Elisabeth is an (adult) third culture kid who continued the expat lifestyle as an adult. She recently completed a two year stint in Beijing, working as a speech pathologist and raising her young daughter.
Where were you raised?
I was born in the US and spent time in the Middle East as well as the United States.
You are back in the U.S. after finishing two years in China. What was the process of you finding an opportunity abroad?
I had the opportunity to go to China for the first time in 2008 as part of a Canadian Delegation for Speech Pathologists and Audiologists. At that time, Speech Pathology was in the infancy stages, but the country already know that the demand for the field would be huge. I always thought to myself that it would be a great opportunity to work in a country where one can contribute to the progress of its healthcare. Fast forward to Summer 2014, I was given an opportunity to work for a Chinese Healthcare company with the purpose of helping them establish a pediatric feeding clinic. The company is based in Shanghai and had a small satellite office in Beijing. Despite the smog, I chose to go to Beijing as I loved the gritty feel and character of the city. Since I am in a specialized field that is in high demand, finding work opportunities are surprisingly easy. I am very thankful for this as it allows me to have many options.
Was this your first expat experience or have you had others?
China was not my first expat experience as I have also spent time in Canada, France, and Japan. Nonetheless, China was the hardest country for me to adjust. For one, I moved in Winter, so there was a lot of smog. I came to Beijing with a five year old, so I had to choose a school, secure childcare, find an apartment, and deal with a picky eater on my own. I took the time to learn a few phrases before I left, but my daughter had no knowledge of the language. It was a rough adjustment for her as she is very talkative and found it challenging to communicate with others initially. Also, the culture in China is significantly different from anything I have experienced, so it took me a while to find my bearings.
You are also a single parent. What was the experience of raising your young daughter in China?
Raising a child who is a person of color in China is extremely difficult, but rewarding. For starters, most of the friends and acquaintances I have there do not have kids. As a result, I had to do a lot of leg work when it came to finding family activities and choosing a doctor among other things. Since we lived in an area that did not have a lot of foreigners, my daughter received a lot of attention. Even though it was mainly positive, after a while, it became tiresome as people would constantly want to talk to us about our background, take photos, or try to touch her hair. On the other hand, it was a self confidence boost for my daughter as she received a lot of attention. She would always have a wait staff to play with or talk to when we ate out at restaurants and everyone in our neighborhood knew who she was. I received a lot of help from coworkers and neighbors with small tasks from carrying groceries to setting up appointments if I required assistance as a lot of people knew I was here on my own.
Being a single parent in China is not talked about and carries negative connotations, so a lot of people didn’t believe me initially when I said I was single. Most people assumed that I had a husband living in America.
What were some of the challenges living in Beijing? What were the benefits?
During the time I was in Beijing, air pollution truly was a problem at times. Even though it gradually got better during the two years I was there, we still had many days where it was too smoggy for us to go out. Me and my daughter are truly outdoorsy people, so being cooped up indoors was not fun. Beijing is also ridiculously dirty, which was hard for me to adjust to. The taxi situation as well is completely horrible and at times, it can take you 30-40 mins to hail a taxi and the driver may refuse, if he doesn’t want to drive the direction where you’re going. Despite these cons, there are many advantages to being in Beijing. In my opinion, the expat community here is pretty tight. I love the culture and attractions that the city and surrounding areas have to offer. Since Beijing is a major city, one has access to all of the Western cuisines and groceries (at a higher price). The transportation system is relatively easy to navigate and is inexpensive. The people are truly genuine once you get past the superficial level. Since we lived in a local area, my daughter picked up the language extremely quickly to the point that a lot of Beijingers thought that she was born in China. The accent is relatively easy to understand and there’s a lot of opportunities to practice speaking Mandarin.
In what ways, did you develop community?
A couple months before I moved, I joined a couple Wechat groups. From the groups, I started to cultivate those relationships in real life. I also went to a few networking groups , met people through sports, had my daughter join Girl Scouts, and sought out other moms and dads who had kids around the same age as my daughter. I made it a point to have a mix of local and expat friends.
What advice do you have for someone who is facing a move to China?
If you’re planning to move to China for work, make sure that your company provides you with the correct visa. My company did everything legally, but I’ve heard many horror stories of people being promised a work visa after they arrive only for them to work on a tourist visa. Many people do it anyway, but don’t. It’s not worth it if you get caught.
What is one must-have experience while in Beijing?
In my opinion, one thing that everyone should make time to do is to explore the Hutongs. They provide a glimpse of authentic Beijing culture. Hutongs are made up of old alleyways and courtyard homes. Some of the best restaurants and bars can be found in this area. Beijing has several dozen Hutongs, but my favorite one is the one near Lama Temple.