Before you arrive:

  • a VPN app, either Betternet or Express VPN. Particularly if you use an Android phone, you’ll need a VPN to search or use any Google functionality unless you’re able to use a proxy or a router with VPN attached.
  • Download Google Translate and download/enable Chinese for offline use. You can save phrases as well and have a custom phrasebook.

In-country:

  • WeChat: Even if you’re just visiting and don’t have a SIM card, you’ll want to get WeChat if you’re going to be around for more than a day, or you expect you’ll have regular WiFi access. It’s what WhatsApp wants to be – you can order taxis, book hotels, chat with friends, read the ubiquitous QR codes, send and receive money, and more. Everyone uses WeChat; the ability to translate messages (better for the Chinese-to-English side, admittedly) is also amazingly useful.
  • Explore Beijing is a very simple app: it is for navigating the subway system. You need to know the names of the stations you’re using, but you can find out how long it will take to get from A to B, the fare, an approximate duration, and any changes you’ll need to take. Definitely a must-have for getting around.
  • Air Visual is a straightforward AQI (Air Quality Index) app.
  • Ulmon CityMaps2Go for navigating through Beijing (or any city, frankly).
  • Pleco for translation in general.
  • Baidu is the default search engine in China, and on the web app you can select from using Bing, Yahoo, Baidu itself, or even (if you’re in a VPN environment) Google.

AQI in Pictures

I tried to get these pictures at approximately the same time (between 8-10am), and from the same location,  on days where the weather is considered “good” (e.g. sunny/not rainy) versus taking pictures on days where it would be innately overcast.

AQI 23 – Clean/Healthy – Green

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AQI 73 – Moderate – Yellow
(this picture has some clouds, because hey, they happen in nice weather and aren’t just  pollution related.)aqi-77-moderate

AQI 144 – Unhealthy for Sensitive People – Orange

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AQI 180 – Unhealthy – Red

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AQI 213 – Very Unhealthy – Purpleaqi-213-very-unhealthy

And the last one – an AQI over 250 – is Extremely Unhealthy, colour-coded brown, and we have not yet had one that I know of/snapped a picture of. There will also be days of 500+ in the winter, and one of those will come, in time.

Beijing has a very comprehensive – and  well used – public transit system, featuring both subways and buses. We have taken both a few times to learn how to get around town.

This is the little “metro card” we have. They cost RMB20 and then you can put how20160905_084643evermuch you want to on them; trips cost from 2 to 5 kuai each way. The 20 deposit serves to effectively cover you in the event you go into the red on a given trip, and is refunded when you turn in the card.

Ours fit into our lanyards from the school, so we can have them somewhere that’s hard to lose. 🙂  They can be topped up either manually with a person in a booth, or with a machine at the station as well. If you sync it up with your phone (… I’m not entirely sure how I did it, except that I did!), it will also send periodic messages advising how much is left on your card!

The trains are very clean and usually pretty quick; we’ve only been on a few times but they haven’t had the same delays we’ve experienced as a general thing on the TTC. The signs are in English and Mandarin, as well as having line maps. As someone with kids I am immensely grateful for the fact that they aren’t open platforms: there are automated doors that open from the platform to the train, and they only open when the train is in the station and stopped.

There are actually queues – somewhat – as well as transit officers who keep an eye on everything (the man in the platform on the right). People so far have usually been good about letting people get off the train before they shove on; that said, if you have a stroller, luggage, or anything unwieldy, you’ll like as not get dirty looks (regardless of whether you’re 中国人 还是 外国人) ; it doesn’t matter if it’s rush hour or not.

We have a subway station very nearby to us – Maquanying, on Line 15 – and with only one or two transfers can get virtually anywhere in Beijing. It may take us 2 hours, or more, but we can do it!

Given that Google is verboten in China, trying to figure out a route can be tricky. Adam and I have used the app “Explore Beijing”in combination with Baidu Maps (or Google Maps, if we are able to access a VPN). Please note that in China, you cannot use Google Maps offline. You cannot even download Beijing as an offline area. Explore Beijing lets you select two subway stations and will tell you the fastest route and where to transfer; you do need to know the nearby stops (hence why you’ll need a map program to help you out to start). Baidu is exclusively in English, so you will need to have either the address in Mandarin or you’ll need to be able to use Baidu in concert with another app or website to translate text.

 

Grocery Shopping

There are a few ways to go grocery shopping in Beijing.

