Welcome to the “split pants” capital of the world! Beijing is different. Beijing takes some getting used to. Beijing can be a lot of fun if given half a chance. It definitely deserves this chance, as it is a real diamond in the rough.
Beijing can be a daunting place to find yourself in if you don’t speak Mandarin. At the same time, however, Beijing can also be an incredibly convenient city for non-native speakers, as there are so many services that can make your life very comfortable - if you are willing to pay the price.
As a mother of young children, or even an expecting mother, you need not worry. With a little planning and resourcefulness, Beijing and you will be just fine. Apart from the pollution, maybe…
What to Bring
Most things are available in China. You should consider bringing personal care items and over the counter medicines. Some foreign products are available here, but your favourite may well not be. Another thing to consider is Beijing’s hard water and extremely dry winters. Babies' delicate skin in particular seems to suffer more from eczema-like skin conditions here in Beijing because of these two factors.
One of the quickest ways as someone newly arrived in Beijing to make connections with other expats is through the International Newcomers’ Network (www.innbeijing.com). This group holds monthly meetings and events for foreign passport holders living in Beijing.
As a parent you should consider joining the Beijing_Mamas Yahoo! Group: groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Beijing_Mamas/info. Beijing_Mamas is a closed online forum that allows mothers and fathers to exchange ideas on all things parenting in Beijing/China. It is a free resource, but membership needs to be approved.
Conversations run the gamut:
- “Where do I find a good dentist?”
- “What are entertainment options for a toddler on “crazy bad” pollution days?”
- “Which bakery makes the best birthday cakes?”
- “How do you handle cultural differences on the playground?”
- “How much do you pay your Ayi*?”
Some forum members are long-term residents of Beijing with a wealth of knowledge shared between them. There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, in Beijing, Beijing_Mamas can be part of that village.
To Ayi* or Not to Ayi?
*Ayi = literal meaning: “aunt”, but is commonly used to mean housekeeper, maid, nanny
Your expat friends will probably have an Ayi. Depending on your circumstances you may consider a full time, part time, live-in, live-out, cleaning, cooking, child care Ayi, or an Ayi that is a some combination of these.
Finding an Ayi can be hard; keeping one, and then keeping both her and you and your family happy in the process can be even harder.
There are two main ways of finding an Ayi: word of mouth or agencies. This again, is where Beijing_Mamas comes in handy. Usually, employers help their Ayis find new jobs when they no longer need their services and advertise them online. Often these ladies come with a lot of experience in working for expats and some are able to speak a little bit of English. Often they also come with two other “things”: attitude and a high price tag. Agencies often offer less expensive and less experienced Ayis. There are two types of agencies: agencies for expats and agencies for local Chinese. Having an Ayi is something that is not unusual for a Chinese family, too.
When choosing an Ayi, there are several things that should be considered. One being “where does she come from?”. If she comes from a far away province, she may ask to take extended holidays during China’s two main holiday periods. These are Mid-Autumn Festival combined with China’s National Day on October 1st and the variable lunar Chinese New Year (January/February). If she decides to take off for a four-week holiday, you may find yourself with a pile of ironing and no one to look after your kids. Holidays definitely need to be discussed when interviewing Ayis.
For Chinese New Year it is customary, that everyone that “helps” you receives a red envelope (hongbao) with money. There are no hard and fast rules as to how much money should be inside these envelopes. Many Ayis who work for expat families, however, may expect to receive the same amount as their monthly salary. It is a good idea to discuss this during the interview process. To ensure that the Ayi returns to you after the Chinese New Year holiday, you may consider giving her part of her hongbao before and the rest after the holiday.
When looking for an Ayi also find out what education she has. Has she completed middle school? Can she read and write? Some of these ladies come from a migrant worker background and may not have completed schooling. When you want your Ayi to help you pay your bills, being able to read is definitely an advantage. By the way, paying the bills in China is a big pain in the wrong place. There are prepaid cards for everything, most of which need to be paid at different banks, or only once a month in the management office of your compound. Make sure you always have back up money on your cards! These cards can run out at the most inconvenient times.… Every expat living in China will have a story or two to tell about how they ran out of something and the inconveniences that followed!
When dealing with Ayis, you should be very clear in what you expect of them. The way you address issues in childrearing may be completely opposite to the traditional Chinese way of doing things. Some people prefer to hire a young and more inexperienced Ayi so they can “train” them to their liking. One thing that is very helpful in communicating with your Ayi is via text message. That way, if she “speaks” a little English, the number of misunderstandings will definitely be minimised. Translation apps can also be useful.
