My cultural hospital shock

culture shock Beijing

After 3,5 years in China, I no longer blink when the taxi driver spits out of the window and I smile oh so friendly when an elderly lady tells me to put socks on my baby when it is 32 degrees Celsius outside. But when I’m in a hospital, culture shock still hits me full force.

No it’s not the hospital’s facilities. We have a good insurance and therefore frequent “international” hospitals with nicer facilities than back home. Hospital staff is generally friendly and has had very good education. Usually, waiting for the nurse takes about 3 minutes. What is my problem I wondered?

After 4 days in hospital when delivering my second Beijing baby, I conclude my culture shock has to do with V&C&E:

Vulnerability, Communication and Expectations  

I prefer to avoid hospitals. Being there means there is something out of the ordinary going on with me, or worse, there is something wrong with my kids. So, I’m out of my comfort zone, making me vulnerable and nervous (and when pregnant throw in a heavy dose of hormones too) – and admittedly not necessarily my smiling, civil self .

I communicate in my non-Chinese way. They communicate in their Chinese way. And despite both conversing in English, it sometimes seems we are on different planets rather than the same room. Why is this hearing aid twice as expensive as that one, what are the differences? Why should my labour be induced after 24 hours whereas in my home country it is considered safe to wait 48 hours?

My expectation is to have my questions answered in a knowledgeable way. My expectation is that staff I haven’t met before introduce themselves before checking my underpants. Chinese staff’s expectation seems to be that I do what the doctor tells me without asking questions. Having been raised with the notion it is good to ask questions, this can obviously clash.

Next time I’m in hospital I will try and manage my expectations. And luckily I have found some very capable and communicative doctors in Beijing- though not necessarily Chinese ones.

Read more about the four phases of culture shock on Wikipedia: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, Mastery


The Best Books about China: Other Worthwhile Reads

Chinese Bookstores have intriguing categories.

Chinese Bookstores have intriguing categories.

These books did not fit into the categories of post 1, 2 or 3, but are worth reading. Three novels and one true story about China that reads like a novel. Enjoy!

Country side dwellers: The Good Earth- Pearl Buck
A China classic, Buck tells the story of a poor farmer in the countryside in the 1930ies. I imagine that despite the economic rise, there are still millions in China’s countryside leading a similar life, or are but one generation away from it.

Tourists and travelers: Lenin’s Kisses- Yan Lianke
This is a hilarious novel about creating a tourist attraction from scratch. A local village chief decides to buy the embalmed remains of Lenin from Russia and construct a major tourist attraction. For those traversing China by train, Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster is a classic.

Romantic souls: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers- Xiaolu Guo
Reverse Culture Shock. A novel about a Chinese girl who moves to England for study and finds love while being lost in translation.

Storytellers: Mao’s last dancer- Li Cunxin
A beautiful, real-life story about how a boy (Li Cunxin) growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China becomes a major ballet star in the United States. There is also a film made of this, though I haven’t watched it yet.

The Best Books about China: Part 3 Women’s Lives

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?


“Women hold up Half the Sky,”

Mao Zedong said famously, but there are no women in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party today. These books take a look into the life of ordinary Chinese women. There are very successful female entrepreneurs in China nowadays, but I have yet to read a book about them. I prefer not to put “women books” in a separate category as this may put off people (yes conservative men, I mean you), but how can you understand China or its economy for that matter if you do not take the female perspective into account?

The Good women of China: Hidden Voices- Xinran
Chinese Oprah Winfrey, radio host Xinran, tells the riveting tales of women calling in to her late night talk show. Beautiful and heart-breaking stories.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China- Leslie Chang
How do the girls who make your IPhone live and work, love and think? How a stolen phone may mean the end to your social life in a vast city like Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in Southern China. Former Washington Post correspondent delves into the life of factory girls. A novel doing something similar is Northern Girls by Chinese author Sheng Keyi, though the tone is completely different.

