Everything is the same, just different

We have been struck by how similar life here in China is to life in North Carolina, but everyday a few things remind us that we are not in America anymore.

Communication is, of course, the hardest part.  We have been amazed at how many people here speak some English, but that Englsh is usually specific to their job.  For instance, the Subway sandwich people know “italian bread” and “mayo” but if you were to ask them directions to somewhere, well, you wouldn’t get anywhere.  Hand signals and pointing can get you a long way though, and when that fails, there’s always Google Translate.  (Thank goodness for my iphone!)

Chinese people pay all the same bills as we do in the States, but they pre-pay for everything. This is a cash and debit card society (take note credit-ridden USA).  So we have debit cards for gas, water, and electricity.  For the water card, I have to add money to three different accounts:  cold water, kitchen hot water, and bathroom hot water.  These cards are then inserted into slots near the pipes, and the money is converted into cubic meters of water.  There is a similar process for gas and electricity.  I need to monitor the meters to determine when I need to purchase more, and, of course, all three are purchased at different places.  The gas and electricity have to be purchased at the bank, despite assurances that the automatic machines in the complex would take our debit cards.  It is a pain!

Because we are in a big city, it is very easy to get around without owning a car, which is a good thing, because there is NO way I would drive on the streets of Beijing.  For one thing, they do not respect lanes or any sense of right-of-way that I can tell.  People just push their way in.  There are always pedestrians, bicycles and scooters coming out of nowhere, and they don’t respect the lights.  And…if you do get an accident, the outcome is resolved on the spot in what amounts to an argument between the two victims.  I have a feeling that I would get the raw end of that deal!

The fruit here is cheaper, fresher and tastier than in America, but the grapes and the watermelon have seeds and the pears are crisp like apples.  There are also several kinds of fruit that we are unfamiliar with including one very impressive large, spiky fruit that is called durian.  I have heard that it’s terrible, but I’d give it a try, if it wasn’t quite so enormous.

Kids come over and play, just like at home, but they call trash “rubbish” and ask me where the “loo” is.

Many packaged foods that we get in the States are available here in China, but most are a little different than we are used to.  I was excited to find a bag of Cheetos at the Jingkelong (local grocery store.)  They looked like the ones we love, but when we got them home and tried them, we discovered they were “steak” flavored.  We have found other common snack flavorings around here to be salad, cucumber, italian meat and tomato.  Cheese is repulsive to some Chinese, so you can forget nacho cheese Doritos (except from the Western market where they are $5 a bag.)

Since I consider cheese to be one of my reasons for living, I went out of my way to find and order locally made cheeses.  I had an assortment of 9 cheeses delivered to our apartment from Le Frommagier de Pekin for the very reasonable price of $70 (with delivery.)  I would love to say that the cheese was fabulous, but, unfortunately, I can’t.  It was different, and I think that I could grow to like it (at least some of it), but it certainly wasn’t what I was hoping for.  I am not sure what I am going to do with all of it; it is currently stinking up my frig.  From now on, I will stick with cheese from the Western markets.  Oh, and by the way, a package of American cheese slices costs $4.50 here.

Safety is an interesting topic in Beijing.  On the one hand, the city is very safe.  There is very little crime and most of it is petty thievery.  The subways and buses are crowded, but clean and safe.  But… no one uses seat belts or bike helmets which, given the crazy traffic, is amazingly unsafe.  There are seat belts in the cabs, but they are usually inaccessible due to the seat covers all the cabbies use.  Ironicly, the children are required to wear seat belts on the school bus, exactly the opposite of the situation in the States where it’s the one vehicle in which they don’t use a seatbelt.

The experience so far has never been boring. We are enjoying the differences and the similarities of our lives in these two very different places.  It is an amazing opportunity, and we are trying to make the most of it every single day.

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Weeks one and two: Settling in

On Saturday, when we had been here in China for 5 days, my daughter turned to me and said “I am so happy that we decided to move here!”  Now, I am not so delusional as to think that this attitude will continue indefinitely.  Several people have referred to this period of time as our “honeymoon period.”  I fully expect some ups and downs, especially as it gets colder, but the first couple weeks have definitely exceeded my expectations.

Perhaps the best thing about the experience so far has very little to do with China.  We are living in an expat oriented apartment complex, and everyday at 4pm busloads of children flood onto the playground.  Jessica and Jack have both made friends with the children of a family the school introduced us to.   They roam freely around the five apartment buildings in the complex visiting each other and playing games.  They can even go down to the grocery store in the complex and pick things up for me.  They love the freedom and the friendships, and I love the independence.