Great Resources for Families
The following are the most common English publications for international families in Beijing. They are all very similar and can be picked up for free in the usual expat hangouts. They all have online versions that are kept up-to-date regularly. Information includes the following: food, shopping, health, parenting, and schooling
- · beijingkids: www.beijing-kids.com
- · City Weekend Beijing Parents & Kids: www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/listings/parents-and-kids/list
- · TimeOut Beijing Family: www.timeoutbeijing.com/family.html
Another free publication is Little Star Magazine. This is specifically geared towards international schools in Beijing: www.internationalschool.info/littlestar. It includes news from the international schools in the city, as well as a self-introduction of each school.
Shopping for Little People
When you need to shop for baby and toddler items you have a variety of options, depending on your budget and preference. If you want to shop where the locals shop you can try shops like Lijia Baby or Leyou Baby, both cater to the needs of the under fives. If you have a helpful and willing Ayi (don’t forget to ask if she’d mind helping with the odd translation or help on the phone when you interview her), she can help you order via phone and have things delivered to your home. Payment is usually “Cash on Delivery”.
If you prefer trusted Western brands you may like shops like Babygro (babygro.com.cn/en), Counting Sheep Boutique or Baby International (www.baby-international.com/en/). These shops sell mainly imported goods, so be prepared to pay through the nose. As China is often called “the Land of Fake”, many expats, as well as wealthy Chinese, are prepared to do so, to avoid the dangers of , say, a cheaply made baby carrier with fake brand name that will break apart with your baby in it.
In addition, if you are looking for used baby or toddler gear, once again, you can rely on our good old friend in the form of Beijing_Mamas…which also has a platform where members buy and sell secondhand goods.
Another option for to buying used but reasonably priced baby and toddler items, as well as giving back to the local community, is Roundabout China (www.roundaboutchina.com). Roundabout is a dedicated social enterprise that accepts donations and sells what cannot directly be used by their partner organisations in their shop. All money then goes back to helping their partner organistaions.
Beijing is a city where new shopping malls seem to pop up every few months. Many of these have areas dedicated to kids’ stuff. Solana, The Place or the new Indigo, for example, are good places to not only shop, but also to hang out with the your family. Often these malls have indoor and outdoor playing areas for kids, family friendly eateries and more.
Taobao and TMall are extremely popular online market places that offer everything that you could imagine. Although these two sites are purely in Chinese, expats, without the language skills, have been know to successfully navigate them as expat magazines, about once a year, have a step by step guide on how to do it. One “secret” of Taobao shopping is “checking” the sellers’ credibility before you buy. And, keeping in mind that this is China, beware of counterfeit products among all the good stuff.
· “Helium”-filled balloons from street vendors. Often they are filled with a highly flammable, but much cheaper substitute for helium.
· Cheap and cheerful plastic toys made in China as they are known to leach dangerous toxins like lead
· Pets from local pet shops, think about adopting a pet instead from the International Centre for Veterinary Services (www.icvsasia.com) for example.
In a country infamous for its food scandals and food safety issues, the weekly shopping for groceries can be daunting at first.
What are pitfall? What should you avoid? Are there special treatments you should remember for one kind of food or another…eg “always wash all fruit and always rinse even the condensation off cold beer bottles” (which would be a good warning in, say, Mexico)
There are the traditional wet markets however but sadly these seem to be making way for more and more new shopping malls and residential compounds. An expats’ favourite is definitely Sanyuanli Market near Sanyuanqiao. It is said that even top chefs from top restaurants across the city source their ingredients from here. You can find a big selection of fresh meat, seafood, vegetables and fruits of high quality here.
Beijing also offers megastores like Wal-Mart and Carrefour, albeit with a local flavour. These stores will carry some international brands, but will mainly sell products the locals buy. In addition, you should time your visit to one of these mega-marts carefully. You either find yourself competing with Chinese grandmas in the fresh produce section, and believe me, they have strong elbow skills, or, you are stuck in the longest queue you have ever seen at a supermarket check-out. A far more peaceful option that many expats seem to favour is Metro Cash & Carry. It requires membership, but this is easy to obtain.
Most shopping malls have a supermarket, it is often a BHG Market Place. If you happen to be at a more upmarket mall like Solana or Shin Kong Place, definitely check out the BHG is in the basement. You will find a good range of specialty and imported food items.
Supermarkets that are more geared towards expats include April Gourmet, Jenny Lou’s, Jenny Wang’s. These are smaller supermarkets that sell a lot of imported goods from all over the world and These can be found in various locations in Chaoyang District.
Generally all fresh produce needs to be washed very well before consumption. Most bigger supermarkets with an international flavour will sell fruit and vegetable washes that come in a spray bottle. Some expats prefer to wash all fresh produce with vinegar or other similar natural cleansers to keep bacteria and other nasties at bay.
With recurring bird flu outbreaks extreme caution should be taken when handling eggs and raw chicken.
