As a Taiwanxifu, a ‘daughter in law’ of Taiwan, I have spent over a decade and a half learning about Taiwanese (and Chinese) culture. I love Taiwan, its convenience, amazing food, quirky finds in back alleys, mix of modern architecture and shopping malls with traditional temples and shrines and processions. But inevitably like many people with a China background I will one day be drawn to China, probably to Beijing, on a work assignment, with the whole family tagging along. And so it was with great personal interest that I read Tania McCartney’s book, Beijing Tai Tai (i.e. Beijing wife, in the sense of being a madam of social standing with time on her hands).
Living in Taipei, I meet many families who leave hubbie (rarely the wife) working in China, while choosing to keep their kiddies securely in Taiwan. Taiwan is becoming an increasingly livable place, and urban planning has led to much more greenery and public convenience (especially in Taipei) than there was even a decade ago. There is a certain smugness I detect in Taiwan: we are more livable, we have better food, we are less polluted, and we would never inflict China on our kids, unless we had a choice.
Then recently, I heard of a friend who accompanied her husband on posting to Beijing, only to bring her children back to Australia mid-way through the posting. She spoke in horror of exploding watermelons (apparently stuffed chokka with chemicals), inhospitable levels of pollution, and the difficulties her children experienced in adjusting to the crowded environment.
Is living in Beijing that bad?
Tania was a trailing spouse in Beijing for four years, departing not long after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She relates that she was initially ‘shocked’ at learning of her husband’s posting to Beijing, and scared about how she would cope with raising her two children under five in an unfamiliar environment, especially one as polluted and crowded as China.
She is honest about the difficulties of life in Beijing: the relentlessly hot and suffocating summers, the constant haze of pollution, traffic jams, random strangers touching her children’s blonde hair, the constant pile-up of Beijing dust on furniture, appliances breaking down at home, unpalatable dishes made with strange animal body parts, serious illnesses, missing her family and friends, foraging for familiar foods, and the trauma of a visit to the hairdresser that went seriously wrong.
I sympathized with her difficulties in getting along with her ayi (housekeeper). It sounds impossibly decadent to have a full-time helper, yet as I know from first-hand experience when we had a carer in our home after childbirth that the reality of having a stranger in your home, in your kitchen, in your space, in your life, presents challenges.
But this book is not a whinge fest. Far from it, it is a celebration of adapting to life in a new city, a big and ancient city, with all of its tribulations and (eventually) successes. Actually, Tania’s account of life in Beijing is hilariously funny. You can almost see the colour of the Liangma flower markets, the joy of finding many bargains at the Ya Show markets, the pilgrimages to uncover the muxiyuan fabric market, and delight in celebrating annual events such as Christmas and Halloween with pomp. Tania has also authored craft books such as Handmade Living, and writes about her children’s birthday parties, so I can only imagine how incredibly beautiful — and over the top — her apartment must have been decked out with her distinctive style.
I must admit that there was once a time when I envied the expat life in Beijing. Back in 1995, I arrived in Beijing with a second-hand suitcase, a faux fur jacket for the cold (I worried that people would think it was real and throw red paint on it, but locals envied me and thought I must be rich), and a well-thumbed dictionary and began a year as a student at the then Beijing Yuyan Xueyan (now known as the Beijing Language and Culture University). I paid US$2 a night for a small dormitory room, from which you could smell the stench of the toilets down the concrete corridor. My dorm mate was a meek Christian girl from Singapore, and we were both shocked when on our first night two drunken guys from Kazakhstan box-kicked in small store opposite our room in an attempt to buy more beer. The shrieking of the woman who slept in the storeroom was actually more formidable than the crazy Kazakhstanis, and they quickly retreated. Should I turn around and go home to safety? I stayed, and eventually was richer for the experience.
How I daydreamed about one day being posted to Beijing in luxury rather than roughing it as a student! Occasionally, I visited the embassy: to vote, for ANZAC Day, once at an event held specially for students and again to do some research on Australian aboriginals for a friend. They had clean toilets there, and soft toilet paper, and even served meat pies and sausage rolls. The embassy people seemed to live in paradise compared to me; I envied them as I saw them swipe their passes and breeze into the Embassy’s inner sanctum, and wondered at their comparative comfort inside.
But travelling to Beijing as a student for a gap year, and choosing to relocate for several years with young children, with their own needs and ‘stuff’, is an entirely different matter. Had Beijing changed? Would my family hate it, and would they be able to adjust?
Tania shows that it is possible. Further, she shows that it can even be fun, and an incredible and rewarding experience for everyone in the family. She envies her children’s education at their international school, finds places to take them to explore and develop in their four years abroad, and enjoys trips around China.
It is also a voyage of rediscovery and personal development for her, as she reconnects with her passion for writing. There is something almost Julia Childs in her story: the life of a trailing spouse struggling to find purpose, who dares to explore her hidden creativity and emerges with vision and purpose.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found that I could not put it down once I started. Tania has written this book in short chapters, so it is easy to read and absorb. And the tone is readable and funny; there are no overtones of lording over it as a Chinese expert, which I found refreshing. I especially recommend it for anyone interested in travelling or living in China, or who is interested in the story of one family’s journey to the Middle Kingdom.