Every week I talk to a Belgian who moved abroad and built a new life there. This week Kirsten tells us about moving to China.
1. Hi, Kirsten! Please quickly introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, where you’re from, where you moved to and when/why you moved.
My name is Kirsten, I was born in 1980 in Sint-Truiden, but I spent my childhood in Genk.
When I was 19, I met my husband Jimmy. We married in 2003 and got three children together: a daughter Finn (12), a son Tijl (11) and another daughter, Sien (8).
In 2011 we moved to Trnava, Slovakia because of my husband’s job. He was already working in Slovakia for a year and a half and traveled home on the weekends. This was not an ideal situation for us, which is why we decided to go with him and leave Belgium.
After three and a half years in beautiful Slovakia, we left the country and Europe even, as we moved to China as part of my husband’s career. We have been living in Chongqing, China since august 2015.
2. What did you expect from China and life there before moving? Did those expectations hold up?
I expected – because this wasn’t our first expat experience – the move to be easier. In a way, it was easier because we already knew that we would have to get used to certain things: a new language, new school, new neighbors, new friends, missing our family and friends at home…
But still, there’s a world of difference between moving to Eastern Europe and moving to Asia. We had been in Asia a couple of times already, more specifically in Thailand. Besides that, I had been on a pre-trip to Chongqing in order to visit the school and go house hunting. My husband had been working in India for a couple of months as well so we expected everything to go smoothly.
Instead, we did have some struggles in the beginning, because of the major culture difference. They -people who have been living in China for a while– say that the first year is the hardest, that during the second year you’ll get used to things and that from the third year on you’ll never want to leave.
Up to now, that does make sense. The first year was a year of big adjustments which was a lot to swallow for us. But during the last few months, things have started feeling familiar and it suits us just fine. I don’t expect us to never want to leave, though, but for now, we are enjoying our Chinese adventure to the fullest.
3. What’s the biggest difference between life in China and life in Belgium?
I think the biggest difference is the culture primarily. Sometimes I have the feeling that ever since we moved here, we have to let go of everything we taught our children with regard to politeness. Not because we want to be difficult, but because we kind of have to be. Taking the elevator in China, for example, is a very different experience than taking the elevator in Belgium. In any Western country, people will usually wait for the people to get out of the elevator before stepping in, here it doesn’t work that way. We have to push through the crowd, or else we would never be able to get in. The same goes for riding the subway.
Until august 2015 we were really sensitive to smacking while eating and our children knew that as well. We still don’t do it, but we are starting to get used to other people doing so. It still annoys me sometimes and at times I even lose my appetite, but my kids and husband don’t notice it anymore because they often eat together with Chinese people, something I don’t get to do very often.
Although we have been living here for a year and a half, I still get the chills when I hear someone behind me spitting. Burping is something I don’t hear as much –I think that might be just a cliché– but the spitting is very present, in the street or wherever you go.
4. What’s the best part about living in China?
The experiences we get to have, living in and with different cultures and the adaptability we gain by it. Because we do have to adapt every time, otherwise, it just wouldn’t work.
We like that the children are able to grow up with different cultures –this isn’t always easy, though– and speak several languages. The ability to expand your circle of friends is an additional plus. We constantly get to meet new people with whom we instantly have the same important thing in common: life abroad.
Of course, the fact that we get the chance to travel a lot more in Asia is another bonus.
5. What do you like least about living in China?
The fact that we’re not allowed to drive ourselves is the most difficult for us, I believe. It feels like we lost a liberty somehow. We have our own driver and are very happy with him. He is our third driver, the previous two were a small disaster. But we do have the feeling that we never get to do something impulsive, though. We can’t just be like “let’s drive to the store real quick” because we have to alert our driver 24h in advance. Usually, this works well, and if not our driver doesn’t make a fuss about it. But just the idea that we can’t just drive somewhere whenever we want is hard sometimes.
When it is raining heavily, however, we are super happy that we can be dropped right at our doorstep and don’t have to go looking for parking. He helps us with bringing our groceries upstairs and picking the children up from school. Another aspect that I find difficult is that the Chinese often speak little to no English. Our children are taught Mandarin in school, but here in Chongqing people speak a dialect and even though our children can speak some Mandarin by now, it is still hard for them to communicate with locals.
6. What do you miss most about Belgium?
Of course, we miss our family and friends. We can’t always be there with them to celebrate special events. Last may, for example, there was a special party for my godchild but unfortunately, it was impossible for me to get there. A quick flight to Belgium and back isn't that evident of course. Those sort of things were easier back when we were living in Slovakia.
Whenever we are back in Belgium we are always looking forward to some real Belgian fries as well, although the longing weakens a bit the longer we are abroad. Besides that, we miss just being able to go to the bakery to choose between the delicious pastries or being able to choose something other than chicken, minced meat or steak at the butcher's. Just buying the “normal” products that you're used to. Grocery shopping often changes into a serious hunt for something, some fresh herbs for instance.
7. Is there something about Belgium that you don’t miss at all?
The hectic and hasty atmosphere.
8. Do you think you’ll stay in China? Or is there a chance you’ll move abroad again someday?
We've already decided that we will be living here for a maximum of five years. Where we will be going next, we don’t know yet. Back to Belgium? Somewhere else in the world? We’re open to a lot of places.
9. Do you have any tips or advice for other Belgians who consider moving to China?
Adjust and try to build a social network.
10. What are some tips you would give to people who are traveling to your region/city? Things they should visit or eat?
Chongqing is a city with more than 8 000 000 inhabitants. A big city, but almost no one has heard of it before, this includes me before our move. Chongqing is mainly known as the departure point for cruises on the Yangtze river toward the Three Gorges Dam, which is a lovely area. Wulong, a beautiful National Park in our province is another must-see. The movie Transformers was partly shot here.
There’s modern Chongqing with all the shopping malls, Starbucks on every corner, ice skating rinks, skyscrapers and trendy bars and restaurants. But there’s still some of the real China here as well: Ciqikou -the old city– with a lot of small winding roads where you can spot the little children in baskets on the backs of their grandmothers, teahouses, traditional Chinese drawings, …
Chongqing is also known for its local dish: “hot pot”. The food is really spicy here, but you can ask for a less spicy version, which is often still too spicy for us. We love local food and eat rice daily since we moved here. The food we get here does not resemble in the slightest with the food you get when you go eat Chinese in Belgium.
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This interview was done by Paloma García Miranda, a talented Master’s Student of Business Communication who’s helping Sofie out here on WonderfulWanderings.com.