When my family first arrived in Beijing, we had never even visited China before. To say we experienced culture shock would be an understatement. “It’s like we’ve landed on Mars,” my wife said, as we encountered toxic air, baffling behaviors, and signs we couldn’t read. Did we adapt? Well, four years down the line, we still haven’t gone home!
Life in Beijing can be tough, but it can also be thrilling, with opportunities to discover and learn which you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. We took to WeChat, the ubiquitous social media app, and asked international families to tell us the best and worst things about bringing up kids in China’s capital.
“Beijing is great because it’s such a safe place to grow up in.”
“Best is I don’t have to worry about gun violence.”
Of course no city is completely safe, and you always need to keep your street smarts about you. However for a metropolis of its size, Beijing is remarkably free of violence and crime. Private gun ownership is virtually non-existent, and people walk the streets at all hours of the night confident that they will remain unmolested. This makes the city a reassuring place to bring up a family.
“Best is that there’s no ‘one way’ of doing it, like you would have at home, because Beijing is a melting pot of different cultures.”
Living in Beijing will expand your children’s cultural horizons, and not just by introducing them to China’s ancient civilization. With embassies from every nation based here, the international community in Beijing includes people from all round the world, and your child will study and play with friends from many different cultures and backgrounds.
You can also enjoy food from every corner of the globe, as Beijing’s booming restaurant scene offers cuisines from Georgia to Peru. And as befits a world city, there are amazing touring musicians and art exhibitions.
With the city’s extremes of climate, people are expected to dress for comfort, and there’s a remarkably easy-going approach to fashion. If you want to go to the supermarket in your pyjamas or in a ballgown and high heels, no one is going to judge you. This diversity also means a wide range of ideas on parenting: debate on the best way to educate, feed, and protect our children is lively, and you will find a community to support your choices.
Costs: food, shopping, transport
It is possible to live day-to-day very cheaply in Beijing. Western food can be expensive, but if you learn to love Chinese cuisines, you can eat a wide array of delicious dishes for very little. Similarly, if you avoid imported goods at the supermarkets and buy local ingredients from local markets, food need not be expensive. Getting around the city can be inexpensive too. Didi is relatively cheap, and Beijing’s metro system costs far less than those of western cities.
Taobao and kuaidi
“These days, it’s really easy to get all of the imported products needed for baby.”
“Regarding baby products, there are fakes on Taobao. Be careful.”
China is the manufacturing center of the world, and in the fiercely competitive online marketplace which is Taobao, you can find an astonishing range of products at bargain prices. The website can be intimidating if you’re new to China, and there are services such as Baopals which will help you with it for a small fee. But it’s much more fun to fire up Baidu Fanyi (or other online translators) and learn to navigate it yourself.
As well as locally-made goods, Taobao offers imported products, including baby milk and diapers. However, some care is recommended when buying these products, as fakes are still available. You may also find that for genuinely imported items you need to upload a Chinese ID to the system… here, as so often, a Chinese friend can be helpful.
Your purchases are whisked to your door by the city’s highly efficient kuaidi system. The official China Post system is notoriously unreliable, with a distinctly Communist approach to customer service. But these little three-wheel vans are the lifeblood of the city. You can also access a wide range of food deliveries from your phone.
Opportunity to travel and learn
“Best: the chance for the children to learn Mandarin effortlessly (and with a Beijing accent too!)”
“Positive: how many different places you can get to quickly (both around China and Asia).”
Since moving to Beijing, my children have ridden horses across the Mongolian steppes, dived among tropical reefs, and crossed a “nightingale walk” in a samurai castle: all experiences which would have been out of our reach had we stayed in England. Exploring China is easy too, thanks to the country’s extensive, efficient network of high-speed railways.
Perhaps even more important for our children’s future is the opportunity to learn Chinese, a language which will no doubt be of global significance in the coming century. And Beijing is one of the best places to learn it. Modern standard Chinese, or Putonghua, is based on the north-eastern dialect, so your kids will be picking up the proper pronunciation and vocabulary (for the most part at least!)
Attitude to children
There’s a popular saying: “it takes a village to raise a child.” In Beijing you can see that principle in action. Everyone smiles at children, particularly younger kids. Normally surly Beijingers become kind and patient when there’s a child involved; if your little one is crying or having a tantrum, you won’t generally find the kind of tutting and disapproval which you might encounter back home.
There is a downside to this though. You may be pestered by people wanting to take pictures of or with your children, or just filming them surreptitiously from a distance. This is not so common in the city itself, where foreigners are less of a novelty, but the further you travel from the center, the more you’ll be treated like celebrities. However fun and flattering this is at first, it gets old pretty quickly.
