When Christine Surlien moved to China to study in 1995 at the age of 19, her fate was sealed. Since then she has lived, studied, worked and travelled extensively in the region. In 2008 her husband was stationed in Beijing for the Norwegian Embassy, so they packed their two children (then aged 1 and 4) and started their new life there. After three quick years in China they moved to the US and now live in Washington DC where Christine is busy helping people plan and prepare for their China journey with www.ChinaScratched.com

What was the most difficult thing about living in Beijing?

The poor air quality and the traffic. You can’t not breathe, so when you have many days with lots of smog you feel dirty inside and out. On the other side, if you think too much about it, you go crazy, so finding the balance between ignoring it and taking proper action is important.
Also, the traffic is a constant source of irritation and despair. Rush hour seems to last all day and fellow drivers’ creative driving style is a challenge. Finding a home close to office and/or school is a good idea!

Unfortunately China also has a lot of food issues, so wondering if the food you buy is safe or not adds to the daily difficulties.

Which areas in Beijing would be suitable for family to live in?

Chaoyang district and Shunyi. In Chaoyang you have many good apartment buildings with nice amenities and they are close to fun dining and shopping areas, while Shunyi has more villas and is basically constructed for expats. The biggest international schools are located here. And where there are expats you also get a big collection of shops and restaurants catering to their different needs.

How much of a challenge is the language barrier in daily life?

It depends where you live. If you live in a more Chinese neighbourhood and have to pay your bills directly to the provider, local offices or in the bank/post office the language barrier can be a problem. Also, knowing a little taxi and restaurant Chinese is a good idea, just to make sure you get where and what you want without too much hassle. In the areas with many foreigners shops and restaurants have staff that speak good English.

Were there any customs that surprised you?

I have lived in Beijing and travelled around China since 1995, so I felt pretty prepared for our family life there, but a few things are still annoying. Cars not stopping for pedestrians, people not queuing and the level of noise they find acceptable. Also, Beijing seems like such a modern city, but there is a lot of old fashion ways of doing things, like paying bills in cash. You can spend days just going to different offices to open accounts, pay bills, get approvals and so on.

What are some of the things a family can do at night?

Apart from the obvious and slightly touristy performances of Peking opera, acrobatics and kungfu, there are international movie theatres, fun restaurants, sport games and a steady stream of Chinese and international performers (opera, theatre, music) on a number of stages all around town.

How are the schools in Beijing different to those in Norway or the US?

Most expats chose international schools for their kids, and there is a good choice of schools for different countries, languages, curriculums and teaching styles. The biggest difference is the amount of Chinese they teach. We chose a bilingual (Montessory) school (half day English / Chinese), since we wanted the kids to learn Chinese fluently. Due to the air quality outdoor recess and PE is limited in periods. Some schools have built big sports halls to deal with this.

What are your top tips for anyone moving to Beijing?

Get the best air purifier, one for every room.

Get to know other expats and ask lots of questions, no need to learn everything the hard way.

Study Chinese, it really isn’t that hard and it makes everything so much easier and fun. If you join a class you will make new friends also.

Get some Chinese friends. Best and most fun way to learn the local culture, and very useful when you need to fix something with the landlord or bank, or to help you bargain when shopping at the local markets.

Learn something typically Chinese, like taijiquan, kungfu, caligraphy, cooking, a handcraft and so on. You get to know the culture a lot better and always have something to talk about when meeting new people.

Travel around China. Beijing is not really China, there are so many different things to see and explore.