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 ♥



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.

5 questions to ask yourself before moving to Beijing

emotions and questions

Moving to Beijing can bring about questions and confusion.

Let’s face it, moving to China is no piece of cake. Transitions will be made easier by good employers, but in the end, you find yourself on your own in a strange country where you do not know anybody and (probably) do not speak the language. Looking back at my first year here, I would advise everyone considering the move as a “trailing spouse” to ask themselves the following five questions:

What are MY needs?

As an expat wife or partner, it is easy to get caught up in other people’s needs, especially your kids and your partner’s. Moving to China is a great opportunity for his/her career! The children will benefit from being exposed to other cultures! Let’s live close to the school/ the office to minimize commuting time! Don’t get me wrong, these are all good and reasonable thoughts. In the end, you will be the one spending most of the time in the house though. So make sure you like the neighborhood too, not just because it is convenient. Will you have a car and driver (for your partner mostly?), or is it easy to jump on the metro or even bike to get around town? If you had hoped to explore Beijing, take classes in town or work and you find yourself in Shunyi from where the commute into town can take quite some time, you may end up feeling frustrated, unless you have made the conscious decision to live there also taking your own needs into account.

Do I want to work?

If you come here on a Z (dependent) visa, you will not have the right to work. Of course, you may find a job and get a work permit. However, do realize that it may not be as easy as you like to find a job if you do not speak Chinese. There are many local, qualified people with decent English nowadays, for whom an employer does not need to go through a work permit procedure. Also, some companies are not allowed to hire foreigners, or only a limited number. Part time jobs are not as common as in e.g. Northern Europe, and you may need to work many hours with few holidays for a pay much lower than what you are used to.

If I want to work, what will I do?

Sorry if the above has discouraged you, that is not my intention. However, it is better to realize beforehand that the days where just being foreign could be a good enough reason to be hired in China, are definitely over. The main career option still seems to be teaching English, but if you don’t like teaching or your English is not that good (or, unfortunately, if you do not look Western), it may be harder to find something. Do research whether you can do the job you did at home in China. In a company here, or discuss with your employer the possibility of freelancing for them at a distance. Could you do consultancy for clients in your home country? If you wish to do something completely different from what you were doing at home, consider what this might be. Starting your own business? In what? Teaching yoga or aerobics? Start a cooking school? Check job sites to see what other jobs attract you. Continue reading

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.

Pregnant in Beijing, now what?

Beijing has good hospitals, no need to worry about giving birth here.

Living in Beijing and want to get pregnant? Or think you’re pregnant already? Here’s six steps to take when your embarking on the baby rollercoaster.

1)      Check your insurance. Not very romantic but unfortunately necessary. This is something I only found out after moving here: many international health care providers do not cover pregnancy related costs for the first 10 months after you’ve  joined the insurance plan. It is also wise to check the amount covered and whether you have to make any personal contributions, as prices in Beijing hospitals vary enormously. And check whether you need any pre-approval for hospital visits from you insurance company too.

2)      Take your temp: If you’re not pregnant yet, but would like to be, the local pharmacies also sell special “baby thermometers” which indicate two numbers after the comma and you can use them to find out when you are ovulating. If you’re experiencing trouble with your period after stopping birth control pills, look into acupuncture and other Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment, as they may be of help in regulating them. Also, start taking folic acid pills.

3)      Buy a pregnancy test at the local pharmacy (Chinese name). or rather, buy two in case you do not believe the first one.

4)      Find a hospital: Positive test? Make an appointment with a doctor in a hospital covered by your insurance plan. A good list of hospitals and costs can be found in the Beijing Kids October 2012 issue. The most popular but unfortunately also most expensive for Beijing expats are Beijing Family United Hospital and Amcare.

5)      Stock up on pregnancy multivitamins. Your doctor can give you a prescription, but should you have any friends of family visiting by coincidence (or expat friends travelling back home), you can also ask them to bring a supply for you. Also see this article with healthy eating tips.

6)      Join an e-group such as Beijing Mama’s for more information and tips on where to get what for kids in Beijing, as well as playgroup information etc. Also check  Beijing Kids for a list of shops.

The kind people at Beijing Kids have 10 more tips, check them out here.

What I like about being a Beijing expat wife

Panda in a bamboo forest nails, cute! I've stuck to more conservative colours thusfar. Image comes from

I wasn’t really looking forward to becoming an “expat wife” or as my sister mistakenly heard a “trailer spouse.” It did not feel good to give up my job. And even though I’d been with Mr Expat for years, it felt (and sometimes still feels)  as I’ve given up my independence. My residence permit depends on his work visa. I always thought I’d move abroad someday, but then for my own career. Now, I had to tick the “housewife” box on the visa application form for the first time in my life.

Now that I’ve been here almost six months, I do see some of the advantages of being an expat wife:

–          Time: while some things take more time in Beijing due to the distances and different culture, now that I’ve somewhat settled I do have more time. Time to make new friends, read about China, learn Chinese and go to the gym (no more excuses). All those things that Mr Expat has a lot less time let alone energy for when he returns home from the office in the evening.

–          Work: I’m privileged that I don’t have to work if I don’t want to. I have found a freelance unpaid position, but this project is still in its early stages- although it does give me a good reason to get out of the house and meet new people. I could probably find a job here, but it’s not easy when your Chinese is not fluent. I research interesting companies and establish contacts there without the necessity to land a job immediately. I thought I‘d really miss it but I don’t (yet- though this is probably thanks to my new project).  I’m still in the driver’s seat. And although I miss having colleagues and interesting work projects, I do not miss horrible bosses.

–          Opportunities: I have more time to focus on things that I enjoy doing, finally reading some great novels and work related books that I never had time for in the rat race back home. I could take up a new study, work or volunteer in this new country with a completely different culture or make a hobby into a new career. The opportunities are there, it’s up to me to make the most out of it.

–          Great women: I get to meet many new people, including so many inspiring women. They came here as expat wives and have chosen to take time out to spend with their family or to start an exciting new business or to finally write that book. Definitely not Desperate Housewives!

–          My nails have never looked better and I’ve had some great lunches ;). This is the part about expat wives that is true: they do have their nails done and they do go for lunch with other expat wives. I just hadn’t thought it would more than a way of getting through the day, but I have fun with the ladies and we share the culture shock and dependence experiences.

Even with all the difficult moments, so far I’m enjoying myself. And I know I’m lucky, because Beijing has a high quality of life as opposed to some other places in the world. However, it is as one of my new found friends said: “you can’t expect too much of your spouse, he’s busy at work most of the time. So you have to make the most of it by yourself.”