No specific skills are required to be a volunteer, just lots of smiles and a kind heart
You’ve arrived in a foreign country and you have a chance to reinvent yourself. Everything is new and exciting, and there’s an adventure around every corner – that is, at first. Once the novelty wears off, the 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.
Support Groups and Networks
Beijing’s most visible newcomers’ group is the International Newcomers’ Network (INN). Founded in 1996, it is the largest and oldest volunteer newcomer association in mainland China. INN’s mandate is simple: to welcome newcomers – any newcomers – and help them to integrate into life in Beijing. “INN is where new and seasoned expats come to make new friends and reacquaint with old,” explains INN President Theresa Ahdieh.
With over 2,000 members from more than 200 countries, INN is a platform for residents to share information, make new friends, attend social events, exchange resources, and find a sense of belonging. 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.
Regular INN events include “INN Nights Out” for those interested in going out as a group and trying different restaurants each month, “INN Trekkie” day trips to explore major attractions and parks, “INN Coffee Mornings” for informal neighborhood gatherings, and “Arrival Survival” in August, the most popular annual meeting of the year, which is timed to coincide with the arrival of many families in late summer.
For newcomers, everything about Beijing can feel foreign and overwhelming. “You will inevitably have questions about public transportation, basic utilities, domestic help, drivers, housing and landlords, banking and finances, visas, and more. These are just a few of the topics that continue to be covered by INN at monthly gatherings,” says Ahdieh.
For most families, school communities are the most natural way to meet people. Most international schools have an active parent group, committee, or body where you can get involved in organizing,
fundraising for, or volunteering at school activities and events.
Hobby and Interest Groups
Another way to get involved is through interest groups. The Beijing
Guild is an informal crafting group that welcomes people of all nationalities interested in knitting, crochet and other crafts. The group hosts weekly sessions where crafters can have coffee, knit together, and exchange ideas in a friendly environment. The sassily-named Stitch n’ Bitch serves a similar purpose, bringing people together over crocheting, knitting, needlepoint, and other crafts. Beijing Photo Walks is for amateur photographers who want to join informal photo walks around Beijing – a great way to explore the city while meeting new people. Sports are another fun way to meet people; turn to p70 to learn more about fitness options in Beijing.
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 (BICF), the Congregation of the Good Shepherd (COGS), or the River of Grace Church. Catholics can attend English service at the South Cathedral in Wangfujing.
Country- or Language-Specific Resources
A family from a specific country may find a support network through their embassy community. In fact, any expat can find their fellow countrymen and women via free groups like InterNations, which has an active Beijing chapter.
You can also leverage your existing contacts by joining an alumni association or, if none exist, volunteering to start up a Beijing chapter for your alma mater. Alumni groups often have strong links to the embassy of the country where the university is located.
In addition, cultural centers like the French Institute, Instituto Cervantes, and the Italian Cultural Institute include libraries, film screenings, events, and classes open to the wider community.
Parenting Support Groups
Bumps2Babes is a parenting support group for moms-to-be and new moms. The group holds regular meetings offering advice and support on everything from pregnancy, birthing, and the early stages of motherhood.
La Leche League (LLL) is an international organization that provides information, support, and encouragement to women who want to breastfeed. It offers support meetings and telephone support from accredited LLL Leaders. The English-language meetings, which cover topics such as the benefits of breastfeeding, overcoming breastfeeding difficulties, nutrition, and weaning, take place on the second and last Tuesday of every month; contact LLL for meetings dates and locations.
Useful online groups include Beijing Mamas, Beijing Café, and Beijing Exchange. These are great sources of information about living in Beijing, from where to buy disposable diapers and maternity clothes to discussions about ayi pay, air quality, and healthcare facilities. The sites are also a great place to buy and sell items. For more on this, check p76.
Once you’ve found your feet and started to establish a support network, you may want to become more involved. Beijing has a number of organizations and groups that are always looking for volunteers – a great way to meet people and give something back to the community.
