It’s not easy moving to a country with a culture vastly different to your own. In our series on Beijing's personalities and families, Time Out Family checks in on families who have just moved to Beijing, to see how they’re coming along.
Parents Joseph Bronfman & Paola Bronfman and their kids Sjöfn Besler 8, Semira Bronfman 4, Soleil Bronfman 11 months, & Bagheera 1.5 year-old cat from the Philippines & USA.
Where do you live?
We live in a duplex apartment located west of Chaoyang Park. It's centrally located; Line 10 and 14 are just ten minutes away on foot, supermarkets fifteen and key locations such as Solana, Sanlitun and the west and south gates of Chaoyang Park are less than thirty minutes away. I also found that there is a direct thirty-minute subway ride from Chaoyang Park Line 14 to the Beijing South Railway station. How convenient is that?
The community in our building is amazing and there’s a WeChat group for almost everything. At the time, we had only been living in our apartment building for less than four months so the WeChat group was crucial for crowd sourcing restaurant/shopping/service recommendations, getting a vetted list of babysitters (mostly multilingual teens in the building who want to earn extra cash), asking advice on dealing with common building concerns, and, sometimes, even borrowing that one crucial ingredient that you only realised you didn't have mid-way into baking/cooking!
We were coming from living in a house in the middle of a busy city in the Philippines so choosing to be downtown was crucial. However, we found that the majority of downtown housing were condominiums and were mostly too small for our family of five. They also normally came fully furnished which was a problem since we packed our whole three-story house in the Philippines and shipped it to Beijing. It took a while before we found a place that had a good balance of space, location, and city-vibe that we were looking for.
Is there anything you don’t like about your neighbourhood?
We live in a neighbourhood that caters mostly to expats, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we have easy access to many of the ‘foreigner-friendly’ services, stores, and whatnots. Even our receptionists all speak English. So that's quite helpful in many cases. But on the other hand, I find that the neighbourhood lacks the ‘local charm’ that I was hoping to get when we moved to Beijing. The convenience of living in a foreigner-friendly neighbourhood comes with a price too. Everything seems more expensive and ayis tend to charge higher compared to those who work in the suburbs.
What were your first impressions on arriving in Beijing?
We were surprised with how clean, safe, systematic, and advanced things were in Beijing! Those QR codes are insane! I can't believe that it hasn't been adapted on the same scale in other countries. One’s phone is enough to pay for anything and everything. From paying bills, riding public transportation, ordering food, and even giving money to a beggar: We once saw a woman begging who showed her QR code for people to scan and donate. These QR codes also helps us connect with people, find places, know more about something, and more! We even joked that with the amount of people having their photos taken with our kids that we should have our kids wear a QR payment code on their clothes. You want a picture? Scan the code! Haha!
Speaking of taking photos, it was entertaining how much locals love to weigh in on our kids! They'd insist on them wearing socks (especially for the baby, even in the middle of summer!), that they should stop whatever they're doing to take a photo with strangers and, again, that they're not dressed with enough layers to protect them from the cold. While unsolicited, we found that many of them just genuinely like the kids enough to share their advice. The waiters and managers at a couple of restaurants we've been to would even offer to hold the baby and entertain the kids while my husband and I ate. It was surprising since we've heard so many rumors of locals being indifferent to foreigners but our experiences these past seven months have actually been quite good.
Where do your children go to school and why did you send them there?
Sjöfn and Semira both go to Western Academy Beijing (WAB). We moved here end of March which was in the middle of the school year so we had to choose a school while we were still in the Philippines. We asked a friend who had just repatriated from Beijing and also the school principal at International School Manila (where Sjöfn was enrolled at) and both had amazing things to say about WAB. My eldest thrives really well in its student-centred environment especially since she's a very creative and free-spirited person. I like that the grade school students in WAB aren't pressured to focus on just their academics and that they foster a school environment that promotes an intrinsic drive to learn - one that is not 'forced' on the kids, which is very descriptive of the kind of learning environment my generation grew up in.
Also, Semira has asthma so it was a big plus to know that the AQI inside WAB is always kept at 1! Quite impressive to have an air cleaning system similar to those they use in hospitals!
What issues did you face as a family moving over to Beijing?
Unlike many foreigners I've met who were mostly from Europe and America, our family was coming from a country that was used to having household staff. In the Philippines, everyone had at least one ayi. Although my husband's American, he too, is used to raising his own family with the the ‘luxury’ of having the support of a dedicated nanny and highly efficient housekeeper. So coming to Beijing on our own was quite an adjustment. Suddenly, laundry was piling up like crazy, sinks were full of dishes, the kids come out of the house slightly unkempt, schedules were going haywire because of the need to run household errands while attending to both the kids and the mess at home... it was nuts.