Wild Swans- Jung Chang
A real life story of 3 generations of women in 20th century China, connected to the broader historical developments in China in that period. The writer’s grandmother was the concubine of a general, her mother a high party executive.

The Best Books about China: Part 2- Economy and Politics

Where Politics and Economy coincide: Tiananmen Square Beijing.

Where Politics and Economy coincide: Tiananmen Square Beijing.

Whether it is possible to make a clear distinction in categories between the first post and this one, is a matter to be debated. But here are some more good reads about China.

For the Time deprived: The 1 Hour China Book- Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel
Two American professors at leading Chinese University Peking University describe six “ Mega Trends” in the Chinese economy, from urbanization to the internet. They claim the book can be read in 1 hour, though a closer read warrants 2 to 3 hours. While the authors admit that China is big and complicated, the book gives a good and simplified overview of current issues.

Politically savvy– The Party- Richard McGregor
How has the Communist Party shaped China and how is it ruling this vast country in the 21st century? McGregor points out how what was once a revolutionary party is now firmly the establishment. A must read for those who want to understand more about how this vast country is governed.

Entrepreneurs: Mr China- Tim Clissold
After China opened up to foreign investors in the late seventies, Western investors tried to grab their chances and huge amounts of foreign investment became available. Many became rich, though not necessarily the Western investors themselves. Although the Chinese economy has changed tremendously, the book still contains lessons for foreigners wanting to do business in the Middle Kingdom.

Marketeers: As China Goes, So Goes the World- Karl Gerth
People who visited China in the 80ies or early 90’ies always tell me about the throngs of bicycles in the streets. Gerth explains why dreams of turning China into the first motorized vehicle free economy have been replaced by the smoggy, congested cities we know today, and gives examples of the Chinese consumer’s needs.

Negotiators: Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style- Lucian Pye
This book is only available second hand, but a relevant and concise introduction into Chinese negotiating. Many books about doing business in China focus on irrelevant details about handing over business cards with both hands. Pye on the other hand explains that Chinese believe patience is a value in negotiations and takes it from there, answering questions such as why the Chinese have a preference for informal sessions and who really is in charge of the negotiations.

Looking for in-depth knowledge:Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China- Ezra Vogel
I hesitated to add this book to the list. Not because it is not worth reading, but rather because it takes such a long time. However, if you want to understand the enormous transformation that China, and particularly its economy, has undergone, this book provides you with an in-depth description, with Deng Xiaoping as the leading man. The architect of Opening Up and Reform, he had a fascinating career in the Communist Party, but was purged from it 3 times.


The Best Books about China: Part 1 History, Current Affairs and the Future

Books about ChinaI’ve been fortunate to have a lot of time to read in China. Here’s a list of some of the most worthwhile books I’ve laid my eyes on in the past 3 years. Mostly non-fiction by Western China watchers, with the odd novel in between. Here’s part one on History, current affairs and the future.

Good book lovers: anything by Peter Hessler.
Hessler is my favourite author about China. His book Oracle Bones was the first I read about China, describing the lives of his friends and former students as well as the history of the Chinese language. He weaves together the lives of regular people with broader trends and always does so with humour. His book River Town is a classic for English teachers and Country Driving a funny and engaging book about life in the country side just outside of Beijing.

Forward thinkers: When China Rules the World- Martin Jacques.
Really impressed me with its in depth analysis of China, its great explanations of China’s cultural background and historical relations with neighbouring countries. Also see his 15 minute TED talk, Understanding the Rise of China. It has sparked controversy among China watchers, for example Will China Dominate the 21st Century by Jonathan Fenby.

Current Affairs Lovers: The Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune Truth and Faith in the New China- Evan Osnos
Former correspondent for the New Yorker describes the clash between the individual and the State in modern China through real life stories. “Anybody who scratched beneath the surface of Chinese life discovered a more complicated conception of the good life (…).”

History buffs: On China- Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger was one of the architects of the opening up of the USA-China relations. His “On China” is a great introduction to the last 150 years of Chinese history. Due to the many foot notes, the book looks more like a study book, but it is very informative.

