After calling China home for so long, expats – a clan for which impermanence is built into this cultural environment – often struggle with their eventual departure – particularly those of us who have resided in Beijing for many years. Add a family to the mix and the exit can seem all the more dramatic, especially if your children were born and raised here.
However, with so many immigrant communities all over the world, it’s possible to find Chinese culture outside of China. For those of us whose roots go deep into this land, maintaining ties with China is within reach thanks to modern technology and air travel. It’s just a question of making the effort.
After ten years in Beijing, the Thompsons were one family whose departure from Beijing initiated a huge shift in their lives. Alison and Gavin, who are originally from the UK and parents to Milo (age 7) and Merle (2.5), made the leap this past January after requesting that Gavin be transferred to Japan for work.
Now residing in Tokyo, they are readjusting to a new Asian environment. Gavin, who works for an oil and gas consultancy firm, and Alison, who was the former marketing director of 3e International School, had built a solid life in Beijing, giving birth to both of their children at Beijing United Family Hospital.
“China was a huge part of our lives for a long time,” says Alison, “We want our children to remember China, especially the language.”
While Gavin’s work enables him to make business trips to China, staying connected with the country will take more effort for Milo and Merle. Milo is enrolled at an English-language school that offers weekly Mandarin lessons alongside of a limited amount of daily Japanese language training. Since Milo was born in China and schooled in a bilingual environment, he has already impressed his teachers with his native Mandarin skills.
This is but one of many education options. As Alison Thompson points out, each family must find the best fit for their children. Nevertheless, full-time Chinese schools do exist in most major cities worldwide. Additionally, part-time weekend and and/or after-school programs are also widely available.
When relocating to a new environment (as opposed to one’s home country), it’s also important to gauge how important it will be for the child to learn the local language and whether or not this will unbalance their foundation in Mandarin.
Because Milo has always been immersed in a bilingual environment, he has had no trouble adjusting to a third language. “[I was] advised not to do another 50/50 approach like we had in Beijing,” says Alison, “So we a found a school that will just offer a little Japanese each day to introduce him gradually.”
Another way to maintain ties to China is via consistent correspondence and communication with your former ayi. The Thompsons left two beloved ayis behind, one of whom worked for the family for six years and the other for two. Even within that relatively short period of time, the latter worked her way into the family’s hearts. The family has even approached her to come live with them in Japan, which would certainly go a long way to preserving Mandarin in the household.
We’ve all heard the adage “It takes a village to raise a child,” and this is an integral part of the Chinese experience. Extended family, ayis, and neighbours are all engaged in each other’s children. Thus, maintaining ties to China is a simple as maintaining ties to your new city’s Chinese community. Chinese cultural organizations often bring new immigrant families together and can just as easily help a non-Chinese family integrate with others who are also pining for jiaozi and yangrou chuanr.
Feed the Family, Feed the Soul
On that note, authentic Chinese fare is often the first thing a family will miss after leaving this foodie country. Many families will find that their first inroads into the local Chinese community are made via a restaurant owned by overseas Chinese. The Thompsons have become regulars at such a restaurant so that Milo can chat with the owner. This allows them to both reconnect with the language and satisfy their taste buds.
Finally, celebrating Chinese holidays is a great way to keep your family connected with Chinese culture. While not every holiday may be on your family’s radar, the big ones are generally hard to miss in any Chinatown. In particular, Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) usually comes with a busy schedule of events and performances.
With modern day communication tools like WeChat and Skype, it’s easy to remain close to the places that matter. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to visit friends or treat your friends (including an ayi) to a visit your new locale, air travel makes it relatively simple to stay connected. The Thompsons, for instance, are planning a few trips back to China every year. They just returned to Beijing for a week in April “to see everyone.”
Why are so many people leaving in the first place? Air quality is a primary reason. The Thompsons made a choice to move to Japan for this very reason. “I just don’t want to take my children back there to live while the pollution is such an issue,” Alison says – and we can all relate to that sentiment. The longer we stay, the harder it is to leave; but the worse the pollution gets, the harder it is to stay.
The Thompsons are no longer “stuck in the house,” living close to parks, nature, and surrounded with blue skies. Even the family dog, Kipper, is enjoying her new environment. “[Kipper] is spoiled here. She is allowed in the park, where they have designated dog runs, rabies vaccines are checked, and everyone picks up after their dog. It’s great!”
Regardless of our reasons for leaving, there is no shortage of ways to stay in touch. Geography doesn’t have to be an impediment; there is room for China in our lives wherever we go.
Photos courtesy of Alison Thompson