Rants & Raves

What I tell folks considering moving to China

I get a lot of friend’s of friends emailing me re: “we are thinking of moving to china, what can you tell me” and I thought I would publish some of those thoughts to our blog so that in future I can just point people to this entry!

  • Cristina and I arrived not speaking a word of Chinese. It is difficult to get around in taxis and restaurants without Chinese, but you can stick to English speaking/western friendly places the first few months while you take some language classes. My wife and I now both speak passable conversation Chinese, and certainly enough for ordering food, getting around taxis, haggling at markets, etc. the language is a blast to learn, and not impossible at all (we didn’t learn to read mind you, just speak). We both did 3 hrs a week with a private tutor for several months, fyi, but there are group classes as well.  Learning chinese has easily been one of the highlights of my adult life, great fun, great intellectual challenge, great window to gaze through into this amazing culture.
  • Beijing city has two major expat areas as far as living: Chaoyang district, downtown skyscraper condos, or Shunyi, which are “villas” (houses) in compounds. We live in Shunyi because of our kids school, as do most families with kids that are here attending one of the two major international schools that Americans flock to: WAB and ISB (our boys at WAB, both school are fantastic). Living in Shunyi is fine, but it is pretty much the sticks, with very few restaurants and activities outside of the school and the housing compounds—about 15 minutes by car to the city which isn’t bad. Chaoyang would be a blast, and if we didn’t have young kids we would have gone for that immediately, great place to live, in the middle of a great big cosmopolitan city.
  • There are a ton of public parks here that are lovely and full of nice walks, boating, and rides/carnival games for kids, so a lot of our weekends consist of “brunch in the city and outing to some park or other”. We also have lots of kid social things like baseball, swimming classes, etc., so a lot of our lives revolve around the kid rhythm. I have some friends here who are single/swingers and they are expats, happy to hook you up with them for more feedback on that scene if that is more your thing… word is that the club scene is great, lots of students in town, and plenty of upscale swinging type sophisticate childless adults to cavort with.
  • Restaurants are awesome… this is a food lovers dream. So many restaurants, all kinds of food. A lot of our outings in the evenings without kids revolve around trying new food joints.
  • Cost of domestic help is very very low, so you’ll likely have a fulltime maid to help with house and or kids, not necessarily live-in unless you want that (we don’t). we also have a driver for our car. Ballpark for these fulltime staff is about $200-300 USD each… so factor that in to your experience, it is a big change from the USA to have domestic support like that (and it can be really great!). My wife and I go out at least 1 night a week, sometimes 3 times, leaving the kids at home.
  • There is great arts scene, theater, live music, lots of galleries and lots of modern art. When you are here, go to visit the “798 Art Community”, a section of town where old factories have been turned into about 100+ private small art galleries… great scene, great stuff going on—there is a real palpable vitality to the place/city.
  • We have internet and broadband at home, as does everyone (biggest internet community in the world, here in china) and therefore a lot of our “media” comes from the web. We have TV and cable at home but don’t watch (we aren’t tv people). Movies in theaters is not a big thing here, in the USA we would see on average 5 movies in theaters a month, here we have seen 2 in 1 year. However, DVDs are $1 each and plentiful, so we get DVDs of recent films we can’t see in theaters, and get TV shows that way as well (just watched the Mad Men series this week, enjoyed). We sometimes read the ChinaDaily, the communist party propaganda paper, it is fascinating (in english) and challenges all of our assumptions about “freedom of speech” which is billed to us in the US (hint: we are far leaning leftists politically and socially, and can’t stand our current administration).
  • Shopping for food: there is a series of grocery stores that cater to expats with products that only foreigners want (eg: peanut butter, tortillas, pace picante sauce, corn flakes, etc.)—one is called Jenny Lu’s, we shop there near our house (3 min walk) and the other obvious one is french conglomerate Carrefour, which is a mad house but has everything.
  • Health: there are western doctors at various western focused clinics, we go to Beijing United, good stuff; dentist here has better equipment and more modern training than our dentists in the US. If we had emergency of any kind and had to go to hospital in beijing we would have no concern, all the doctors are American or Canadian expats. If we were in countryside, however, that’s another story…
  • Shanghai sucks (relative to beijing)—it is a big bright shining exciting city, but it has no soul. We almost moved there instead of beijing, we are SOOO glad we came to beijing. This place is FULL of amazing history and art, and surrounded by thousands of years of historical towns/etc. Shanghai is a 100 year old port city with a strong western influence—nice place to visit, and certainly a viable option, but I’m a big beijing promoter J
  • Rest of China rocks: we do periodic tours/outings with the kids and without to various parts of china; we have been here a year and have seen Xian, Guilin, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Shangrila, and various beijing suburbs. We are just scratching the surface. The country is great to travel across, good accommodations, cheap! A good 3 star hotel in a town might run $40-50 a night; a 4-5 star hotel in a 2nd tier city will be $100 USD. Food in smaller cities is cheap, great food is everywhere.
  • Negatives: the air pollution is really really bad. Traffic at rush hour can be nasty. That’s the only two negatives. I stay off roads at rush hour, and we have swiss made air purifiers in our home throughout the house and we keep them on 24hrs a day (as do many expats) to address the air pollution. I lived in Santiago Chile for many years and got very ill from the air there several times, have not had trouble of that kind here. But I wouldn’t want to live in this city for more than 3-4 years just on the air quality concerns.

