Finding your feet in a foreign country can be exciting and daunting all at once, and in China there’s an adventure around every corner. One of the most important factors is a solid support network, which helps newcomers make the transition into what can be a challenging new environment.
Different people will find their support networks in different ways: some through a faith-based community, some through work or volunteering, others through hobbies or interests. However, two very distinct approaches can be observed in the international communities here in Beijing.
Perhaps the majority like to live in the ‘expat bubble’, settling into expat friendly neighborhoods, getting involved in the community there and developing a social circle of fellow westerners with shared experiences. Other families choose to go down the less trodden path of immersing themselves into the culture of their exotic host country. Both can be equally successful and enriching experiences, but whichever you choose to do, you’re likely to find we all need a support network to rely on. This doesn’t come easily, and it takes a lot of initiative and effort to establish one that works for your family and your needs.
Tebby Hinton, her husband Sean and their three daughters have lived in Beijing for the last nine years, and the family is relocating to the UK this summer. They chose to immerse themselves in the Chinese culture while they were here, and managed to strike a balance between learning aspects of a new culture while maintaining their existing cultural values. We talked to Tebby about the thinking behind her decisions, and how she sees those decisions having worked out nine years later.
While her husband stayed busy at work, Tebby, a stay-at-home mom, set the tone for this shared family adventure by joining an intensive language course, five days a week at a local university, almost immediately after landing. “Learning the language was essential,” she says, “and the biggest contributing factor in finding my feet. To be honest, ‘a sense of belonging’ is asking too much of China. I don’t think China offers a sense of belonging, it’s not like USA, UK, Canada or Australia that’s a multicultural society and embraces people from other places, offering them opportunities to become one of them. China doesn’t offer that up. However, it’s achievable if you make a conscious effort to understand your surroundings better.”
They chose to live in a beautiful house in the middle of a little village in the Shunyi area, and to experience everyday Chinese life unfold around them. Things that seemed strange at first are what they find most interesting now! The man who passes their window at 7am selling sticky rice, children running around playing in the street or the fact that since their neighborhood has no plumbing it’s common for locals to brush their teeth outside by the street, are all pieces of a puzzle representing their lives and experiences in China. Their family has had the opportunity to observe and establish similarities between their African culture and Chinese culture. Certain aspects resonate more than others: for instance how the Chinese are extremely respectful towards and take care of their elders.
Tebby relied mostly on the Chinese community, school community and Baha’i community for support. Taking Chinese lessons helped her forge friendships within the Chinese community at the university. Volunteering in her kids’ school helped build a support group within the school. Getting involved in the Baha’i community got her connected with others of the same faith. Establishing this support network enabled them to be more adventurous.
“Staying busy was a priority, and learning the language from day one gave me something to do. So I made friends along the way and didn’t have time to look for more. Beijing warrants a different way of living. This is what I would advise all new families coming in. Learning the language gave me the confidence to go out and explore, to get a better feel for my surroundings and the culture. It helped me understand Beijing better, as well as bridging the gap between my Western way of life and the Chinese way of life. We made a conscious effort to have different groups to socialize with, to have a balanced perspective on life in Beijing, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Living in a transient society as expats it’s natural that in the end we all tend to gravitate towards people who understand our experiences. For people on the move, shared experiences help forge a strong basis for making friendships, while building a reliable support network. You’ll find that you do not have the luxury of time to put a safety net in place, especially when you’re new to a foreign country with no friends or family. Some people feel comfortable staying in the expat bubble and that works really well for them. But everyone copes differently, and if you want to navigate outside the expat bubble, you’ll need knowledge of the Chinese language.
Tebby further stresses the importance of finding a balance. “The expat community has played a huge part in my social life, especially in school. I have however made a conscious effort to make my experience more than just expat. I wanted to include people from our host country! It is easy to have a complex and rich life without making that effort, but we tried hard and without realizing it have managed to set an example for our kids to be inclusive. Our kids now effortlessly bond with Chinese and expat kids alike. All three kids have learnt the language, and that’s why their experience has been different.”
Tebby and Sean have three daughters aged 18, 16 and 13 years old. With two in Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) and one at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), she has had her hands full juggling their school and extracurricular activities, along with everything else. By and large, she feels children are resilient and handle moves much better than adults, but she points out that they are not infinitely flexible. Adapting successfully takes a lot of work. Children have to be listened to, and given what they need to make this transition easier on them. Tebby agrees that social media helped maintain the friendships her children left behind, but they also solidified their local friendships through WeChat and Skype!
She herself relied on social media to maintain connections back home, with frequent updates on their lives in Beijing. She also encouraged her parents to move to Beijing for five years. Her parents worked in the teaching faculty of a local school. They had space in their lives for a big adventure at an early retirement stage, and it was a unique experience for all of them. Tebby highly recommends reinforcing language learning by hiring tutors at home, no matter how well your children are faring with Chinese at school. It will manifest in positive ways to give them a sense of confidence, and help them comprehend the changes in their lives.
Two things that helped her adapt faster and settle in:
Learn the language, and get a driver’s license! This helped Tebby find normalcy in an unfamiliar place, which can be extremely hard for your brain to process when you don’t understand what’s going on around you. It was also positive having Chinese-speaking help at home, which in turn forced them all to learn faster.
What they’re going to miss the most and what they are taking back with them:
“One thing we’re leaving behind is the house, and that’s really special, with the courtyard and life outside in the village that we immersed ourselves into. We are all taking our Chinese language that we didn’t have when we came here. When the kids first moved, there was excitement, but also a fear of the unknown. Now they’re definitely happy to go back into an English speaking environment; however they really appreciate what they’ve learnt here, and that is a very big part of who they are or will be.”
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 completely volunteer-run organization that doesn’t rely on sponsors. Regular INN events include INN Nights Out, INN Trekkie day trips, INN Coffee Mornings, 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.
School Communities and Getting Involved: 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. Other avenues to explore for a establishing a support network include hobby and interest groups, religious organizations, country- or language-specific resources, parenting support groups and online groups such as Beijing Mamas, Beijing Café, Beijing Mommy Group on WeChat and Beijing Exchange. These are great sources of information about living in Beijing and these sites are also a handy place to buy and sell items. (For more on this, see page 63.)
• 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,
• 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,
• Roundabout: www.roundaboutchina.com
• Migrant Children’s Foundation: www.mcfchina.org
• Sew GORGEOUS: email@example.com
• Signature Wine: www.sigwine.com
Photo: Courtesy of Tebby Hinton
This article originally appeared on pages 42-45 of the 2016 Home and Relocation Guide. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.