By Christelle Bennemeer
The first night is usually the same. Everyone is in bed, lights are out, and we hear the quiet breathing of three little ones, exhausted from long flights, layovers in busy airports, significant changes and weird new food (and often all the extra airplane rolls that I had saved, in case they didn't like said food). I listen to my heart beating in excited anticipation. A new adventure lies ahead! A new place to discover, a language to learn, and wonderful friends to make.
Oh god! What have we done!?
Our first impressions of Beijing were busy streets, lots of lights, wild (yet strangely fluid) driving, and many people. Arriving in a new city is stressful yet exhilarating. There are so many new possibilities, so many things to be discovered! Doing this with a family of three is somewhat more challenging, but here we are! Calling Beijing our home for more than a year already.
After a few days spent house-hunting, we finally walked into our apartment as a family. Our friendly neighbor-granny was so excited to see us arrive. She gestured at our children and her own home and invited them to visit her any time, see her dog, birds, and fish. Our welcome was terrific! We felt quite conspicuous in our compound for a while, having been the only foreigners there. We had settled in an area quite far southeast - not the usual place for foreigners with families in Beijing. But we fell in love with the people, the apartment, and the compound.
Soon our three kids started drawing a crowd when they played outside. Of course, they don't understand the significance, but the local children were fascinated by these light-haired, blue-eyed children who don't speak Chinese. Kids are magnificent. Regardless of the language barrier, they soon made great friends with the local children, some of whom can also speak English.
Slowly (as is usually the case when you do anything with children – "Where's your shoe? Don't sit on your sister! Why are your pants on your head?") but surely we started exploring Beijing. A little held back in our adventures by a specific virus (add "Where's your mask? No, it goes over your nose, not your eyes."), but we were undaunted.
First big expedition – The Great Wall of China!
As a homeschooling family, and since I don't work the standard weekday hours, we arrived at The Wall on a day when there was hardly another soul around. We spent a magnificent day climbing staircases (or "scarecases" as the kids referred to them), and we were awed. I felt nothing but gratitude that we came to such a rich and deep place. Our children were witnessing something so incredibly outside of the norm of our country. They were canvasses being painted by the inspiring culture of people very different from them - exactly why we moved in the first place.
Living in a foreign country is a life-altering experience that leaves a person with much more richness than money can buy. More than pretty pictures on social media are the pictures in your heart. The breath and heartbeat of a different culture. We are so blessed to give our children such an enriching life. The mingling of our way of doing and thinking, with that of China and specifically Beijing, will build depth of character and understanding in our children that will make them part of a generation of bridge builders between many nations on Earth.
Different is special, and differences should be honored and celebrated!
It's a constant topic in our home. We love pointing out differences and seeing how warmly our children accept the different ideas, thoughts, and ways of others. Fills me with gratitude. This doesn't mean they always want to try out those various things, especially when it comes to food.
Living in China, for us as adults, means incredible food! We love everything we eat, and we can't stop trying out everything we see. For the "delicate palate of the child," however, the known is safe. We have discovered some family favorites, luckily, like hotpot (not spicy refer back to the "delicate palate"), which we now have to do at home quite often. But honestly, one of the adults at home gets as excited as her children about hotpot and gangs up on the other (I won't name any names, though).
Our children's vocabulary has also seen an enormous expansion since we came to Beijing! Incredible words like "order," "delivery," "package" have become quite normal, as well as the taking for granted that practically anything from potting soil to English books can be easily found and ordered online. I have no idea if we will ever be able to live in any other country in the world again. The ease of taking a quick taxi home after a family outing, then taking different dinner orders en route, and having the food delivered just after returning home will never be outdone.
That said, our children are not chauffeured around from A to B all the time. We live about 800 meters from the subway station, and it's a walk we regularly make. We love walking to the nearest shopping center as a family too. It's a refreshing 2km stroll. And since we arrived in China with only five suitcases and very little stuff, creating our home has taken some work over the last year. Hence the new vocabulary. That, and mommy's book addiction, I'll be honest.
Sticking out the way we do, occasionally, has its drawbacks, the biggest of which is the frequent requests for photos by some locals. At first, the girls were enchanted (our son has never liked taking pictures, so no luck there), but they started shying away after some time. We talked about privacy and space and that people don't mean any harm. I'm not always going to jump in like a tigress saving her cubs; they need to learn to stand up for themselves. We carefully explained that they don't have to agree. If they don't want to have their picture taken, say no, or turn around. I'm so proud to see them exercise their choice these days, sometimes seeing the sweet smile and "peace" pose for photos, and on other days they would turn away.
So, how has it been, adapting to life in Beijing?
In a word, incredible! People are helpful and friendly (my son fell and cut his lip very severely in the first week, and we were assisted by an old shopkeeper who didn't know a word of English). Apart from the care and attention that the amazing Houhai English team has given us, we have been welcomed and cared for by many community members and often by strangers wherever we go. Our compound's little convenience store has the sweetest shopkeeper-grandpa, who is always teaching our kids some Chinese words. I feel touched by the warmth and acceptance, not just for myself but for our kids. On weekends there are always children knocking and asking to play. My son is outside often, playing football with other boys. There is usually a large group of children playing outside, amongst them our three little blondes.
Raising children in Beijing, and living here as a foreign family, has sincerely been nothing but a pleasure. We don't miss "home." Home is here now. Our family is here. Foreign and Chinese. We feel part of the community, and I am filled with gratitude for lifelong friendships.