Summary: People are super friendly. The country is alive, pulsating. Anything is possible, the future is exciting, change is everywhere… This is the center of the social and economic changes that society and the planet are facing in the next 50 years, both in good and bad sense. Being here, living here, you will immediately get it and be wiser about the world as a result. It is an amazing experience, I can’t recommend highly enough.

Rants & Raves

Summer Has Ended (part 2)

we had a hard time getting tickets to events and refused to pay ridiculous scalpers’ prices, but we did get to the Bird’s Nest (the brand new National Olympic Stadium) for track and field.

We got 6 tickets, not together, and left the little kids at home. After our long vacation, I knew they couldn’t hang. All they wanted was to be home with Camila and play. Camila told her mom that she didn’t want to go because “I’m young and I’ll probably get another chance to go to the olympics, and you won’t, so you should go mama.” They turned on TV and looked for us in the stands!

A big rainstorm hit that morning, but knowing it would be hot, we didn’t wear layers. Some of us wore sports jerseys. Nobody brought an umbrella. We took the subway to the Olympic Green, as cars were not allowed near the stadiums. I don’t take the subway much in Beijing, especially during rush hour, and you can probably imagine how intense it was. The mass of people all got off and slowly shuffled as one through an endless tunnel and up a long long flight of stairs to the street. Once at our stop, we paused along with others too tentative to brave the torrential rain to walk 1/3 mile or so to the stadium. A lot of peole went to work or school. Scalpers approached, slyly and silently holding up real or counterfeit tickets, who knows.

At the midway point through our slog, an enterprising old saviour sold us some ponchos and umbrellas. A hundred meters from the stadium at entry point #1, they were giving them away. The bird’s nest, a tangle of steel beams against the cloudy morning sky, stunned me. I’ve never seen so many shades of gray. The atmosphere was dark and ominous, and a perfect backdrop to the severe shadows and angles of the stadium. Beijing’s flat, gray, monumental horizon thrillingly filled my periphery.

The ebulliant stadium workers made the security process joyful and sweet. Everybody was so happy. We found our (covered) seats inside and shared a moment freaking out on the energy, the incredible vibes, excitement and good fortune of being at the olympics. Anyone who loves sports knows the difference seeing action live. The sounds, the crowd, the food.

Oh yes, the food! Not being a huge spectator sport culture, Beijing naturally does concessions “differently” then in the USA. It was 9am, so beer was out of the question for us although there were 3 diffent kinds to choose from and CHEAP. No coffee, since Chinese don’t drink it. No tea either. No hot drinks at all. Okay, we went with coke, since it probably has more caffeine then a bottle of sweet, iced green tea. Hot dogs came roasted on sticks, cool. Kind of missed the bun but no biggie. Candy popcorn, totally yummy for breakfast with coke (not). And a Chinese pastry, which was gross, especially with a bag of meat-flavored potato chips. And that was that, we sampled ALL the offerings of the National Stadium Concessions! But at least it was cheap. And I will never enjoy people elbowing their way to the front of lines, espcially for food when I’m hungry.