1. The big chains: Beijing boasts Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan and other international supermarkets. We have been to Carrefour and Auchan and picked up things in both. They very obviously cater to the local Chinese rather than expatriates, though they include a large selection of imported goods. Carrefour, with a fish and seafood department that included the following images…

 

Live fish, shellfish… and eels and turtles. Because China, right?

2. Expat-targeted shops: If you’re in Shunyi or Chaoyang, you have a handful of options for buying goods – Jenny Lou’s and Jenny Wang’s are everything from milk-to-meat-and-frozen-goods type of grocery stores, with detergents and soap and kids’ toys; there are other single-product vendors (such as Schindler’s butcher shop) that are equally targeted at the expats. The school has arranged trips to Jenny Lou’s (which has a nearby branch in a place called Europlaza) and it tends to be more expensive – but is also the place you can get Skippy peanut butter, has a wine “cellar”, and various imports that Carrefour may not have.

3. Local grocery stores: Don’t expect anything in English! There are two behind the school, and they are definitively local markets for the locals, and if you go in you had best expect to know what you’re looking for! They are, of course, priced accordingly. That said – things are easy enough to find if you know what you are looking for, and to a degree even if you don’t (does it have a picture of a washing machine on it, and a white shirt that is clearly supposed to be bright white? okay, this is either bleach or washing machine powder!); cooking ingredients, however, can definitely require a translator or a printout of the words you need to find on the container.

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I’m not entirely certain what everything in here is, but that’s okay!

Adam and I suggest using either Pleco or Google Translate (with the OFFLINE translation features enabled!) with a smartphone; you can hold it up to the item and have characters recognized by the system, and then either get a direct translation or sort through options.

The First 2 Weeks

It has been a wonderful whirlwind, these first two weeks. Lots of meetings for Adam, but also Fidlers and exploration around the city.

Our apartment is still “made by IKEA” – I think everything except the stove and the in-bathroom heat lamps (… I feel like a lizard!) – came from there. We’re very happy we brought our Indian throw pillow covers with us, and our bedspreads; the apartment would look very bland without their pops of colour. We are finding things we want to pick up, day by day: clothes drying racks, tension rods for the closets, shelves, and maybe down the road a chance to nab some new furniture (a couple of chairs for the living room). We want to completely re-do Asha’s room and make it her + Rohan, but that may just have to wait until we can find out if the school can take the queen-sized bed out of that room and we can sub in an IKEA single bed.

There are lots of little shops around us, but getting out of the school compound with kids is tricky: we’re close to a subway station and two bus stops, but the scheduling makes it at least 45 minutes in one direction to go to Auchan, and more than an hour to places like Carrefour and IKEA, or the Bookworm (a Beijing English-language bookstore and expat gathering spot) and other places down near Sanlitun. Even getting to Jenny Lou’s by public transit takes over half an hour… and I have yet to try to deal with taxis or drivers, simply because of timing.

Asha is slowly settling into school;  her first two days were somewhat rough so we only had her attend for half-days. She has her uniform, from shoes to dress to blazer – /and/ sport uniform /and/ swimsuit! – so we’re hoping that she settles in better after the weekend break. I am a proponent of uniforms for a few reasons, and immensely pleased we were able to do most of it through the Friends of Harrow secondhand shop. She has announced that “Mama needs school clothes!”, which we later got clarified to mean that she wants me to have a standard uniform, too. We’ll see what ends up happening, there.

We also connected with some old friends from Woodstock, the Husthwaites, over the weekend; they’re off on the other side of Beijing (almost literally). It was great to see them and to get some views of Beijing and life here from people who have been here for awhile, but not quite as long as Ash and Owen. Having different perspectives helps us balance the experiences we have, and set up well-aligned expectations.

Otherwise… it’s moving along slowly and steadily. House is coming together, we’re understanding how the metro system works, and where is best for what types of shopping and so on. Now that some of Adam’s banking situation is taken care of (oh, Bank of China…), we can start looking at using TaoBao and similar sites to handle filling in some of the blanks (like getting a printer) and deciding how to finish fleshing out the rest of the apartment to make it a little bit less “made by IKEA”. Next stop, though: framing photos and paintings we have and getting them up on the walls!

One of the school introduction events was a Peking duck dinner at a local duck restaurant. This was a pleasant surprise for me (as I’d been hoping to do it eventually), and we all went out since it was exceedingly family-friendly, and enjoyed ourselves with colleagues & lots of tasty  food. This was kind of a combination banquet-plus-duck meal; you traditionally (at least, as I understand it) would not have duck plus something like this as it’s just so.much.food. Our table did not even polish off half the dishes.

