Coming Full Circle

Thursday, 4 June 2009

First published in November 2008.

Our first day - May 2005

Oh, dear sweet Beijing. We’ll soon be leaving you for, er, dust. It seems like we’ve been living in the capital forever yet the past four years have evaporated like jaozi steam.

Such a juxtaposition is part of the human condition, I suppose, but as they say––all good things must come to an end, and along with our family’s pack-up comes an indefinable desire to cleanse as well as hoard our China experience. Just as I toss out one more qipao, I balance one more Panjiayuan find onto our teetering to-go pile. It’s driving my husband bananas. In fact, I would also take bananas if I could––they’re very expensive in Australia, after all.

But seriously, it’s time to scale down.

Our first summer, Chaoyang Park - June 2005

Like most expat families who arrive in Beijing for the first time, we arrived here relatively uncluttered––literally and figuratively. Not so any more, oh no. It’s remarkable what’s been stuffed into every nook and cranny of our lives––not just into our cupboards but into our hearts and souls. Culling this stuffing is proving to be an interesting process that’s involved a lot of planning and calm manipulation, like prying open desperately clutching fingers. The problem with prying is that it could release flailing and an incapacity to cope with the enormous moving mountain before us.

That’s right. At the moment, our move seems monumentally overwhelming.

First days at school - Sept 2005

But it’s not only leaving Beijing that feels like scaling a mountain. Arriving is the same––that giddy combination of leaving your home, family and friends behind to start anew in a country with language and cultural barriers so firmly entrenched, you might as well be staring at the base of a Great Wall. Could this be a more stressful life event? And when combined with kids… let’s just say that heady feeling of oxygen deprivation is quite real.

First Christmas - 2005

Whether you’ve just arrived or are in countdown mode, moving logistics are pretty much the same, though I personally believe heading home is harder. Sure, when you first arrive in Beijing, it’s like wandering aimlessly in the dark tunnels beneath Tian’anmen Square. But it’s also exciting and challenging in a fantastical, impermanent way. Heading home is also challenging, but in a Hello Reality! way. And we all know how scary reality can be.

So how do expats deal with Home-Beijing-Home-Elsewhere in style? Having moved over 50 times through three countries in my life, I think I have a few pointers.

First Chinese New Year - January 2006

Like all good scouts, it’s important to plan well in advance––like, a year or more. In our family, we started planning our arrival twelve months out. Excessive, maybe, but boy did it lower the stress levels. For our departure, we started actually packing six months ago. We had some boxes delivered and packed things that can be stored until we’re well settled. If you do this, be sure to pack by room and season, and label the outside of boxes with every single item inside. Box-foraging is hellish.

Great Wall at Jinshanling - Oct 2006

Nothing beats a list for the organized mover, but make them in bite-size pieces so you don’t get overwhelmed by those exhausting mountains. Create them by theme––school, house, what to buy before we leave, et cetera, then get ticking!

While lists are important, it’s a time line that can really kick things into gear. Look ahead to your remaining months and slot things in. If you’re leaving BJ, plan what’s essential for you to do “one last time” because China is not only about amassing stone pagodas for your backyard––it’s also about the experiences and the people. Ink them in now and do them, so there’s no latent regrets. Slot in farewell get-togethers––for both adults and kids, too.

Halloween 2006

Hire someone! Or add a few extra hours to Ayi’s day and have her start wiping down the tchochkes and putting them into Ziploc bags to repel the dust. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “When people offer you help or advice (and they will)––take it!” says Taryn Ash, who arrived in Beijing early December from Singapore, and went out of her way to make the transition smooth. “And keep asking questions,” she adds, whilst admitting she’s a great advocate of Yahoo! Group Beijing Café––a goldmine for expat answers.

The Temple of Heaven - November 2006

If you’re newly arrived, networking is vital for settling in more easily. Go to everything, meet everyone you can, take up invitations, ask questions. A social buzz and valuable information all in one? Priceless.

Lara Steyn, who arrived from Zimbabwe this June, agrees. “Try and get involved as much as you can in the community; that way you meet people faster. You have to get out there and do it––people don’t come to you.” If you’re moving back home, ask friends and family for advice and help on schools, housing and transport. Get online to sort out utilities, postal address changes and work opportunities well in advance.

Winter 2006/2007
When you reach a destination, whether old or new, immerse yourself. Get stuck into local life and your family’s transition will be smoother.

“Learn the language, make local friends, get out of the expat circle,” says Isabelle Cyr, who arrived in Beijing this October and believes in making the most of her family’s posting. “You will start to understand better the way things work around you.” When heading home, a similar rule applies––take up all the things your family used to do; recommence sports, enroll in clubs, revisit old contacts and comforts, and you’ll be back into the swing of things in no time.

Halloween 2007

For new arrivals… bring nothing! You can get almost everything here and you’ll want to leave room to take stuff home. For departees––this is trickier. You need to cull, cull then cull some more, but the irony is, you also need to take everything. Just choose selectively.

Stocking up on ribbon, fabric, clothes and shoes in every size for your kids, for example, is a great idea. You’ll never get cheaper or such variety at home, and if you’re still umming and ahhing over that unique Chinese artwork, for goodness sake, just buy it. You might say you’ll come back to Beijing, but you probably won’t (life does get in the way sometimes).

Sound simple? We often take out stresses and strains on those closest to us. “Moving is already a tough decision that needs to be made as a family,” says Lara Steyn, “So once the decision is made, you can’t take it out on each other.”

School - June 2008

Moving is never easy, but with a little savvy and preparation, things should go smoothly for our family, and hopefully yours. I can’t believe this is zaijian from me and our heartbreakingly Sinophiliac family.

Our last two months is going to be like walking beneath an ocean (of our own tears!) but at least we’ll be sorted well in advance, and can spend our last weeks amongst the streaming ribbons in Ritan park, skating on Hou Hai lake and meandering through the hutongs, sighing amongst the dust and the jiaozi steam. Just one last time.

Ritan Park - Summer 2008

  • Yahoo! group Beijing Café is priceless for information from the experts themselves––other expats––on everything from travel to yoghurt. Membership by invitation only, so ask around to be invited.
  • Grocery resources in Beijing are looking good with plenty of stores serving up treats for homesickness. Try Carrefour, Olé, Walmart, Watsons Chemist and expat supermarkets Jenny Lou’s, the Friendship Store and April Gourmet. You can shop online at Carrefour.
  • Contact your Embassy––many offer information packs to resident or visiting nationals, as well as advice and support in an emergency.
  • Don’t underestimate the resources available at your child’s school or through Western clinics like International SOS and Bayley and Jackson.
  • City Weekend’s own website is jam-packed with helpful listings including shopping, schools, restaurants, entertainment, events and all things kid-related. Go to to get started.

Beijing Olympics - August 2008


  • Have items to donate? Contact your child’s school, your employer, your Embassy or building management for their recommended charity. Pooling items together with other leavers makes donating the goods easier.
  • If you want to sell goods, advertise in your building, on the notice boards at Jenny Lou’s or on BJ Café.
  • Make your last weeks easy as pie. Have your groceries home-delivered at and don’t forget the paper plates! For your last few days, order pizza, bagels and coffee at or full meals from
  • Ask your building about supplying linen and crockery to use during your last few weeks. The more you can pack and send off in advance, the better.
  • Get the kids involved––sorting through their own junk is a priceless education. Talk to them about donating to kids less fortunate.

First published, in part, in City Weekend Beijing magazine.

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