Tuesday, March 30, 2010

China, here we come... some day

Regularly now people ask me if I am getting ready for our move. Well, I guess we are, but right now it feels like we are taking baby steps towards our big hop across the ocean. There is plenty to be done though, so to give you an idea, here is a list of our ongoing preparations (or at least the stuff I think about, whether I act on it or not!):

  • House: We will rent out our house, so I've been meeting with our real-estate agent and friend to see what the options are and what a management agency would do for us.
  • Chinese classes: Paul and I are taking lessons in Mandarin. Three to four times a week we sit down with our private teachers (we have different ones on different days) to practice conversations, read and pronounce Pinyin (Chinese written up in roman letters rather than foreigners), and read and write some basic Chinese characters. I love it - I've always loved learning languages and there is nothing like learning a language when you know you actually will be needing it.
  • Work: I am still working my regular job and will do so for another couple of weeks. More than anything, this is what keeps me from thinking too much about our upcoming move. I think that once I leave my job in mid-May, reality will quickly settle in. Paul has already started working for the Beijing office on March 1 and as we speak (or type) is already in China for an office retreat.
  • Schools and home: So we found a school, as I reported recently. We also finally decided that we are going to give up on the idea of living in the city, and we will temporarily "retire" to the suburbs (or "LaLaLand", as my friend Lisa calls it). It will be close to Simon and Thomas' school and I am sure we'll all be making lots of friends in that area. Paul has been looking at some more houses this week, and we may find one soon that will become our new residence!
  • Contacts: Many people have put me in touch with their friends, former neighbors, or family members in Beijing, so occasionally I need to really manage my Gmail to stay on top of all the Beijing correspondence. I have totally run out of questions to ask, though I am sure that means nothing for the amount of surprises we'll run into once there.
  • Shipping and cleaning-up: One thing I am looking forward to is selecting the few items I would like to take to Beijing, and finding meaningful places to go for all the other stuff in our house. After 10 years in the U.S. and about 8 in DC, we've collected quite a melting pot of items. I plan to give the kids' clothes to some friends, have a big yard sale sometime in the end of May, and then bring all the rest of the unwanted items to the Salvation Army. The rest, we'll have the movers pack up and ship to China.
  • Buying: Just before we leave, we'll also have to buy some items that are a little harder to get in China. People have recommended bringing items like flashlights and batteries (not readily available), tampons (too expensive), and shampoo (local brands to harsh). I don't know what my China adventure is going to look like, but at least I can wash my hair in the dark. I am leaving the chopsticks at home.
  • Visas and tickets: The World Bank will pay for our flight to China, so we'll just need to buy our tickets once we know when we go. Our current plan is actually that I would go to the Netherlands first, with the boys, and then go to Beijing a little bit later in the summer, a few weeks before school starts. A nice summer in Holland is not a bad idea. Once in China, we'll have to convert our entry visas into a more permanent visum for living there.
  • Work in Beijing: I haven't given this too much thought yet, but I do have some ideas for what I want to be doing in Beijing. My ideal job would involve working with technical experts or other professionals in Beijing, in organizations and at Universities, to help them strengthen their English writing. That way, I get to do what I love (work with text and people) and learn a lot about Chinese culture and arts and sciences. Yep, that would be cool. In terms of things to do though, I'll need to update my resume and start reaching out to some contacts in Beijing.

Well, I think this might be enough for a list of things on my mind. I hope your list is a tad shorter!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google Shifting China Search Engine to Hong Kong

The news of the day is of course that Google closed its Internet search services in China. It made me wonder if this blog can continue to live on this Google Blogger service, but I suppose that's a small issue compared to the fact that millions of students and professionals in China are about to lose access to Google search. (Google continues to offer its search services to China from a search engine in Hong Kong, but it's likely the Chinese Government will soon block those uncensored search results).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hukou system

One of the first things that I learned about China (from the pile of new books on my nightstand) was that the Chinese can be illegal migrants within their own country. Today I came across this article on CNN, China's Migrant Restrictions Stirs Outcry, that provides some background information on this topic. What happens is that the Chinese hukou system, a household registration system, basically limits where people can live. If you move away from where you are registered, you either need to have been granted a new hukou (which is rare), or you accept that you will live illegally at your new home, without rights to education and health care. (Imagine having your hukou based in Helden-Panningen in the South of the Netherlands, and not being able to live in such fancy places as Wageningen, Rotterdam, Oxford, Cincinnati, or Washington D.C. :-) )

In a book by Peter Hessler (a great read by the way: Oracle Bones) I actually read that in their new place of residency -- usually a city because of the jobs -- those illegal migrants will then just set up their own schools without government support. Showing, I guess, that it still pays off to leave the country-side and make a new life for yourself in a place where you might actually find work.

