A Toddler’s Survival Guide to Beijing

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Tips for the newly arrived under-twos

It’s moving day and your family must leave for China by 10am.

Sleep in for the first time in your life. Be grumpy and incoherent to any request or instruction. Be completely noncompliant during passport photo examination at customs, then charm the pants of the flight attendants who can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be the perfect passenger. Rewire your blood to react adversely to any medication or sedative, and instead go completely bananas and run amok for nine hours. Do not ingest anything except plastic marker lids, candy and apple juice.

When your mother takes you into the toilet to give the other passenger’s five minutes peace, scream like a banshee and unravel every toilet roll in fury. Refuse to go to the toilet. Wet through every diaper onboard. During the course of your twelve-hour flight, fall asleep for a grand total of twenty minutes, and when you’ve only got underpants on. This will wet through your clothes and the fabric seat so it stinks to high heaven.

When you get off the plane, vomit in the nice new car on the way to your new home. And don’t forget to get some on your mother’s shoes.

On the first morning of your new life in Beijing, wake at the crack of dawn despite the fact that you’ve only had four hours sleep. Stand on the windowsill of the 20th floor of a precariously-built-Chinese-building and slam your fists repeatedly into the plane of glass, oblivious to the drop below.

Shove your hands in your mouth.

Exploring Your New Town

On your first outing, insist your parents take you straight to Provincial Mecca – Tian’anmen Square. Be the only child in China using a stroller. Also be the only child in China who is blonde with green eyes. Act exceedingly adorable and wide-eyed-cute in your stroller, then watch in sheer terror as fifteen thousand provincial Chinese, arms extended in pure adoration, tear over to rub their hands on your face and take photos with their frozen-in-time instamatics.

Remember that banshee? Scream like its older, more experienced cousin.

Watch in wonder and amazement as the Chinese think this is even more cute and rapidly use up the rest of their film. Be rescued by parents, who push that stroller across Tian’anmen Square like a formula one race car, your provincial friends trailing not far behind, their red flags flying, their faces plastered with grins the size of – well… Tian’anmen Square.

Shove your hands in your mouth.

Spend a week at Bailey and Jackson or SOS. Or both. When you get out, shove your hands in your mouth.

Eating Out

Remember that restaurant etiquette in China is a breeze unless you drop your chopsticks or stick them upright into a bowl of rice. Otherwise, you truly have carte blanche. So exciting. The Chinese adore you and you can get away with anything, despite your parents’ hefty evil eye. Make the most of it. Run, jump, climb, skid, shout, giggle, refuse any intervention then use adorable gooey eyes on the waiters. Utilise these people every moment you can. Ride in their arms, play hide and seek, use them as a swing, a carrier, a vehicle, a horsie.

When you eat at Chinese restaurants, insist that fried rice and egg pancakes are the only thing you could possibly ingest, despite the impressive and delicious array of food available. Spread the rice from here to kingdom-come, and don’t forget to mash some into your hair, as it sets like glue and will drive mom crazy at bath-time. Drop your chopsticks on the floor and rush to pick them up (before they can be replaced), then shove them in your mouth. Shove anything except food in your mouth, particularly if it has been on the floor. Chew on the chair back and shred the paper napkin.

When it’s time to leave the restaurant, go kicking and screaming but know you’ll always be welcomed back. Mei wenti.


Trail around the apartment, hammering on the windows and pulling at the front door like it’s a prison and you’re doing Life. Beg to go outside only on days that are particularly freezing, chronically polluted or like the inside of an oven. Also beg to go to the beach. A lot.

When your mom agrees to take you to the indoor playground downstairs, tear around for hours non-stop and refuse to leave. After the sixth or seventh visit to this playground, grow suddenly and immensely bored with it and never want to go again.

Make best friends with all the children who go away for twelve weeks over summer. Fight unashamedly with the children who are always around and available to play.

Refuse to play with any toy that is ridiculously expensive or was really hard to acquire. Encourage your mom to actively convert the entire house into a toyshop then turn your nose up at everything fifteen minutes later. Whine uncontrollably until mom spends half an hour, a burnt thumb and ruined pot making playdough, attempting to regain some semblance of home-country-related normalcy. Squeal with delight when the blue food colouring has finally been kneaded through, then roll it, cut it and mould it for 28.7 seconds before leaving it to dry into a cement cowpat, never to be used again.

Oh – and shove some in your mouth.


Why get mom and dad to invest nine month’s pay on a one-hour-a-day expat-driven day care facility, when you can have your very own personal aide? Enter Ayi – and enter the entourage-saturated world of the toddler laowai mega star.

The gods are smiling on you, little one. Who is she – this dark haired angel on Earth who will acquiesce to your every mortal and spiritual demand before the need has even arisen? Part psychic, part adoring fawner – this woman has been sent from above to provide all that your parents will not. Yes, even in that most elusive pink fit during a blue moon.

Of course, you are naturally oblivious to the tension and frustration this total compliance causes your mom, but what does it matter? At least two of you in this parental love-triangle are happy. You have the need for adoration and Ayi has the need to give it – a pure and harmonious union that has Dragon Woman Mom agonising over the small stuff – hoping, in her heart of hearts, this will not turn you into a discipline-deprived despot before the posting is out.

Just remind her the old Chinese adage… the more difficult the boy, the better the man.

We can live in hope.

First published on the City Weekend Beijing website.

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