I have also made a few friends.  The family that Jessica’s school introduced to us has taken us under their wing.  They had us over for dinner on our first night in the apartment.  We went with them to a PTA organized tea tasting event in an old part of China.  And that night that Jessica told me she was so happy to be here, we were walking back from dinner with them and another family at a local, traditional Chinese restaurant.  (13 people ate for a total of $50.)  We have borrowed their tool set and asked them a thousand questions.  We are so lucky we met them!  It has really made all the difference.

Jessica has started school already and loves it.  She has classmates from Korea, Australia, Europe and China.  Many of them speak multiple languages.  I can’t imagine a more stimulating environment for Jessica at this age.  The school facilities are top-notch, as they should be given the cost (thank goodness the company picks up that cost!), and the teachers appear to be very knowledgable.

Jack will start school in a week and a half.  He is going to a school where his classes will be taught in both English and Mandarin.  Of all of us, I think he has the best chance of picking up the language.  The school has the added benefit of being within walking distance, just on the other side of a lovely lake with a walking path along it.  Although we didn’t initially want to split the kids up, I think that they are both going to the school that will benefit them the most.  We are also excited to get to be part of both communities.

There have been many smaller milestones.  I have conquered the gigantic Chinese grocery stores.  (I now know that produce must be weighed at a weighing station BEFORE checking out, and appliances have to be purchased on the floor they are located on.)  We have bought street food from a random vendor, and it was AWESOME!  We have taken taxis, used drivers (more expensive) and taken the subway.  We are still working on the bus system, which will probably end up being the most useful.  We have a bank account, gas, water and electricity cards, internet, wifi and working cell phones.  Our stuff has yet to arrive, but 2 visits to IKEA have filled in the gaps in our furnished apartment enough to live comfortably.  (They deliver and assemble it for you here!)  It’s all coming together rather quickly.

I fear that this post is getting too long to remain interesting, so I will save the rest for another time.  Hopefully, I will have figure out how to add pictures by the next post!



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Great Expectations

Since my last post dealt with my first impressions of Beijing, I thought that a suitable follow-up post would chronicle my expectations of our great adventure.  This post will also serve two other purposes:  #1.  I can look back in the years to come and say “Wow, that didn’t turn out like I expected.” or “That was even better than I expected!” and #2. Writing this post will give me something to do while we await our visas.  Despite what people seem to think, we are not swamped with things to do before we leave.  In fact, I am pretty bored right now since all of our regular activities (dance, soccer, volunteering) have ceased.  So to pass the time I will record what I think our life is going to be like in China.

1.  I expect to make friends with people from all over the world, and I expect the kids will as well.  I am hoping that our future will include many visits to people in their home countries.  I admit to envying a full passport, but I also would love to experience new countries along with people who live in them, not just as a tourist.

2.  By the time we leave China, I expect my children to speak enough Mandarin to be able to basically communicate.  I will be ecstatic if they reach fluency.  I hope that Chad and I will also pick up enough to communicate passably as well.  Languages have always been something I have struggled with, so I am curious to see how it goes when I am “immersed.”  3 years of French class certainly didn’t do much for me.

3.  I expect to HATE the winter.  I have never lived in a cold climate (except for one winter in Spokane, Washington when I was ten.)  I don’t expect to adapt well.  I apologize in advance for my whining.

4.  I expect to like certain aspects of big city life.  In particular, the restaurants, the fresh fruit stands, not having a car and the multitude of activities.

5.  I expect to love my kids’ school, whichever one we choose.  For as much as it costs (not us), it should be a lot better than the NC public school system.

6.  I expect to travel…a lot!  I want to see EVERYTHING…but I know I can’t.  Still, I hope that I try, and I hope that I have the confidence to take the children on adventures without Chad, since his work schedule will be limiting.  This will be stretching my comfort zone, considerably.

7.  I expect to get depressed by the pollution and the sandstorms….and having to pay for books that I could get for free at the library at home.

8.  I expect to seek refuge from the pollution and sandstorms at the numerous (and supposedly cheap) spas.  I have heard their foot massages are wonderful.  I am trying to get up the nerve to try cupping.  (Look it up…it’s supposed to cure everything!)

9.  I expect to take a lot of pictures.  No surprise to those of you who know me.

10.  I expect to have to deal with loneliness and boredom.

11.  I expect to combat loneliness by taking on an excess of activities.  I have already agreed to conduct alumni interviews for Duke, something I was never really interested in doing here in Durham.