Then when the time came to hire an ayi, I found that I wasn't getting the outcome I was used to and that the prices were significantly higher here in Beijing. Some people, including myself, would probably say 'choose your battles. A clean house isn't everything.’ But for me, having a well-run household gave our family a sense of normalcy. It was the one thing that I could delegate. I also just wanted to focus my energy on other things I found most important: to be fully present for my kids and to be able to address their emotional needs that were constantly changing as they realise that the Philippines is no longer their physical home, that their ayis in the Philippines –who are like family to us – could no longer be with us, and that some of their loved ones will inevitably be far away. Let me tell you, it was extremely exhausting to focus on everything and everyone else and yet not be able to care for one's own personal needs. There was so much room for frustration, desperation, and depression in people who feel that nothing is working right in their life. I thought that if only one simple part could work relatively well – in this case, the cleanliness and orderliness of the house we come home to – then maybe things will be better.
And how did you resolve them?
It's a work in progress, but definitely better than it was four months ago. Part of the problem with hiring efficient helpers, who could help us stay sane, was our limited knowledge of Mandarin. We were initially limited to finding English-speaking helpers. I've had three ayis I've hired because of their English ability thinking that doing so would make things easier. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case at all, and so I took the courage to hire a local ayi who has the skill and will to do her job and to be able to communicate with her in her language. So, my husband and I are taking private Chinese classes three times a week to get a better command of Mandarin. We're lucky that we get to practice with our ever so patient ayi and that she teaches our kids along the way. Somehow, learning the language has opened doors and has given everyone a better sense of emotional security. Also, it may seem counter-intuitive to try to explain a need in Mandarin but I found that a lot of people in the service industry are more patient and helpful when I try to say it in their language.
What advice do you have for newbies who just moved into the area?
You'll get spoiled in this neighbourhood! You won't feel the urgency in learning Chinese... but you should! You'll quickly see how many more favors you can get, how much cheaper you can buy things, how nicer people will treat you... when you try to speak to them in their own language. Even a simple 'nihao!' will go a long way!
Also, when looking for a place, ask the agent if the building has a WeChat group where tenants and homeowners can help each other. I found all sorts of wonderful places and services through my building's WeChat group! Weekly Pilates and yoga classes held at one of the units, contact details of managers of nearby supermarkets/stores, neighbourhood repair shops for bikes, knives, shoes, etc., trusted home services, group discounts for home needs, and many more!
Also, there's a farmer's market (with really low farmer's market prices!) every Thursday and Sunday until 1pm by the east gate of a compound near us called Boya Garden. It's so nice to have quick access to fresh fruit and veggies twice a week! For everything else, there are delivery apps that can deliver anything to your doorstep within thirty minutes or simply take a stroll to the nearest international and/or local supermarkets which are less than fifteen minutes away!
- Chaoyang Park is a must! Visit it every week and challenge yourselves to do something new every time！
- Babies and toddlers will love Safari Time Songs at The Bookworm, Sanlitun! Held every Friday & Saturday at 930am (toddlers) and 1030am (up to 18 months).
- There's also the Mommy & Baby classes by Sabina Kirchherr at the Adler Kliniken, Sanlitun every Tuesday 10am.
- Bottega at Nali Patio is our family's absolute fave! The staff are very friendly to our kids and they have special plates and cutlery for kids, too! Their pizzas are loved by everyone in the family.
- Vintage by Element Fresh in Taikoo Li South (Sanlitun) has a dedicated extensive menu for kids and they give kids crayons and paper to keep them busy!
- Tribe at Solana has a kids menu and a small play area inside the restaurant.
- Cravings is located south of Chaoyang Park and is a short twenty-minute walk from our place. It has a play area where kids can get busy while Mom and Dad eat!
Kids' play areas
- Taikoo Li South has water fountains right across the Make Up Forever store that are so much fun! Forgot to bring extra clothes for the kids? H&M kids is a short walk away!
- Chaoyang Park has a multitude of areas for play for kids of all ages! Enter from the South Gate and go straight and you'll find all the rides, play structures, carnival games, and more. Then turn left and walk towards the lake and you'll see a mini petting zoo. For the more adventurous kids, there is a wall climbing and zip line area to try! In the same area, you can rent a boat or grab a snack from the local food stalls! Keep exploring and I'm sure you'll find the water park, the picnic grounds (you can rent a tent from one of the stores!), and so much more!
- Solana has so much to offer! A definite go-to place for families with kids. There are various play centres, activity stores, kid-friendly restaurants, a cinema, a skating rink, a virtual reality game place, an arcade, and so much open space!