International Newcomers Network
Our first six days in Beijing were complete. The apartment was beginning to feel like home. The kids were making friends and settling into school. Soren was entering his second week of teaching and I had figured out the neighborhood and survived my first healthcare emergency. My molar was feeling better and the swelling in my jaw was almost gone. I was ready to get back out of the apartment after two days in bed recuperating.
The British School of Beijing (BSB), where Lars and Nona go to school, organizes events for families on the weekends. Throughout the school year there are workshops hosted on various topics of interest and day-trips around the city for parents who are not working. I was interested in the trip they organized to downtown Beijing on this particular Monday. They offered to take parents who just arrived in China to the International Newcomers Network (INN). Website Here This group is organized by expats who have experience living abroad, specifically in China and Beijing. They host events and help foreigners “fresh off the boat” in China get their sea legs. While I was not nervous about navigating my own international journey, I felt that it wouldn’t hurt to go to the meeting to see what resources they had to offer. Getting to know all the nuances of expat life was interesting to me.
Munivia and I planned on going together and needed to be at BSB early to catch the transportation they provided to the INN event downtown. To get to BSB, however, we would ride the school bus with our children, rather than take a cab. I was unsure about this. It would have never occurred to me that parents could ride on their children’s bus, or more importantly, why would they want to? But, she assured me we could and that it would be pleasant. So, I greeted the matron and bus driver as I followed Lars and Nona up the steps and onto their bus.
This experience is worth noting. First, it is a huge chartered bus. Second, it only travels about five miles to the school. Third, they make only seven stops. Hence, there were only seven children on the giant bus. I asked Lars and Nona if this was the usual amount. They said yes, this was it. No wonder they allow parents on the bus.
Our children were happy that we rode the bus with them and proudly showed us all the landmarks and introduced Munyiva and me to their friendly bus-buddies. This was nothing like my experience on the yellow school bus bouncing roughly on gravel country roads for 45 minutes when I was a girl in Indiana. We did not have seat-belts back then either. School buses in the States were notorious for being places where you learn more than you should about the birds and bees and drugs from the older high school kids stuck riding because they didn’t have a car. Oh, the things that happened on those buses. Thankfully, this was not Lars and Nona’s experience.
As we rolled along, safely buckled in our seats, all seven children clustered around each other, I chatted with the other students. One little boy, from Australia, spoke at least three languages fluently. He was in first grade and had already lived in several countries. He was charming and outgoing, a skill I am sure he had to learn moving that often. I am curious how living abroad will open up opportunities for friendships around the world for Lars and Nona. I am also hoping they become fluent in Chinese. What a great adventure.
When we arrived at BSB, we said goodbye to the kids and loaded onto a second bus that was prepared to drive parent’s downtown. There were about 20 parents, mostly women, who settled into seats. I sat with Munyiva. We struck up a conversation for most of the 30-minute ride with a woman from Botswana. Tsipang’s husband works for the consulate. Just like the Americans flocking together when we went to the pub, folks from African countries notice each other and reach out to connect. At BSB the majority of families are British so those of us from other countries and nations look for each other. To be clear, Africa is a continent, so it compares more to comfort being around those with similar backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities rather than nationalities.
INN Event Space
The event was held in a very nice hotel downtown Beijing. We unloaded and walked through the lobby, up the escalator, and into a medium-sized conference room. Lining the outer walls were long tables with vendors standing at the ready behind them. There was a spread of breakfast treats including coffee. As we walked into the room, the first table had friendly representatives from the ANZA group, Australia and New Zealand Association. They are a group of “Aussie and Kiwi volunteers, living in Beijing, aiming to bring expats of all nationalities together.” (ANZA Website) I signed up for their newsletter and hope to attend some of their events. I am interested in their monthly morning teas which include Champagne. They also host the “Melbourne Cup Charity Luncheon” to raise money for specific agencies providing life-saving surgeries for children in Beijing.
As Munyiva and I moseyed around the room, we found information on health care, education, shopping, socializing, and more. One interesting vendor was a wine home-delivery service. Expats struggle to find good wine apparently. While the international markets carry liquor and wine, it remains more complicated to locate and bring home than other types of foods. I took a card.
At one table, I met a Chinese dentist who I hoped I could get an appointment for my tooth. (Still hadn’t seen one yet.) I found it interesting that his name was Lars! He made an appointment for me then and there for the following day. What great luck! I am really glad I came at this point, if only to meet this guy.
We took many more leaflets and business cards and made our way to the seats when it was time for the presentation.
When enough of the over 200 people took their seats, a short, bubbly woman with short platinum-blond hair and bright red glasses took the stage. She was holding a Chinese fan that she used to cool herself and make gestures when she spoke. I could tell from the first word she uttered that she was an American.