Environmentalists: When a Billion Chinese Jump- How China Will Save Mankind- Or Destroy It- Jonathan Watts
Where do smog and filthy rivers originate? The Chinese try to control nature, with sometimes devastating effects. Watts travels all over the country and describes what he finds, from cloud hunters to cloned poplar trees. Sometimes depressing but worthwhile read.

Beijing residents: The Last Days of Old Beijing- Michael Meyer
What happens behind those hutong doors? Meyer describes it from within, living there while teaching English at a local school. A tale of a disappearing society. His new book, In Manchuria, is worth reading if you want to know more about the transformation of rural life in North East China- urbanization seen up close.

Language Learners: Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows
This modest book explains why foreigners say “please” way too much in Chinese, and many other intriguing differences in the Chinese language. Another worthwhile read in a moment of language learning frustration is this article: Why Learning Chinese is so Damn Hard by David Moser. Finished? Now read Why Learning Chinese isn’t as hard as you think and get back to your studies :)

Reinventing myself- again

Great resource for expat partners that need to reinvent themselves when moving abroad. See

Great resource for expat partners that need to reinvent themselves when moving abroad. See

The clock is ticking. Nine weeks until the arrival of Beijing baby number 2. And 4,5 months until DB-Day, Departing Beijing Day. Mr Copat’s contract ended a while back, and we will be relocating to a tropical oily backwater after the birth. One person told me she already said goodbye to me mentally.But I’m not ready for departure yet.

Instead, I’ve made a few new friends here in the past week. A welcome change given that all my old friends have either left Beijing or are on holiday for the summer. One is even my new blog buddy! Hence this post. Thanks A Cuppa Ti!

Of course, the upcoming move brings lots of advantages. Clean air! Summer clothes only! Our own pool! But it also means saying goodbye to a beloved city with its myriad opportunities and discoveries, dear friends and special memories- starting my motherhood journey first and foremost. And quitting my job, again.

It is time to reinvent myself- again. In order to prepare for my move, I’ve recently embarked on a coaching journey. To become a professional coach myself that is to say. More about that later. The upcoming move has also made me look back at how I prepared for this move. Here’s some resources that may help you prepare for restarting your career abroad:

  • Career in my Suitcase- Jo Parfitt: this book helped me tremendously 3 years ago, when I was preparing to move to Beijing. Rather than looking at what you are losing, it makes you explore the opportunities that you have, making use of your strengths to create a portable career. I am planning time to re-do some of the exercises before departing.
  • A Portable Identity- Debra Bryson and Charice Hoge. If you have never lost a job before, you may be totally unprepared for the negative emotions that will come up when you move abroad without a job. How do you define yourself when you do not have a (paid) job? This book may help you find an answer.
  • Talk to people who have done this before- This can be really insightful. Through volunteering with my husband’s company, I had the opportunity to interview inspiring women (and the occasional man) who had been expat partners for years. They did not sit around drinking coffee and moan about the air pollution. They started new universities, did PhD’s, wrote books, were volunteer museum guides, became successful photographers or yoga teachers. One Mum in my baby group recently opened Little Oasis, a fantastic family club, right here in Beijing. Allow yourself to get inspired.

I held myself back in my professional development some time because of the idea of my lack of work permit in Beijing, rather than the actual situation which is that there are always things to do, wherever you are. Don’t be put off by your official status, many new opportunities may present themselves. Perhaps unpaid, perhaps on a different path than you trained in. It may be hard work, but you can make it happen. And don’t overlook the fact that not working means getting to spend more time with your family. Because that is one thing that my coaching journey reminded me of: the importance of my loved ones ♥



Beijing survival: Bike on!

Beijing also has a public bicycle rental system.

Beijing also has a public bicycle rental system.

The best way to get around Beijing? Bicycle. For trips up to 30 minutes I prefer cycling. It saves me a walk to the metro or being stuck in a Beijing traffic jam in a taxi. It has also helped me connect to the city, understanding where I am in this vast place, and allows me to get off the beaten path and take short cuts through what’s left of old Beijing. And sometimes it is faster than a taxi.

