What it takes to be a real Beijing expat – according to the old hands themselves

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-2 19:23:01

Jacopo Ragione, an Italian expat who has lived in Beijing for 15 years, recommends living in Beijing's older, hutong-filled neighborhoods, which he says is a good way to learn about local life. Photo: Li Hao/GT

After six months in Beijing, 21-year-old Ronja Östlund who comes from Sweden, thought she was well on her way to becoming an expert on the city. A few weeks ago, though, something happened that made her realize she was still a newbie: She got tricked by a cab driver.

"I had just arrived at my destination, and I gave him a new 100 yuan note, but he handed it back, saying he didn't have enough change," Östlund remembers, so she paid him in smaller bills and got out of the cab. It was only later that she discovered the driver had switched out the 100 yuan she gave him for a fake note.

"It was a hard lesson, but I feel like I am a step closer to being a real expat in Beijing," says Östlund, who moved here from Sweden to work as a photographer.

In Beijing - a city with a thriving foreigner community that a 2010 Xinhua report estimated at more than 170,000 - there's pride to qualifying as a "real expat." Technically speaking, of course, anyone with a foreign passport who's settled down in China could be considered an expat, but earning your stripes is a different matter. It's about learning the language, the culture, the city, the people - it's about finding a way to make a place that is completely foreign your new home.

How to tell you are a real Beijing expat

When Östlund first came to Beijing, she found herself in major culture shock.

"Everything was the opposite of the way it is in Sweden. The first few weeks I was trying to fit in, but I didn't succeed." 

After awhile, though, things started falling into place; she stopped comparing China with Sweden and began accepting Beijing on its own terms. She also started living like a local, eating with chopsticks, drinking hot water and reading Chinese newspapers.

Before, she used to complain that people here never look at one another on the street or the subway, instead keeping their noses buried in their phones. But after six months, she's changed her tune. "I've become one of them," she laughs. "In the beginning, I told myself to never end up like these 'poor Chinese people' who don't have a life without their phones. Look at me now - everything I do is on WeChat." 

Likewise, 30-year-old Peter Behr, an American who's lived in Beijing for more than three years, has begun adopting the habits of locals, and hasn't looked back since.

"When you turn down an invitation to go to Sanlitun because you realize that you don't care about all the foreign commercialized stuff, when the person at the breakfast food stand by your office recognizes you and you don't have to tell them what you want in your jianbing (Chinese crepes with egg, soy sauce and a rice cracker wrapped inside), that's when you know you are a true Beijing expat," he says.

For longer-term expats, like 39-year-old Jacopo Ragione, an Italian who has lived in Beijing for 15 years, the relationship with Beijing can be even deeper. He says the longer he stays in Beijing, the more it becomes a part of him. "It is like being with an old friend," says Ragione, the managing director of a culture and media company. "There is a part of me in this city and there is a part of the city in me."

It's hard to say when Ragione first felt he really belonged - it may have been when he first gained an understanding of baijiu (Chinese white liquor) culture after countless nights of getting drunk, or when he learned how to make jokes in Chinese that made people laugh, or when he came to understand the cultural nuances of communication.

Or it may be when he took a business trip to Shanghai, and the waiter in a coffee shop joked that he had a Beijing accent. "I spoke one sentence in Chinese, and I got identified as somebody from Beijing," marvels Ragione. "It was not just me feeling I am living in the city, it was actually other Chinese people recognizing that you are not just a foreigner, you are a foreigner from Beijing."

Vladimir Paunovic enjoys a Chinese dinner at a Shaxian Xiaochi restaurant near his home around Dengshikou Subway Station. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Finding a sense of belonging

Coming to understand both Beijing and Chinese culture not only makes life easier, but can help expats feel a greater sense of belonging in their new home.

For 25-year-old Vladimir Paunovic, a Serbian musician who's lived in Beijing for eight months, the changes have come gradually, but each day he says he feels a little more Chinese. "It is weird, but you can't resist it," he says.

He says he's found himself spitting on the street, replacing his usual answer of "Mmhm" with the Chinese "Mmm!" and once even relieved himself on the street in Sanlitun. Best of all, he's found a local eatery that he loves - a Shaxian Xiaochi restaurant (a national chain restaurant originally from Fujian Province) around the corner from his hutong home near Dengshikou Subway Station. "It's the best food I've discovered in Beijing, which gives me a homey feeling," he said.

Other expats, like 55-year-old Pierre Mirochnikoff, who's lived in Beijing since 2009, embrace the strangeness of living in a foreign country, and the invigorating lessons it can bring.

"Every day you learn from the Chinese, which is why living here is so complex and fascinating for me," said Mirochnikoff, who originally hails from France. "I really enjoy Beijing life. Beijing is a very easy city to live in."

Over the past six years, Mirochnikoff has become accustomed to exploring "hidden places" like the local fish market near the East Fourth Ring Road, where he sometimes has an early dinner of fresh lobster; or going to his favorite stall in the Silk Street, and being greeted by name.

Mirochnikoff's efforts have paid off, allowing him to find a number of Chinese xiongdijiemei (brothers and sisters) who he initially met because they were eager to communicate with a foreigner.

"When I arrived from the West, I came full of cliches and misconceptions of China. Information from the media is never perfect, and gives you only one point of view. But when I first arrived here, I realized that it was not like what I had read about in the West," he said. "When you start to understand China and Chinese, living here ends up being a really fascinating challenge."

The growing ease of integration

Expats interviewed by the Metropolitan thought that it has become easier for expats to assimilate to local culture over the past few years, but said there still remain some difficulties.

"Life in Beijing is much easier now," said Ragione. "Over the past few years, Beijing has been becoming more accepting. Life for us is easier from small issues to big ones. There is more traffic, yes, but just think - a few years ago, there were only two subway lines."

Shannon Fagan, a 40-year-old American who has lived in Beijing for five years, said that new technologies have gone a long way in easing the path for non-Chinese-speaking foreigners.

"With the advent of smart phone apps that allow for texting and translation, things have become a lot easier," he says. "While these apps don't take the place of learning the language, they do assist with things like booking cars and using maps."

However, Ragione counters that technologies like these could hinder expats' ability to integrate in the long term. "In the past, we could not choose not to learn the language, because it was more necessary for survival," he says. "But now because everything is easy, it is easier to be more superficial. So it takes more willpower to actually go in-depth and really see what is going on in the city."

Another hurdle is visas, which are not always easy to get. "There is a psychological situation with visas that can often make expats feel not welcome in Chinese society," Fagan says. "The more difficult the process, the less likely people are to feel that they belong."

Mirochnikoff agreed, saying that obtaining a working visa as a freelancer or consultant - even if your family is Chinese - is becoming harder.

The best thing, Fagan says, that expats can do in order to assimilate is learn Chinese. "It allowed me to realize that I was not being taken advantage of as often as is assumed or rumored in the expat community," he said. "Once I became able to carry on simple conversations in Chinese with locals, it was a transformation of being able to identify more easily with them."

Learning Chinese, he added, has allowed him to have a more nuanced understanding of China, and to enjoy his life more here.

"You could not learn Chinese and not know any Chinese people or anything about Chinese culture and still have a good life here," Behr agrees, "but you will lose a lot by not becoming a real, integrated expat in the city."

Newspaper headline: One of us

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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