Just googling for Peter Hessler brought some interesting results. He is an American writer who has been living in China for many years. This blogpost about him, How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life, a Thomas Talhelm writes a good piece about how Peter Hessler kind of spoiled if for him by writing so well and introducing so many people to daily life in China. In fact, I have to admit that reading Hessler's book does kind of make me both excited and depressed about our move to China. His descriptions are amazing, but at the same time make me realize I'll likely not have that kind of ear-close-to-the-ground kind of experience. Living in an expat villa compound in the suburbs probably is not going to bring that kind of insight into Chinese culture. However, I assume it will bring me GREAT insight into expat life in China!

An early Sunday morning at the Beijing Railway Station - February 2010Coming back to the migrants though, Paul and I did catch a small glimpse of migrant life on our first visit to Beijing. On our last Sunday, hours before flying to Chicago, we decided to check out a trainstation close to our hotel. Only when we arrived at station, however, did we realize that we had actually decided to visit a train station on the last weekend before the Chinese New Year would start, a time that everyone, alles en iedereen), would be trying to catch a plane or bus to go home. From what I understand, their New Year is like our Christmas or the American Thanksgiving: THE time to go home and be with your family. The picture on the right shows just a "few" people in front of the station that morning....

Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning Chinese: Duibuqi, wo lai wan le!

When I tell people that we're leaving for China, I often get two questions. The first -- which really amuses me -- is: "Is that a good thing?". So while I think this three-year long stay in China is just an awesome adventure, I suppose not everyone thinks that way. :-). The other frequently asked question is: "Will you learn Chinese"? To which I reply a heartily: "Yes", followed by a muttered "I'll try." Probably saying it here in this blog post will come to haunt me eventually, but I'll sure give it a good try to learn the language. It's kind of essential of course, as well as polite towards my new host country and a requirement should I ever return to the Netherlands and want to vote for Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom. (If the Chinese were as strict as Geert Wilders, many expats would probably have to leave the country today.)

So... that's along introduction to saying that today I had my first Chinese class. Of course I'd been learning some on my own with a book about characters and a DVD with exercises, but this was the first lesson with a real Chinese teacher. (Once I figure out how to write her name, I'll let you know!)

The first sentence I had to learn was: Duibuqi, wo lai wan le, or Sorry, I am late. Why was I late? Well, "all" I had to do was bring Thomas to his daycare and then go straight to Paul's office. But Paul had moved offices, so when I finally made it to his building (or what used to be his building) he was no longer there! It didn't help that I had left my cell phone at home that day, so after much ado (involving the World Bank staff calling Paul on a phone in an empty office, me illegally taking my fold-up bike through security, then having to park it downstairs, then having to take it out again to bike over to another building) I arrived just a tiny bit late.

Just in time though to learn about 1, 2, 3, or Yi, Er, San. Oh help, Paul and I feel like little children again. Just saying 620 (liu bai er shi) hurts your brain, and after an hour of yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi, ling, my tongue was twisted into a knot. Next time when I order Chinese and I have to repeat my order, I'll think I might be a tad more sympathetic.

Friday, March 5, 2010

One More Point on the Map

Today we learned that Simon and Thomas will be going to the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). It's a great school -- or so they say -- a little bit outside Beijing on the East side of town. So... that's one more point on the map. Now we know where Paul's work will be (World Bank Office at the China World Trade Center) and where school is. Next up: Where will we live?

Funnily enough we already applied for WAB before we visited Beijing. Encouraged by our friends and contacts there and in DC who all were very enthusiastic about the school, we simply submitted a pile of application forms and letters of recommendation by Simon's and Thomas' teachers, and then just hoped for the best. That was back in January already. When we visited Beijing last month, we got to see the school in person, and it really is a wonderful school. The parents love the curriculum and the green campus, and the kids love the pool, soccer field and indoor gym. We also saw a few other schools in Beijing we really liked, but when WAB came back and actually offered the boys a spot, we just didn't think about it anymore and accepted them. Hurrah, one decision made! (218 to go.)