12.  I expect to learn how to bargain with the best, but I also expect to pay a premium for not being a local.  My goal is to get that premium as low as possible.

13.  I expect to be stared at and maybe even pointed at on occasion, but I don’t expect it to bother me.  People have actually asked to take their picture with my freakishly tall husband.  We’ll see how my tall daughter and blonde son deal with the attention.

14.  I expect to feel incomfortable with having a housekeeper.

15.  I expect my husband to be working long hours.  I am hoping that he will not be traveling much.

16.  I expect to lose weight… or gain weight.

17.  I expect the kids to hate us for this at some point and love us for it when they are adults.

18.  I expect for everything to take longer than I think it should, even though I know that it will.

19.  I expect to come back to NC in 2 or 3 years very excited to be home and very appreciatve of  all that entails.  I also expect that feeling to wear off eventually…maybe 5 years or so and to start looking for another adventure.  (Maybe Europe this time.  Italy would be fabulous!)

20.  I expect that many of these expectations will be met, but some will not.  We’ll just have to wait and see!  I will keep you updated!


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First Impressions

Chad and I just got back from our “look-see” tour of Beijing.   The weather was unseasonably pleasant and pollution level was very low.  Several people told me not to get used to this, but it was a lovely introduction to the city.  We managed to find an apartment, 2 schools that we liked that both have openings and attend the Duke vs China basketball game, so it was a productive trip.

Since it was my first trip to China, I thought that I should record a few first impressions of the city and country.

1.  Many more people in Beijing speak English than I expected, at least a little, and certainly more than I speak Chinese.  Many of the signs and advertisements are also in English.  I can thank the Olympics for the latter.

2.  Beijingers were very appreciative of our weak attempts to speak their language and were happy to help us learn, as evidenced by the cabbie who taught Chad and I to count to ten.

3.  If you are out late, expect to pay double for your cab ride home.  You can bargain all you want, but the cabbie’s got the upper hand.  Oh, and “late” in China appears to start at 11pm.

4.   Many taxi drivers do not know the city, do not have a GPS, and cannot read a map, so it’s best to know where you’re headed and the words for “right”, “left” and “straight” (“you”, “zuo” and “yizhi”).

5.  The streets and intersections are HUGE…I’m talking miniature freeways in the outer parts of the city, 6-8 lanes on each side, and still the traffic is terrible at rush hour.

6.  Cars are king and pedestrians are annoying obstacles that they may or may not stop for.  This being said, I watched a woman walk across one of the intersections described in #5, DIAGONALLY with oncoming traffic zooming past her, without batting an eye.

7.  Safety is not a big deal in Beijing…no one wears seatbelts, bikers don’t wear helmets, infants ride in the arms of people sitting in the front seat of cars.

8.  Toddlers run around with split pants and crouch to pee wherever they happen to be.  I think this explains why Chinese children are potty-trained by 18 months.

9.  It is best to be prepared for anything when it comes to a public toilet.  (I did conquer the “squatty potty” on this trip after a failed attempt in Hong Kong.  I will not go into details.)

10.  Beijing has every kind of food imagineable and at very reasonable prices.  While we were there we had Japanese, Italian, Mexican (margaritas, anyway), Brazilian and Chinese (of course.)  It was all delicious…even the “fast” food.

11.  The produce in Beijing is gorgeous…none of this “picked early so it won’t rot before it gets to the store crap” that we get.  It’s cheap too, but seasonal.

12.  The city is very safe.

13.  Government driven amenities like the subway, historical sites and taxis are very cheap.  Non-government amenities like housing and international education can be very expensive.  Luckily, Lenovo picks up those expenses for us.  Rumor has it the Jessica’s orthodontic work will be much cheaper here too…not sure whether that is a good thing or not.

14.   Lots of people in Beijing have jobs that require them to stand around and do nothing, like the guy whose job it is to watch over the pool at the hotel. Perhaps watching me swim laps was more exciting for him than watching an empty pool.  It was unnerving for me.

15.  An American encountering another American in Beijing is 50 times more likely to strike up a conversation than if they met that same person at home.

16.  Skirts can be very short, but no one shows their midriffs. (Faux pas a la Duke Cheerleaders.)

17.  Chinese people love t-shirts with English words and sayings on them.  Whether the words mean anything or make any sense when strung together does not seem to be important.

18.  Beijingers can stuff more people in a subway than appears humanly possible.  Just when you think not a single person more will fit, that single person shoves her way on.  They actually have subway employees whose job it is to push the people in so the doors can close.  I didn’t witness this, but I don’t doubt it.