This is always the number one complaint in the city’s parenting forums. However it must be pointed out that the air in Beijing has improved enormously in the last few years. It is no longer among the world’s top 100 most polluted cities, and levels of PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, considered the most dangerous to health) have fallen 35 percent.
Despite this ongoing improvement, a few sensible precautions are required, particularly with kids around. Air filters inside your house, masks for the worst days, and opening the windows to make the most of the good days all help to keep those growing lungs healthy.
Being a long way from family
This is perhaps the hardest aspect of the adventure for many parents. Without our extended family, their practical help, emotional support, and of course babysitting, bringing up kids can be more challenging.
Modern technology makes it easier, as we can make video calls to stay in touch with our loved ones, and hiring help with the cleaning and childcare is still affordable for many (although ayis’ salary expectations are rising as China becomes more prosperous.)
Perhaps more important though is building a community here in Beijing. WeChat can be a lifesaver, allowing people easily to find like-minded souls and develop friendships and support networks. And of course we at beijingkids are always here at hand, with advice, information, and humor, so that you can make the most of the amazing opportunities in this unique, infuriating, and exhilarating city.
Dirt and hygiene
“I will never, ever get used to people spitting on the streets.”
In fact, the sidewalks of Beijing are generally clean; you rarely go more than half a mile without encountering a street sweeper with a broom. And the city is mostly free of the sort of rat infestation which plagues places like Delhi or Jakarta (or, for that matter, London). However, some of the habits of older Beijingers can be hard to take for foreigners. Noisy spitting in public is a constant bugbear, as is allowing small children to use the street as a public toilet. These are elements of daily life which just have to be tolerated, and which are rapidly disappearing among the younger generations.
The city’s actual public toilets are plentiful, clean, and well looked after, a legacy of the time when most homes had no indoor plumbing. Westerners will often find the lack of privacy shocking though, and the squat toilet, while actually better for you, takes some mastering for those not brought up to it. And however thoroughly cleaned they may be, the baffling failure to adopt the S-bend means that an unpleasant odor is always lingering.
“Worst: general lack of manners…”
Humans did not evolve to live in overcrowded cities, and tend to adopt survival mechanisms. You can, like the people of Tokyo, develop a highly formal system of manners, or like New Yorkers, a brash, in-your-face aggression. Beijingers have opted for pretending other people don’t exist.
Not letting people out of an elevator or subway car before getting on themselves, blocking an escalator or doorway, letting a door slam in your face… these behaviors can seem incredibly rude and inconsiderate to those brought up with a different etiquette. And for parents, it presents the challenge of raising kids to feel confident in the city, without them adopting some of the more abrasive aspects of Beijing manners.
The value of “face” in Chinese society also should not be underestimated. People may helpfully point you in the wrong direction rather than admit to not knowing the way, and often will simply ignore you if they feel that their English may be tested. Expect to see shop assistants vanishing into back rooms at your approach, and not emerging till you’ve gone. This can though play to your advantage if you need to “tingbudong” your way out of an awkward situation by pretending not to understand.
Rent and school fees
“Negatives – school fees, definitely.”
Beijing has world-class international schools, with facilities to match. However the fees also reflect their high standards, being among the most expensive in the world. If you’re sent here by your employer, you should ensure this forms part of your package. If not, it’s worth looking into scholarships, or even just haggling. But the best costs.
Rents in Beijing are outrageous, and the city’s landlords notorious. See page 28 for help with navigating the rental scene.
“Must add drivers to the worst list… too often I’m praying for my children’s or my life…”
“I’m a dad with a double stroller, so sometimes the random parking on pavements can be jarring to get through, without having to walk on the roadside and then back on the pavement again.”
Beijing transformed in a couple of generations from a city of bicycles, to one where everyone seems to own an enormous SUV. While the air is improving, the traffic seems to be getting worse; and the recent measures to clamp down on e-bikes will hardly aid the situation. Although it must be said that e-bikes are a significant hazard in themselves, riding on sidewalks, in the dark with no lights, and often with the rider more interested in their cellphone than the road ahead.
The ever-expanding metro network certainly does help, though some lines are unpleasantly crowded at peak times. And with the rental bike wars ending, they may become a positive feature of the city’s landscape instead of a blockade at the entrance to subway stations. Authorities have finally begun issuing parking tickets too. But when traveling by car, you can expect to spend a lot of time sitting in jams. Bring something to keep the kids entertained.
This article appeared in the beijingkids June 2019 Home & Relocation Guide issue.