Modern, working musicians can never focus on money. Sustainability is key in the arts, and longevity in the field usually qualifies as “making it.” If we continue making music as our main vocation over many years, eventually this industry rewards us.
Nevertheless, after moving to Beijing in 2008, I learned that diversity is the key to survival as an expat in China. As a native English speaker who also speaks Mandarin, it wasn’t long before I discovered that many project-based companies were seeking my skill set. And many were connected to music. So, music and money were made together. Let the choir sing!
But the purpose of making money shifted when I became a parent in 2012 and 2013. No longer was it just to sustain as an individual artist; money became essential to ensuring their futures. And before I could strum that changed chord to my perspective, my daughter went from infancy to kindergarten and school fees loomed. Suddenly, there was a third reason to make money: to meet the demands of an international school education—our choice, yes, but also our burden. With free public schooling and an extremely high standard of education in Canada, you can imagine how hard it was to accept such an expense in my artist’s life.
But, flip global perspectives a moment and let me take you back to Canada with me this summer. In July, I had a week of teaching work at a songwriting course in Toronto. It was a great opportunity, but one for which I needed daytime childcare. Since I came back to my home country alone with two kids (husband unavailable, extended Canadian family not living in Toronto directly), I had to find someone in Toronto who could help me. Luckily, my dear friend’s partner is a childcare worker. She is fully certified, gentle-natured, and my kids already knew and loved her so she was naturally my first choice. Embarrassingly, I booked the kids into the week with her before I even inquired into her fees. We have a full-time ayi in Beijing for our domestic and childcare needs, and so I am familiar with paying for support. Surely it wouldn’t be that much more expensive!
The volume of Western childcare fees blasted me like cheap China speakers. Four and a half days of childcare costs for both kids cost me the same as one month of Beijing ayi fees, not to mention two-thirds of my income as a teacher for the week. It was, as you can imagine, very sobering. But necessary, for the sake of music making. Unquestionably. The songs must get written, no matter what the costs.
And so after the week had come and gone, I took pause. I turned down all the music and listened to the silence of reason that long-term planning brings.
Childcare is very expensive in Canada, but it’s affordable in China. Schooling is very expensive in China, but it’s free in Canada. It’s a no-brainer. For now, with one kid needing daytime childcare, we stay in Beijing. We can afford one set of international school fees and a full-time ayi. But two years from now when both kids will be school age, there is no other choice—financially—but to come back to Canada.
So this is the beginning of a long goodbye. And already, I know, I will miss my ayi the way a song misses a singer. She will have gone the long haul with us and, as I said, longevity is key to a successful music career. Thanks to her, we will have “made it.”
This article originally appeared on page 40 of the September 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com.