The women long distance walkers finished inside the stadium to much fanfare. We were surprised at how tiny the winner is. High jumping women leaped around like Tiggers in brightly colored spandex. The rain didn’t faze them. The men javelin throwers chucked their spears from one end of the stadium to the next, and as part of the decathalon, they sprinted and long jumped too. I’m always so fascinated to see athletes move around with the natural grace and ease of wind through trees. We were right behind the lady high jumpers and it was fun to see each one go through her warm-up rituals. I could see that many were playing out achievement in their minds, some just soothing nerves, others convening with coaches for up to the minute advice.

The Chinese didn’t succeed much in the athletics games, and their star was injured, but the crowd roared with gusto at every little Chinese athlete’s movement, from tying shoes to jumping off the mat. The Chinese fans dominated the scene. I thought that the spectators would be very multi-national, but foreigners were clearly the minority. I didn’t see any other USA fans. But it was nice that regular peeps could get tickets, including an old couple sitting behind me, eager to practice English, learn where we were from, and eat the food they smuggled into the stands. Ah, wisdom.

After taking a bazillion pictures inside the stadium when the events ended, we went out to the Olympic Green, a huge plaza area in between various venues. It felt like being inside the gates of heaven, everybody so blissed out in a state of harmony, peace, reverence and luck. The battle of women’s beach volleyball raged on the world’s largest TV, people trickled in and out of the Water Cube and other indoor stadiums, and the torch burned against the cloudy sky. We left the party behind for some good old fashioned Chinese food.

The Olympic experience didn’t quite end there, because a miracle, fantasy, prayer, vision was manifested through Uncle Forest’s good Guanxi (personal connections). Will and Emilio got to go to the Basketball semi-final double header and see the Redemtion Team live against Argenitina, and Spain vs. Latvia.

One World, One Dream. For weeks we had been singing the ballad “Beijing Huan Ying Ni” (Beijing welcomes you). Our family has gone home, we’re back to work, back to school, and now the olympics are over. What’s next?

Rants & Raves

Summer Has Ended!

Summer officially ended in Beijing last weekend with the Moon Festival, or the Mooncake Festival as Carlos called it. We celebrated Fall’s arrival, the full moon, a drastic change in weather, and unique semi-bland/semi-sweet/sticky/ornately packaged pastries.

The Paralympics will end soon. Many of us don’t pay attention to the games for physically challeged folks, but it’s pretty big deal and very engaging. Stadiums filled up and tickets were hard to get. We caught wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball on TV. Quite a few friends went to games, and wheelchair rugby or “murderball” as it’s known is a favorite. Very impressive athelticism and spirit.

Nothing compares to the world Olympics of course. I think a billion people in China watched the spectaculater opening ceremony on TV. I hope you saw it. The closing ceremony was boring. Too many speeches. And the segment introducing London 2012 Olympics reminded me of Waiting for Guffman. Bad. A great way to make Westerners look like decadent fools.

Beijing stood still for a little while during the games. Half the cars were taken off the road every day, construction ceased, a lot of locals and expat residents got out of town, and the Casanueva family took over the city!

Andy, Laura, Emilio Chico, Will and Camila stayed with us for most of the month and we toured of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Longshen, Guilin and Beijing’s own Ya Show market.

We took off a few days after the opening, so we hit some big sites in town just before the tourists poured in. We joined crowds on Wanjing pedestrian shopping street, watching and cheering the Chinese soccer team, playing on huge jumbotron TVs. Our visit to the Great Wall was “enhanced” by a group of Brazians carrying around a boombox full of samba, waving a big flag and wearing silly outfits.

Walking from the Great Wall to a restaurant down the road, a small group of Chinese boys waved Will and Emilio over for a game of B-ball on their funky little neighborhood court. All of them were thrilled and E was a great ambassador of the sport, giving good tips and letting one little guy take lots of shots. I’m sure it sounds corny, but it was the olympic spirit in action: cross cultural sharing, caring and commuicating through athletics.

On our trip we saw games on TV, and were dismayed that most coverage included China, so the early USA basketball games were missed, but we saw a lot of Michael Phelps, the gymnasts, the Russian pole-vaulter, and gee, I’ve never been so interested in weight-lifting, but I just love those Chinese women medalists!

The party was in full swing when we came back to the city, and we crossed paths with many many athletes in the clothes markets. Andy went to a tattoo parlor and had to get in line behind players from around the world getting inked with olympic rings.