Nevertheless, it was daunting in the beginning. Here’s my survival strategies for arriving in one piece:

  • Pay attention. Yes, good old fashioned, living in the moment, paying attention to your surroundings. No phone calls or WeChatting, no day dreaming. Keep looking left, right and center. It’s the best way to avoid colliding with cars, tricycles, pedestrians who step on the street without looking, trash collectors or balloon sellers.
  • Wait behind the bus. I don’t like cycling along the Third Ring road, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The fast moving buses can scare the hell out of me. I used to squeeze between buses and the sidewalk, or whirl around the bus squeezing between it and taxis. No more. I wait with one foot on the side walk behind the bus until all passengers have stepped in or out. Safest for me and others.
  • Don’t Expect Courtesy. Nobody will give way to you. So be very careful, but also sometimes it is needed to cross as you never get through. Try to make use of numbers, e.g. go together with a group of jaywalkers.
  • Watch out for potholes, especially in the rain. You won’t see them when they are filled with water (and it may ruin your tyre or worse).
  • Off the beaten track? It’s not always necessary to use the bicycle path. Of course, it is preferable and safer. But often the paths are blocked by cars, pedestrians or unidentified objects. In that case, use the road (but be careful).
  • Toot you too. Don’t be offended by honking horns. Where I come from, cars honk horns out of impatience, or because the cyclist does something very dangerous. Not so in China. I have come to the conclusion that it is often more of a “careful, I’m behind you.” The driver wants you to know he’s there, so that you don’t make unexpected movements toward the middle of the road.

Happy cycling! And use a helmet if you are not (yet) confident. For a decent bike or a seat for your kid, try the Giant stores all over the city.

Not convinced yet? These two companies can arrange guided tours:

Friends, Dogs and Footsteps

Two little dogs playing in the snow on a Blue sky day in Beijing near Guomao.

Two little dogs playing in the snow on a Blue sky day in Beijing near Guomao.

Expat friendships are key to survival of sanity in foreign locations. Last week I read a blog by another expat on the other side of the world which gave words to something I had not been able to put into words.

“Expat friendships can be counted in dog years.”

Without family, friends or colleagues, life in a new location is pretty empty. Before coming to China, among my worries was whether I would be able to find new friends. Back home, I had a stable circle of companions, built up over the years. Upon arrival in Beijing, my social circle consisted of… my husband. The first weeks I was so overwhelmed with finding my way around this vast city that that it didn’t matter that much. At night, hubby and me would sit on our hotel bed, utterly exhausted.

So many footprints in my heart thanks to my Beijing friends. Taken from:

So many footprints in my heart thanks to my Beijing friends. Taken from:

I vividly remember the first time I was meeting a potential new friend, about a week or two after our arrival. At my national societies’ monthly drink one of its board members had suggested getting in touch with her friend. “ You are both recently arrived expat partners, live in the same compound, similar age, no kids, eager to find a job.” Arranging the meeting felt like arranging a blind date. How to recognize this potential new friend? And where the hell was that Yellow Horse where she was suggesting meeting nearby?

Admittedly, in hindsight the day we met was not a good day for me. I was tired from jet lag and settling in. I had to rush to get to the meeting in time and trouble locating the café. Maybe I should have cancelled. But I wanted to make new friends, right?

Indeed, we had a lot in common. But there was no chemistry. It reminded of what my cousin once told me “of the people you meet, you like one third, one third you are neutral about and one third you do not like.” We would never have become friends back home, and a new location could not change this. I remember walking home with crushed hope. Luckily, a few days after I met A and M at a lunch who would become close friends, and I was fortunate to connect to C, T and many others along the dao. The Mum friends are a special category, having a baby abroad around the same time is a special bond.

