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


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

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?

Expat magazines in Beijing

the beijinger

One of the many expat magazines, The Beijinger, has an active forum

Currently, there are five expat magazines published in Beijing- and I may be missing some. They are all free, published bi-weekly or monthly and can be picked up at expat oriented restaurants, language schools, shops et cetera. They provide a good overview of everything that goes on in the city, though some seem to focus mostly on new restaurants. Two magazines are aimed at parents, but also contain articles of more general interest. The websites for the magazines usually provide an overview of things to do in the coming weeks and a directory of restaurants and shops, but also sports clubs and schools.

Beijing soundscape

My Favourite Beijing Sounds

My Favourite Beijing Sounds is an album by Brit Peter Cusack

What does Beijing sound like? A news item about the sounds of The Netherlands made me wonder about this. Walking home from my Chinese class I came up with the following list:

  • the sound of impatient traffic on a big intersection, with taxi’s and cars honking their horns
  • somebody clearing his (usually it is a he)throat and nose followed by a spitting sound
  • the murmur of tourists below when you are standing on the hill at the Summer Palace
  • the sound of people singing, dancing and making music in one of Beijing’s parks
  • the automatic woman’s voice announcing that the bus is coming
  • the sound of traffic on the third ring road
  • the next stop announcement on the metro
  • the noise of a Chinese restaurant at lunch time, with someone shouting “fuwuyuan” at the top of their voice
  • the sound of an orange clad worker  sweeping the street with a broom
  • the hissing of chuanr and other cooking pots
  • someone speaking in a “rrrr” heavy Beijing accent
  • construction work
  • the wind blowing between the high buildings

A lot of man-made/created noises if I look at the list. Others have thought about Beijing sounds too. Read here what British musician Peter Cusack has to say about the sound of Beijing and check out his Favourite Beijing Sounds album here.

Expat wives= asylum seekers?

Asylum seekers lives are very difficult

This woman fled from Iran, arriving in Australia by boat and was locked up in a detention centre. She is worried the friends she travelled with may have died on the way. Read her story here

According to Dutch research, asylum seekers become passive because they have too little to do. They are not allowed to work, and opportunities to volunteer, study or organize activities are extremely limited. Their days consist of waiting, some household chores, eating, watch TV, take a stroll and sleep.

Sounds familiar? The Beijing reality may well be the same for many expat wives. Husbands are at work all day, kids are at school, the ayi takes care of the chores and most do not have work permit and do not speak Chinese fluently upon arrival, hampering their chances of finding work or another a daily occupation.

For asylum seekers forced inactivity is daily practice according to the research. It is a slumbering or “standby” existence and taking own initiatives evaporates. They become apathetic, live in a vacuum and are hardly able to take their lives into their own hands.

I have seen this happen to several women in my Beijing surroundings. They arrived full of plans but did not turn them into reality for a variety of reasons. They got discouraged and retreated into the vacuum of the Beijing expat existence.

I am in danger of slipping into a standby existence myself. Before moving I thought it would be difficult to fill my days without a full time job. I have discovered it is not. You can make days, weeks, even months pass by with just having coffee and lunch with new found friends, going shopping or strolling in the park. Grocery shopping becomes a half day activity rather than a necessity that should last as short as possible.

Of course, expat wives are not asylum seekers. We did not have to flee from our country like they did, taking traumatic experiences of conflict and poverty. We did not arrive with only one bag. We are not arrested on the street or locked up in detention centers. We are not first suspects whenever crimes are committed near our houses. We lead lives of luxury and can move around Beijing in freedom. We can always return to our own country.

Yet we often complain. About the air pollution, the attitude of the ayi and the traffic. We stay in our comfortable expat community. Of course, our lives are not always easy, but asylum seekers would probably give their right arm to trade places with us.

Let’s keep setting ourselves goals and meeting them. Let’s be proud of what we achieve here in a country that is not our own, however small or personal our achievement is. Let’s step out of the expat bubble, interact with Chinese, find a job, study or volunteer for a good cause. Don’t be on standby. Switch on your life every morning.

10 Fun Things to do during the Beijing Winter

This is my first winter in Beijing. Although I do not find it as bad as some had warned, it is very cold and the city feels different than in the other seasons.

Here’s some tips to make the most out of this season:

1.Go to the Great Wall, for a hike or an overnight stay.

The Great Wall is, well, great in any season. As long as you put on warm clothes and layers and sturdy shoes, you should be fine. Beijing Hikers organizes day trips all year round. It’s also possible to stay overnight near the Wall, for example at Shan Li Retreats (also great for groups) and the Schoolhouse near Mutianyu.

2. Go ice skating in the park

Once the park lakes are frozen, it is possible to go ice skating. Houhai is a popular place, and the Summer Palace lake is supposed to be nice as well. Skate rental on site, although for those with big feet it might not be able to find skates in your size. Continue reading

The mysterious multiplication of workers

One worker is not sufficient to bring about the revolution.

How many Chinese does it take to change a light bulb? After eight months in China, I am pretty sure it will be more than one.

The handy men or repair men of our building’s maintenance department are usually referred to as “worker” (gongren). The term always brings to my mind Mao’s glorious propaganda posters, where broad shouldered men ride tractors and swing hoes to bring the revolution forward, the little red book in hand.

Today’s workers are very friendly, but slightly less heroic. The average maintenance problem in my house goes as follows: after days of putting off talking to our receptionists in my broken Chinese about the problem, I finally face them, and try and explain what the problem is. This usually results a few hours later (they are quick here, these workers I must admit), in a small Chinese guy in a Bordeaux colored coverall knocking on the door.

Worker will get to work without further ado. Then, at some point he will communicate to me that there is an issue he can’t immediately solve. To make sure I understand, worker calls property office to translate into English. Alternatively, he might also disappear, gesturing he will be back, leaving me wonder how long it will take. Both actions tend to result in another worker showing up within the next half hour or so. Is it a more skilled worker? Is the first worker looking for cover from someone else because he could not immediately solve the problem? I never find out.

Lengthy conversations follow between worker 1 and 2. If the problem is really complicated, worker 3 might be called in, with intercom assistance from an English speaker. It seems there is an endless supply of workers. Hopefully, the problem will be solved by this time. 

When they leave, I smile and think how much my patience has grown in China and how my amazement about many things I don’t understand has diminished in the past months.