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Not the least of this were these cold moulded carp(?)  which came out at the start of the meal. They were a plain custard sort of thing.

The food either had amazing form and presentation like the above, or a very traditional sort of look:

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This was beef, with onions and potato, served in a big bowl. It was tasty.

Food continued – at least twelve dishes, which included but were not limited to:

  • kung pao chicken (gongbaojiding)
  • curry chicken ding
  • slices of starch of some sort cut and stacked like a game of Jenga, drizzled with strawberry jam(!)
  • cold spicy Sichuan chicken
  • meatballs with hoisin dipping sauce
  • the custard fish
  • the beef & potato dish above
  • a spicy shrimp dish
  • corn and veggies
  • braised tofu with sauce
  • fried rice
  • a whole fish, fried and covered in a sweet sauce (garlic and bean?)
  • The Duck.

Oh, the duck.

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Clockwise from back: the starch-sticks with jam, spicy Sichuan chicken, gongbaojiding, and the Peking duck.

Some people have commented that there are other, better duck restaurants in the area; this was pretty good, but I’d love to see what else is in the area to find out what’s better than this!

Peking duck is traditionally served with super-thin wheat pancakes, rather like roti or crepes or tortillas; you put hoisin or a fermented black bean paste on the pancake (or you can dip the duck in it), and then put in a few slices of some ‘filler’, such as sliced scallions, cucumber, yams, or – in this peculiar case, Pop Rocks (yes, seriously, our ’90’s childhood food… it’s the pink stuff in the dish in the above picture!). It also seems to often be carved at the table for each order, but I think with six tables, we would have been sore-pressed to have that happen: I doubt there were 6 folks who could have carved simultaneously!

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Lay a few of the pieces of duck atop the filler (each piece with a small bit of crisp duck skin), then wrap up the little duck-burrito neatly, and eat. And enjoy.

And eat, and eat, and eat.

A big meal comes to an end, in China, with a batch of fresh fruit – and that was watermelon. Asha polished off three slices on her own, before being carried home on my shoulders/Adam’s shoulders, and passing out, replete.

We followed shortly after.

There’s conversation with some friends about going to the Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square sometime in the next month – I want to go before October holidays! – and apparently, there’s a great roast duck place around there, too…

Bright and early last Monday morning, Adam and I (and the kids) hopped in a bus to be driven to a hospital about an hour away in order to undergo the medical examinations needed for our resident permits.

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We got there around 9:30 or a bit past, and it was all done by 11!

The traffic, while quiet compared to the incessant honking of a road in India, was comparable to someplace like Toronto in terms of loudness… but with the jam-packed roads you would expect of a city with around 24 million in the metro area. An hour turned into 2 and then nearly 2.5 until we arrived at the hospital, where we hopped off and then went and stood in a queue. As we’d left at 7:30, by the time we got inside and all started to get lined up, we realised that it was probably best to schedule this for later morning or early afternoon to avoid the rush-hour traffic.

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What it looked like after all the queueing had been done. Clearly it’s best to come around lunch!

The physical examinations are required as part of the residential permit application process, and can be required for successfully receiving a visa for China as well. We had all the requisite things performed in India before we left, as did many of Adam’s colleagues. This turned out to have been great, because when we arrived, some people found out that all of their paperwork was sufficient and didn’t need to be re-checked; some people found that they needed one or two portions re-done.

That was the case for Adam and I, so we each had to go to Room 104 and Room 201 for blood draws and lung ultrasounds (for TB). Some people had to have other things done; it all depended on what was deemed acceptable or not by the person handling the registration. I imagine if you’d had none of the tests done (or needed to re-do them all) and needed to go to each room, it would have been even more time-consuming. As it was – after registration, we received slips stating what rooms we had to go to, and then we went to the rooms, handed over our paperwork, and were either gooped up in gel or stabbed with a needle. Only one thing is done in each room, so you can go room to room to room as needed and in whatever order you want to.

For anyone who may need a physical to come to China, if you can arrange to do it in your home country before you depart, I’d strongly suggest it since it will allow for less time in the medical facility when you arrive. That said, if your employer/school says to do it when you arrive – you can get it done, but it will take a fair bit of time to go through all the steps.