Unfortunately, China is a country where food safety is a real concern. It is a good idea to look into buying organic when and where possible. Most of the aforementioned supermarkets will carry some organic produce. There are also a few more dedicated options such as Lohao City and online shops like TooToo Farm (shop.tootoo.cn/) selling a bigger selection of organic goods. The Chinese symbol for “organic” is an orange seed inside a green circle, and the word “organic” in English.
Drinking tap water in Beijing is a bad idea, though you will find dissent online. As recently as June 2017, Greenpeace, for example, reported on a survey showing that 39.9% of all water in Beijing was so polluted that it was unfit for any purpose at all.
Many homes have a water dispenser with a 20l plastic water bottle on top. For a family of four, one such bottle could last about a week depending on drinking habits and whether this water is also used for washing fresh produce. Distributors of such water bottles are very easily found in all neighbourhoods. Check with your estate agent, management office of your compound or ask your Ayi to help. In some compounds it is as easy as texting your “room number” (Chinglish for “apartment number”) to the distributor and the man with the water bottle will magically appear at your doorstep, like a genie with a bottle.
Depending on which brand of water you choose, it will cost around RMB 25 per bottle (and the cost to the environment is high). As fake water can also be a problem here, some of the bigger water companies like Nestle or Watsons offer an online service to verify if your specific bottle is authentic or not. As summers in Beijing are long and hot, water bottles are constantly exposed to the sun; since the quality of the plastic of these bottles may also be questionable, more and more expats decide to install drinking water filters.
One popular option among expats is Aquasana (www.aquasana-china.com/). Some expats criticise it as being “the only game in town”. There seem to be other filtration systems out there, too, but finding them may take some more research and effort. With all of these, it is best to do your own research and decide what is best for your family e.g. do you want to filter only drinking water, shower water or the supply to the whole house?
If you are moving to Beijing with a little a baby, or are planning on having one while you are here, bring your own trusted brand of formula from your home country. Even if you are planning on breastfeeding your little bundle of joy, have a can or two as a back up, just in case. After the 2008 scandal involving melamine-tainted milk powder, locals still don’t trust milk powder made in China. Even today, Chinese parents who can afford to buy formula abroad. I would, too.
Protect Yourself from Air Pollution
Air pollution is a serious issue when living in Beijing, especially with young children. Every family has its own way of trying to protect themselves from it. Many have air purifiers running inside their homes. Many check the US Embassy’s website (https://china.usembassy-china.org.cn/) for the latest updates, or alternatively use the app on their smartphones and plan their activities accordingly. Some people set their own limit, it may be anywhere between 100 or 200 on the scale, when they restrict activities to indoor spaces with air filtration systems in place. This seems to be particularly important for the very young, the sick and the elderly. They may only venture out with facemasks to avoid breathing in the harmful PM2.5 particles when pollution levels are high.
An excellent resource about not only air pollution and what you can help to keep the risks at bay, but all things health related is this wonderful blog by an American family doctor living in Beijing: www.myhealthbeijing.com
Getting Around Beijing with Baby
If you are not lucky enough to have access to your own car with a driver, you will be relying on public transport. With a foreign looking baby or child, this can be a highly frustrating undertaking. You need to be prepared for a lot of staring and often touching, as your child will be the center of attention.
Taxis are a reasonable alternative, but beware: nowadays this can also be a mission and a half. It is best accomplished if you are travelling with someone else. Have the other person flag down the taxi while you hide behind a pillar or other similar structure. No, I am not kidding. Taxi drivers often do not like to take foreigners with small children, especially if there is a stroller in sight. Baby carriers are a god-send in this city, especially if you are travelling on your own. You can keep your little ones away from prying eyes and the Ayis of all ages wanting to pinch his or her cute cheeks.
Beijing is a very transient kind of place, therefore your best bet for finding a playgroup for your little one is through Beijing_Mamas.
Other highly recommended fun places include the following:
Fancy a swim with sharks? Try the Blue Zoo (www.china-tour.cn/Beijing/Blue-Zoo-Beijing.htm) and explore all things marine life.
Fundazzle near the Workers Stadium is a large indoor playground with a dedicated toddler section. They also can host birthday parties for you there.
The English Tearoom in Shunyi is, as the name suggests, an English themed eatery that has a pleasant play area for the under 5s. In addition, every Friday, there is a session for mums and small children, including activities and lunch.
Eating out is something that most expats enjoy in Beijing. There are a lot of great, and family-friendly, restaurants to choose from. Many of these have play areas.
During the winter months the ice-, “chair-“ or “bikeskating” on Huohai Lake is a wonderful family activity that should not be missed.
Beijing is a bit like Marmite. You either love or hate it. But, there are many reasons to fall in love with Beijing. Take a lot of good intentions, a sense of adventure and humour, willingness to embrace the local culture, throw in a pinch of home comforts and you and Beijing will be just fine. You will even get used to seeing Chinese babies with their “split pants” and private parts exposed to the raw elements in the depths of winter. Guaranteed!