19.  In China, tips can actually be insulting and embarassing to service employees.  I was surprised at how hard it was not to tip people.  I really felt like we were snubbing them.

20.  Not having to pay sales tax or worry about tipping makes paying for things so much easier.  Round numbers are good, especially when dealing with foreign currency.

21.  Beijing is a very green city.  There are trees and bushes planted everywhere, even rose bushes.  It’s odd to be walking down a very busy city street and get a strong whiff of rose.  I have been told that many of these plants were planted before the Olympics in an attempt to clean the air up a bit.  I hope they continue to plant more.

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Sweating the “small” stuff

When we were first considering applying for this job in China, a co-worker of Chad’s told him we would get along fine there if  we didn’t “sweat the small stuff.”  I have been mulling that phrase over since then, trying to determine whether I am the type of person who sweats the small stuff.  I think, unfortunately, the answer is “yes,” though, perhaps, not in the sense that the co-worker meant it.  I will live without my Lipton Green tea.  I will not stress about the traffic.  I will not worry if my placemats do not match my napkins.  These are the things I consider to be “small stuff.”  However, the question of when we will be moving to China is not, in my opinion, “small stuff.”

I have been warned by several people and by a couple books that I have read, that bureaucracy takes on a new meaning in China and especially in Beijing.  Well, we are caught up in it already, and we haven’t even left yet.  You see, we cannot go to China until we have a visa, and we cannot get a visa until our relocation company gets it for us, and our relocation company won’t start working on it until someone important in the Chinese HR department signs a form ensuring that they will get paid.  We are completely unclear as to why this form has yet to be signed, and nobody outside of Chad and I seems to be concerned about it at all.  Yet, until this form is signed, the answer to the question “When are you leaving?” will have to be “I don’t know.”  Is this “small stuff?”  ‘Cause I’m sweating it.

So, I am adjusting my attitude and trying to go with the flow.  We will get over there eventually.  Yes, school will have started, so the adjustment will be just that little bit harder for the kids.  Yes, the housesitters are moving in soon next week, so it will be cramped around here.  Yes, the registration on the van that we would like to sell is due at the end of the month.  But, in the end, it will all work out and, hopefully, I will have learned lesson #1:  “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

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The Adventure Begins

It’s expat city for the Duhon family!  Chad is taking a job with Lenovo in Beijing, and we are headed to China for the next 2 or 3 years.  The job is a wonderful opportunity for Chad, and the chance to experience life in a different country is a wonderful opportunity for our family.

At this point I am sure that half of you think that we are out of our minds.  One person has even suggested that our marriage might not make it through the experience.  Another told us that it will take years off our lives.  Several people have acted as though we (especially I) have not thoroughly thought this through, that we are acting on a whim with some idealized view of what living in a foreign country will be like.  Well, let me assure you that this is ALL we have thought about for 3 months, and we know that it’s not going to be an Asian picnic.  The city is crowded and dirty, and the pollution is tremendous.  We will just have to learn to deal with it, like the other 20 million people who live there.

For us, this is the perfect time to experience another culture.  The children are the perfect age.  Jessica is between schools, and Jack is up for anything.  Surprisingly, they are both excited about the opportunity.  There are things they will miss, of course.  Jessica is the most upset about leaving her dance team, but we have already found a studio in Beijing that has English speaking teachers.  Jack can play soccer anywhere (he just needs to learn to call it football.)  The Western schools in Beijing look spectacular, which they should be, since they cost $25,000/yr per student.  Thanks goodness Lenovo will be picking up that tab.

We are not selling our home.  I couldn’t bear it, and since Lenovo will be paying for our housing in Beijing, there’s no need.  We have been very lucky to find two Duke graduates who are going to housesit for us and take care of our cat, Tigger, who, unfortunately, is too old to make the trip.  When we come home, we will have a comfortable (though crowded) place to stay.   We are hoping to be home for Christmases and for several weeks over the summer.

We are hoping to travel A LOT while we are in Asia.  I have already purchased travel guides for Vietnam, Australia, Russia, Japan, Thailand, Bali, India, and, of course, China.  I see this opportunity as our chance to see everything that we can while we are there.  We are also hoping that our friends will take advantage of our being in China to come for a visit.  We would love to see you!

So, this blog is my attempt to keep in touch with those of you who wonder what we are up to on the other side of the world, to document our adventure for our own benefit, and maybe even to help people who are thinking of making the move themselves.   I am sure there will be some funny/awkward/interesting moments to relate.

One cautionary note:  this is my first attempt at blogging, and I am no writer, so bear with me while I figure out how to do this!

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