What We Miss About India

We left India just before monsoon, and it’s now raging full-force in Uttarakhand and Mussoorie. I’ve seen pictures from friends & acquaintances about the landslides, the leeches and the rain. One of my favourite pictures from a year or so ago is from a (now former) colleague who snapped a shot of the same location two hours apart: the top of the image is a view over the Doon Valley, and the bottom half… well, you wait for a moment, expecting the rest of the image to load.

What We Miss

  • Our friends.
  • Our ayah. (Who happens to be a friend, but deserves a line of her own!)
  • The scenery. We like living in a city for sure – but we miss those Mussoorie mountains.
  • The commute. There’s something to be said for a mandatory 2km walk, no matter how pretty the campus we’re on (and whoa, is it pretty).
  • The presence of native English speakers. Even in our short time here, we have realised that – even though there are a lot of people who have studied English, the number of people who speak it is an entirely different matter.

 

What We Don’t Miss…

  • The wilder wildlife – rhesus, scorpions, hand-sized spiders, you know.
  • The intricate bureaucracy. China has some – but not to the extent/depth/insanity that India does.
  • The disorganization in various things that is often excused as “India just being India”, “it’s just India, that’s how it is” – when it’s actually laziness, or an excuse to avoid doing something (or doing it well).
  • The horns. For all the traffic in Beijing (it took us 2.5 hours go to a distance estimated to take 1!), it’s remarkably quiet and polite – queueing nicely, staying in lanes, etc. Most of the time. But definitely, definitely a lot quieter!

The First 48

We have made it! Alive, unpacking, and settling in slowly.

Fidlers snuck in on us and made some inroads at making our flat a home: photos in a frame for us, some flowers, some popcorn snacks and chocolate, peanut butter and honey and spices and the IKEA crib assembled for Rohan, and tea and coffee pots! There is nothing better than arriving somewhere and having friends-that-are-family there, ready, to help you with whatever you need. Adam and I are so, so happy to be back with them,  and the new experiences Beijing has to offer.

We had a loooong Thursday that turned into a Friday, but we were met by people at the airport and got all our baggage and ourselves into cars and to the school, where we were shown to our flat and unloaded so we could unpack. Dinner was arranged (pizza!) and then I went out to one of the more upscale grocery stores on a school-arranged bus, and picked up some necessities. I had a moment of decision fatigue -after only 2 hours of sleep in 26 – and staring at shelves full of Things, especially Things I Didn’t Know I Had To Decide Between – and tried my hardest to pick whatever was on our right-away list that wouldn’t break the bank (and had the fewest choices to pick between).

 

The best part about Friday was having Fidlers come over from about 6:30 til 9pm. Also, showers. But I think Fidlers.

Saturday was a few sessions of settling in paperwork (e.g. internet, TV, SIM cards) and interviewing ayis. We are picked one for part-time to try for a month, 刘 ayi; she’ll do 4 hours/day including errands, shopping, some cleaning & some cooking & handling Rohan. Which will give me time to do some work for classes, and then I can wrangle him from noon onwards. Adam went to Auchan and did some shopping. We also had a hutong tour; a hutong is a traditional local neighbourhood in Beijing. A series of alleyways with walled houses (each with a private courtyard inside), any given unit could be actual residences OR could be restaurants, shops, what-have-you. Our area, Hegezhuang, is expected to become rather like the 798 district (398, I think?); they are doing a slow but steady remodeling, which includes rebuilding some of the old homes and rebuilding them in traditional style.

 

Sunday we went with Ashlea & Owen to IKEA, and then a mall across the street with Carrefour (a French grocery chain) that occupied virtually two entire floors… think your local big grocery store (or the food section of a Super Walmart) across two floors in a mall. It was… epic. Everyone came back to our place and we assembled furniture and made a hasty fried rice dinner (yum!) and then, after sending the Fidlers home, all promptly passed out.

Where We Stand

Paperwork is currently winging its way from Beijing to Toronto, and will hopefully be received either later today or tomorrow, allowing for Adam to go in no later than Wednesday to the visa organisation in Toronto and file for his visa. If bureaucracy is with us, he’ll pick it up Friday, scan it, e-mail the visa to me and I’ll go into DC on Monday to file for the visas for the kids & I.

We’ve gone from Toronto to Maryland and Adam has gone back again – and will come back down once more to pick us up, and then we’ll all drive back up to Toronto for (hopefully) an August 13 departure. That means – all our finger crossed – in two weeks, we’ll be in Beijing. (Sorry, A&O&J – brunch will need to be delayed a week! 🙂 )

We have had a good run this summer – a blog post to follow on that, amongst other topics – but… there you have it: where we are, now.