Among expats, the best-known charity organization is Shunyi-based Roundabout, which started in 2008. A charity store and distribution center, Roundabout is a bridge to those in need.
Volunteer Mary Kate Brown has lived in Beijing for nine years and is actively involved with Roundabout. Acting as a link between the expat community and the store, Brown develops the organization’s newsletter, website, and social media to encourage more people to get involved. She also puts possible donors in touch with local charities in need.
Brown has being doing volunteer work for a long time, and Roundabout combines many of the things that interest her. “Being able to support those with medical needs, working with educational charities, fair trade and social enterprises is so rewarding,” she says. “I get to meet incredible people who are committed to making the world a better place for everyone.”
There are many organizations in Beijing that need volunteers to support their work, “from visiting sick children, fundraising, teaching, office support, graphic design, and even bookkeeping,” so there’s definitely something for you.
“No specific skills are required to be a volunteer, just lots of smiles and a kind heart,” says Brown. Whatever you can contribute in time and energy will make a difference.
Volunteering isn’t just for adults. Children can help sort donations, organize a charity drive, or contribute to a bake sale.
“When you see a child who understands that what they are doing really is going to make a difference to someone’s life, for me that is the most rewarding aspect of volunteering,” says Brown.
The Migrant Children’s Foundation (MCF) is another organization that is always in need of volunteers. This non-profit aims to enrich the lives of disadvantaged children in China. Volunteers take on one-month support placements at under-resourced schools in Beijing, but the focus isn’t just on teaching; it’s about sharing experiences, giving time, and learning new skills.
Sew GORGEOUS is a volunteer community project aimed at passing on sewing knowledge and techniques to disadvantaged migrant students in Beijing.
Start a Business
Many enterprising expats decide to start a business in Beijing. Take beijingkids board member Mike Signorelli, for example, who has lived in Asia for 22 years (13 of them in Beijing). After a career in corporate marketing, last year he launched Signature Wine Club, China’s first independent wine subscription club. “I was inspired by other entrepreneurs that I have had the privilege to know and work with throughout the years,” says Signorelli. “I wanted to create a useful service model that had yet to be offered in China.”
China is often criticized for its poor customer service standards. “Focusing on service before sales was the single most important decision I’ve made,” he explains. “We engrained within the staff a ‘customer first’ mentality. For example, we offer a ‘money back’ guarantee. No one has asked for a refund on a subscription and none of the 5,000+ bottles we have sent have been returned.”
In many ways, setting up a business in China is the same as in other parts of the world, but expat entrepreneurs can expect a few extra delays. Signorelli says that things never move as quickly as planned and there are numerous hoops to jump through. Challenges range from finding – and keeping – good staff for a reasonable salary to choosing a name and trademark that aren’t already registered in mainland China. “Keep your patience, work with competent vendors, and you’ll be OK,” he says.
• Beijing International Newcomers’ Network (INN): www.innbeijing.org
• InterNations: www.internations.org
• Bet Yaakov Chabad House and Community Center: www.chabadbeijing.cn
• Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF): www.bicf.org
• French Institute: www.institutfrancais-pekin.com
• Instituto Cervantes: www.pekin.cervantes.es
• Italian Cultural Institute: www.iicpechino.esteri.it
• Beijing Guild: www.beijingguild.com
• Beijing Stitch n Bitch: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Beijing Photo Walks: www.bejingphotowalks.com, www.facebook.com/groups/BJPhotowalks
• Beijing Mamas Yahoo Group: groups.yahoo.com/group/Beijing_Mamas
• Beijing Exchange: groups.yahoo.com/group/beijingexchange
• Beijing Cafe: groups.yahoo.com/group/Beijingcafe
Parenting Support Groups
• Bumps 2 Babes: email@example.com
• La Leche League: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.llli.org/beijing
• Roundabout: www.roundaboutchina.com
• Migrant Children’s Foundation: www.mcfchina.org
• Sew GORGEOUS: email@example.com
• Signature Wine: www.sigwine.com
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.