She introduced herself as Theresa from Seattle and asked the other INN volunteers to come to the front. They said the country they originated from and how long they had been in Beijing. The women were mostly from Australia, England, and the U.S. and had lived in China anywhere between 8 and 20 years. They were involved in INN to share their wealth of knowledge to all us newbies. Theresa then used a powerpoint to kick-off the presentation and began cheerfully giving great advice for newcomers.
My “Dependent” Lanyard
(Attached is the pen-light I got at this event to detect counterfeit money in Beijing)
The first thing I picked up on relates to the lanyard I wear at Keystone – remember, the one with the word “dependent” on the ribbon I mentioned in a previous journal entry. (A funny sidebar story about that: One of the other young women whose husband works at Keystone forgot to take her lanyard off when she went off campus for the day. While she was on the subway, another passenger came over to her and asked about her status and if she needed help. Because it reads, “dependent”, the person assumed she needed help getting to her destination or that she had some type of disability. While it was nice that someone enquired about it, she was mortified and quickly took off the lanyard. We love retelling that story at Keystone and think it is hilarious.)
Back to the INN information on our international status-
I discovered at this meeting, that being “dependent” is better than what we are actually called abroad. The correct term for Munyiva and me, and any other non-working partner who is in China, is “trailing spouse.” TRAILING SPOUSE? WHAT? This conjures images of passive and weak women who are living off their man and walking at least 10 paces behind him, with the children and donkeys. Geez! Trailing spouse. I guess being a dependent wasn’t that bad after all.
As the presentation progressed, Theresa from Seattle gave helpful tips, such as how to spot counterfeit money, which as it turns out is an issue. She showed us how to use a special pen-light to shine on certain parts of RMB to ensure its authenticity. She warned us to be especially careful when getting change back form took-tooks or cabs. She also said to look at the number on the dash of the taxi drivers. Anyone with a number over 300,000 would be relatively new to driving and would not know the neighborhoods or landmarks as well. The lower the number, the longer they have been driving. Counterfeit Scam Link
There was also a psychologist who presented as part of the event. His name is Dr. Hu (pronounced Dr. Who) and he is, as he puts it, an American Born Chinese. He is from San Francisco, but now works and lives in Beijing. He spoke about how common depression is among expats, especially “trailing spouses.” His advice was, to be patient with yourself in China. For one, everything will take longer and be more difficult, so don’t try to overdo it by trying to get too many tasks done in one day. Well, I already found that out during my first week. And, remember the dentist? Also, we still don’t have Chinese phones, a reliable VPN, a bank account, or knives. Dr. Hu remarked that it is difficult sometimes for visitors who are used to efficiency and speed. Sign me up for that! However, I came into China already knowing this from the reports from my father-in-law who lived in China for over 17 years. His classic story-telling always ended with, “It’s China, that’s why.” Communication is just one of the barriers to this efficiency.
Cultural Adjustment is REAL!
To round out the event, Theresa wanted to know who was the most recent newcomer in the crowd. She asked everyone to stand up. Then she said, “If you have been here two months or more sit down.” This proceeded until there were only two people left standing, me and another guy. She asked how long we had been in Beijing and we both said six days. Then she asked when our flights arrived. I beat him out by five hours. It was official. In the crowded room of newcomers, I was the freshest with only six days and 12 hours under my belt. She called me to the microphone in the front. She asked me to introduce myself and to tell where I was from specifically in the States. Then she gave me a goodie bag as the award. It had one of the counterfeit-detecting pen-lights, coupons, magazines, and most importantly, a bottle of the good white wine. I won!
Theresa was very friendly, as were all the other INN volunteers. Many gave out their personal emails to new people telling them to contact them any time with questions. They also explained how often they meet and the other events they host. It seemed like an interesting group of women who were using their time as “trailing spouses” to keep busy and active to ward off that depression Dr. Hu spoke about. Theresa even said at one point, “I was a nobody in Seattle. Here, in Beijing, I am quoted in magazines as a resource.” The basic take-away for me was that my experience in Beijing would be what I make of it. There are many opportunities to be involved with people from all over the world. The expat community is relatively small and made up of largely government officials, car industry executives, and educators. INN makes sure all the trailing spouses have entertainment through galas, charity-work, social events and more. Between this group and all the events organized by BSB or Keystone, I felt I was definitely prepared to network and mingle. No depression for me please! I put the ANZA Morning Champagne Tea on my calendar.
Lunch at The Great Wall Restaurant – Beijing
As the presentation wound to a close, INN had organized lunch at a downtown restaurant within walking distance for those who wanted to mingle more. Munyiva and I were heading back with the BSB bus so we took a pass on this offer. But, ironically, the name of the restaurant was “The Great Wall”, the same restaurant I wrote about in my first blog. Michael, our Beijing house-sitter back home frequents The Great Wall Chinese restaurant in New Paltz, NY. From New York to Beijing – It’s a small world after-all.
Coming up: Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding, The Mall and the Movies, and much more