunteering as a coffee coordinator in her neighborhood. “That’s just my personality. I jump right in with both feet,” she explains, laughing, “I’m extroverted, so it’s right up my alley.”
But even introverts can find a gentle welcome at INN. The well-attended monthly meetings feature speakers and selected charities to give members an opportunity to do meaningful volunteer work. In addition, the meetings are not mandatory; members can choose to attend whichever meeting they want. “It’s low-commitment, low stress,” says Leung.
“INN is not a business networking group,” specifies Mary Peng. “There are plenty of those in the city. Your business card is irrelevant because there’s no need to impress. The organization is about meeting people and making friends.” She believes that it is these values that enable INN to “fulfill a big gap in our social community and lives.”
Additionally, INN frequently offers members psychological support for culture shock. “[Most newcomers] don’t speak the language and it can be really isolating and stressful,” says Peng. What’s more, it’s common for trailing spouses to be left without a support network. INN helps connect these people with any professional help they may need and a welcoming social group with whom to venture out and explore the city.
Leung echoes this point. “We women who come here with our spouses are often dealing with identities crises,” she explains. “We ‘used to be’ so many other professions.” While it’s not always the women who are in the trailing spouses, any person who follows their partner’s professional calling to a foreign country must wrestle with a personal and/or professional reinvention once the bags are unpacked. Sometimes, the reality of that uphill battle can hit hard.
Since many families choose to relocate in late summer, INN’s most popular meeting every year is called “Arrival Survival” and takes place in late August – just before the start of the school term.
But INN’s success lies mainly in its desire to create a cohesive community. “What’s essential is to be able to break out of our de facto social groups,” says Peng. Citing the many friends she has made over the years, many of whom have extended invitations to visit in their home countries after they left Beijing, she muses, “Once you’re a member of INN, you never really leave. Your friendships will span the globe.”
Leung probably says it best when she sums up the role that INN can play for newcomers. “INN is a spectrum,” she says with infectious enthusiasm. “It’s what you make of it!”
Beijing International Newcomers’ Network (INN)
To find out more about INN, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.innbeijing.org.
Photos courtesy of Ines Leung and Christopher Lay