Whether this is your first or tenth overseas posting, it’s only natural that you and your family will experience some culture shock when you arrive in Beijing. Even if you’ve already experienced expat life in other parts of China, the city has some rather unique traits. As soon as you stop expecting things to be “like home,” you can embrace the adventure.
The Toilet Situation
The good news is that Beijing has the highest number of public toilets in the world; the bad news is that not all will meet your standards. In older areas, public bathrooms serve as communal facilities. Squat toilets are still prevalent due to a belief that they’re more hygienic. Increasingly, public facilities include at least one western-style toilet, usually in the disabled stall. Toilet paper, soap, hand towels, and working dryers are rarely provided, so get used to carrying tissues and hand sanitizer. Shopping malls usually have clean facilities, but restaurants and cafes aren’t required to provide restrooms to their customers. You’ll sometimes need to put on your coat halfway through the meal to find the nearest restroom in the mall or building.
Got a Baby? Good Luck
One of the most frustrating things about Beijing is the lack of changing tables, even in the newest shopping malls and restaurants. The cleanliness of the floors is such that you wouldn’t want to lay down a changing mat, so be prepared to change baby in their stroller, on a plot of grass, or on your lap. The locals won’t be offended by you changing your baby in public, but they may stop and have a good look. Similarly, few malls have dedicated nursing rooms; pack a cloth cover when you’re planning to be out and about.
Your Children Will Get Photographed (A Lot)
Your children will likely attract a lot of attention from locals. Some will ask permission; others will hoist your child into their arms before you can protest. It’s important to understand that some have never seen a blonde-haired, African-American, or mixed-race child before. If you or your children are genuinely uncomfortable, learn the Mandarin for “Please do not take photos of my children” (qing bu yao pai wo de haizi). While this can be annoying, remember that people have good intentions and there’s no real harm done.
Your transition will be made easier with the help of an ayi (the Chinese term for a domestic helper). Perhaps you’ll be experiencing the blessing of affordable help for the first time. Your ayi will want to make your children happy by buying them gifts, letting them eat sweets, putting on their coats and shoes for them, and hovering nearby as they play. Explain your expectations to your ayi and demonstrate how you want her to care for your kids. Be patient, as this relationship will take time to develop.
No Such Thing as “Right-of-Way”
One interpretation of right-of-way is 先行权 (xian xing quan), which literally means “first go rights.” This sums up how road etiquette is understood and applied here. Drivers adopt a “winner-takes-all” attitude. If you get your Chinese driver’s license, it won’t be long before you find yourself doing the same; it’s the only way you’ll get from point A to B. Teach your kids that a green pedestrian light does not mean it’s safe to cross. You’ll find yourself dashing across eight-lane roads, weaving through the onslaught of rickshaws, taxis, bicycles, and scooters. Drivers will often swerve around you and honk their horns rather than brake. That being said, it’s rare that they will go so far as to yell insults.
If you have a stroller, be prepared for most taxis to just drive right on by. Cab drivers don’t like picking up families – especially those with young kids – because they’re worried they might dirty the car. Most cabs remove the rear seat belts or they simply don’t work. If you don’t have a driver, it’s worth looking into car-sharing services like Uber and Dididache (see p64).
Yes Means No (Sometimes)
The Chinese are generally more indirect than Westerners. For instance, there are no words for “yes” or “no” in Mandarin. Locals rarely refuse a request outright or admit that they don’t know something. Fear of “losing face” means a tendency to rush into saying “OK.” The Chinese often refuse food or drink several times in a row even if they are hungry or thirsty. Never take the first “no” literally. A good guest is supposed to refuse at least once, but a good host is supposed to offer at least twice.
Shopping Ain’t Easy
Beijing has a range of supermarkets, but what they don’t do is provide everything you need. Some won’t have a meat counter, others limited dairy, and others still only a tiny selection of baby items. Expect to spend time getting everything you need from different stores. Prices can vary widely and meat cuts are different; the Chinese like to use every part of the animal.
Old Habits Die Hard
Young, old, male, or female, you’ll soon notice how many locals spit. Though you may find it repulsive, remember that it’s not a universally rude gesture. Once you stop seeing spitting as a personal offence, it fades into the background. You may or may not eventually feel the same about clearing nasal passages or nose picking. Blowing your nose in a handkerchief and putting it into your pocket is considered to be disgusting by the Chinese – better to get it all out onto the street. Chinese babies often wear split pants, and you will see them pee and poop on the ground. To Westerners, potty training means going on a toilet; in China, it means going on command. If you’re in the process of potty training your own child, you may need to remind them that this is not how things are done back home.
Service standards in restaurants are slowly but steadily improving. In high-end restaurants, the staff understands and speaks some English. Most restaurant menus will be in English or have pictures so you can point to what you want. Your food probably won’t arrive all at once, so adjust your eating habits unless you want the first few dishes to be eaten cold. If you have young kids, most places are pretty good about bringing out their food first.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.