Hey, they even copied teh Friends cafe in Beijing.  From:

Hey, they even copied the Friends cafe in Beijing. From:

I’ll Be There For You

Bonding with new expat friends goes faster than back home. I also found friendships to be more intense. Far away from home and with a lot of time to socialize we bonded over struggling to rebuild our identity as a partner rather than an independent being, exploring the city together, exchanging tips and laughs. We sometimes met on a daily basis, went on weekend breaks together, had a baby at the same time.

Unlike with my home friends, my fellow expats understood me, the new me in massive Beijing, with my hopes, dreams and insecurities. They did not new lengthy emails, they shared my experiences with culture shock, finding our feet and our way around. And indeed, with the intensity of contact, it feels more like dog years than the actual number of years. I am very grateful for all those new Beijing friendships, some brief, some long but forever in my memory

Beijing Grey Sky Days: 5 Fun (or useful) Things to do

Buying a good mask is also a useful thing to do on a grey sky day... Try Torana, April Gourmet or

Buying a good mask is also a useful thing to do on a grey sky day… Try Torana, April Gourmet or

Winter is not coming. Apparently it is in Beijing already. After three consecutive days of “grey skies,” and an Air Quality index around 400 (Hazardous), I am already trying to find indoor things to do, both for myself and my toddler. So, instead of being gloomy, I am trying to approach it as an opportunity to have indoor fun :) Or to finally tick some things of my to do list. Like writing a new blog post.

  1. (Themed) Play Date: Organise an impromptu play date: your toddler’s little friends will probably be bored out of their brains too, as are their Mums. So invite some folks over  to your home for an extra dose of entertainment. Even if your regular play date is on a Monday and its now a Friday. Perhaps set a theme like music (sing songs together), art (bring out the stickers), or cookie making with older toddlers.
  2. Dance around: Have an indoor dance party (can be combined with number 1 obviously). Put on the sunniest music in your collection and teach your baby the mambo.
  3. Summer time! Pretend its summer: put balls in your baby’s swimming pool, blow up all his rubber swim toys, stick little umbrella’s in his fruit and switch on all the lights- perhaps even coloured ones if you can find one. If your kid is old enough, you can even bring out the Kinetic sand (I saw it for sale at Counting Sheep Boutique in Indigo Mall)
  4. Set up a Taobao Account. You’ve heard many people about it but never got round to it? It will save you from going out when it is really freezing cold. City Weekend recently published a tutorial, though do check whether the Lakela way of paying is possible again before setting it up, it seemed to be discontinued a while back. Also see my previous post here. You can buy toys and craft supplies there for upcoming grey sky days. Warning: Taobao is addictive :)
  5. OrganiseSpend one hour to do little chores: I finally polished all my shoes and my husband’s (the shoe shop in our expat compound is ridiculously expensive). I tidied one messy cupboard (ayi does not know which things can be thrown away), but also think of sorting out the summer baby gear, exchanging that gift you did not like that much… My toddler was amazingly attentive of shoe polishing when I have her a piece of cloth and an empty pot (she is obsessed with opening and closing bottles, boxes and doors these days). If you limit yourself to one hour, cutting up bigger projects if needed, it is easier to start and finish.
  6. Bonus tip: Swap Toys! organise a toy swap with friends. Swap your digger for their baby walker, exchange the farm for a doggie etc. Borrow it for a few days and give it back. Apparently there are companies on Taobao that allow you to rent toys, but I am yet to find out the details about it.


Expat DNA?

Expat DNA

Interesting infograph, but where are patience and sense of humour?

Just came accross this visual via Iwasanexpatwife- Do you have Expat DNA? Factors include (obviously) the ability to adapt to change and enjoying the life like locals do (eating, going about). Interestingly, it explicitly excludes being well travelled- I thought this was certainly beneficial to expats, as it has exposed them to other cultures.

What I miss in the graph is patience and good humour (or at least the ability to remain smiling in stressful circumstances). I think to be succesful as an expat these qualities can make or break your expat experience. Here in China, patience is needed when trying to figure out what people mean and you are not sure what is happening. A smile will help more than becoming upset or angry. Then again, these qualities also come in handy at home, right?