Friday, June 7, 2013

Not Four But Seven Seasons

I may have already alluded to the fact that Beijing doesn't have four regular seasons. Spring barely seems to happen at all here. From a deep cold winter, we plunge straight into a hot summer. One day you are wearing heavy Ugg boots to keep your feet warm; two weeks later you are in flip flops.

What’s more, a year in the international expat community where we live is not really a year. It’s just ten months at most, basically as long as school is in session. Simon and Thomas’ school is closing next week so people are already packing their suitcases to go “back home” or on a long vacation (and then “go home.”) And some of the families won’t even come back at the end of the summer. They might be moving on to a new country, continent, and school.

I love my life in Beijing, but this summer-going-home-saying-goodbye ritual is both fun (lots of parties) but also quite disturbing (does anyone actually live in this place?). Here’s my perspective on the (somewhat overlapping) seven seasons in a year in this odd but lovely place I now call home…

Leaver’s Season—Time to say Goodbye
Mid-May to mid-June
To start out, right now we are in the middle of "leaver's season." As the summer rains are starting to pick up, everyone is preparing to leave Beijing—either just for the summer or forever. From the end of May to early June you may typically spend your Friday and Saturday evenings at “goodbye parties,” sometimes even two on one night. And if you are not busy being at a party, you are probably out shopping for a gift for a dear friend who is leaving, or you might be preparing for the end-of-year parties for your kid's class room. (Presuming of course you don’t actually have a real job!) It’s a time of memories, parties, and sad goodbyes to the friends that are leaving forever.

Simon's end-of-year party for his fourth grade class (left). 
Thomas enjoys his end-of-year celebration (right).

Early Summer Calm
Mid-June to early or mid-July
In early summer, you forget Beijing is pretty much a desert. Instead of walking around with cracked skin, you now actively worry about the mold taking over your house. If you didn't leave the very second the school doors closed, this is your time to relax and profess that Beijing really is your home (“See! I didn’t catch the first plane out!”). It’s rainy, but the community pool is open and summer camps are in session.

Deep Summer "Desperation"
Mid-July to early August
From mid-July to early August, it seems only the poor souls who have no other choice remain in the neighborhood. Either they have to work (someone has to pay the bills) or it is winter in their country of origin (think Australia, Argentina). If you choose to stay, you dwell in a community of mostly men. But some families stay put and the few kids and women will often head to the pool to make the most of this time of year.

Simon receives a medal for participating in school sports activities. Just one of many celebrations at the end of the academic year. On the right is a piece of fourth grade art by the master himself.

New Arrivals
From the beginning of August onward, families are starting to return to Beijing and new families are arriving in time for the new school year. Imagine that a third of your neighborhood is new. New people are everywhere and soon you can’t remember if you already asked them where they are from. Or how many children they have. How long they plan to stay. And where there husband works. It’s a happy social time and great opportunities for new friends await. You still miss your dear friends who left before the summer (in fact, you miss them for the first time now, since in the summer they would have been gone anyway), but a new year has begun and it’s time to reach out...

Simon shows off his art work titled, "Femur" (as in "femur bone"). 

First Half Year
Mid-August through mid-December
Finally, in mid-August the first real half-year of school and life in (expat) Beijing takes off. School is in session and life is returning to normal. This “half year” is really only four months. And if that's too long, you just take a little break around the October 1 National Holiday. It’s a time though of hope and promises. There are new friends, new teachers, and new activities. Sports clubs are in session and the weekends are packed with swimming, soccer, and social happenings.

Balloons at Thomas' end-of-year class party.

Winter Vacation Season
Mid-December to mid-February
As you are just getting the hang of it all (school schedules, activities, work), everything comes to a grinding halt around mid-December. This mid-year vacation season begins with a three-week winter or Christmas holiday, followed by a few weeks of school, then completed with another week of vacation for Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is not always on the same date every year, but typically falls somewhere between mid-January and mid-February. If you think you just got started after Christmas, Chinese New Year will remind you of the fact that you are really in China, as pretty much everyone in the country will travel home for ten days or more.  

Second Half Year--“Are You Still Going To Be Here Next Year?”
Mid-February to mid-June
Mid-February is a good time to pick up the pace again. But all of the sudden you realize it’s just another four months till the end of the school year. Cruise control time is over and you need to start thinking about next year. The most often asked question at this time of year also is: “Are you guys still here next year?”

And that question actually takes you right back into "Leaver's Season"... A year has whisked by. People will be leaving and new friends are bound to arrive. If you are coming to Beijing you can leave your Spring clothes behind. But if you move into an expat community, just be prepared for these other kinds of seasons.

More fourth grade bone art.