Impressions of Beijing

It’s been 2 weeks since I landed in Beijing, with the whole family in tow, pursuing my dream of another startup in the land of opportunities.

Welcome to Beijing

Since when, China replaced the United States to be the land of opportunities? I don’t think I am alone with this view.  Someone from Mars Bar candy company rented my house in the US, and as it happened, he just relocated to America after a 4 year posting in Beijing. He and his wife looked at me with eyes of envy, and said, “oh, you’ll love it there in Beijing.  There are so many opportunities; it’s a lot easier to make money there. The US is too mature and steady, hard to find a break in the market.”

After one week in China, my son declared one morning. “I both hate China and love China! I hate China, because people drive insanely dangerously, and they don’t stop for you.  I love China, because China has awesome pools!”. Well, school hasn’t started, so the kids daily outing was to try out different fancy pools in different hotels/gyms before we decide which gym to join.  The pools all come with hot tub and fresh towels, and someone forever vigilantly wiping away water dripped on the floor.

Many Chinese friends from years ago have now prospered. Almost everyone has a car, and many have more than one child.  We went with one family to a fancy swimming pool in the CBD area. (Central Business District).  My 8 year old boy jumped into the pool like a fish, and went off with his laps.  He took off with butterfly stroke.  I watched him, with the smile of a proud mother. This is the whole summer’s work with the swim team in our local community pool in the US.

My friend looked at him, and said, “He’s pretty good, he’ll be able to catch up with the swim team after a few sessions.”.  WHAT????  My friend didn’t notice my shock at all, and simply went on to recommend the best swim coach in town.   We signed on with the coach immediately.

After a few training sessions, my son started to whine about going to swim practice, trying to wiggle his way out of it. “He makes us swim more than 500 (ft), and we couldn’t get out of the pool in between laps. We were in the pool the whole hour!”

“Hey, this is China!” I said. “There are a lot of people and you have to try a lot harder to compete.”

“I don’t like China, I like America better.  I like swimming in America.  It’s more fun there.” He continued.

“Well, that’s why China is beating America in everything.” I felt like a Tiger mom/China hater/panda hugger/radical, all at the same time.

I quickly changed the topic, leaving no impression that he could get out of the swimming.  Of course, I chose not to mention that Michael Phelps came through a similar community pool system in Baltimore.

Parenthood exists in muddy water; bi-cultural living is also in muddy water. I’ll let the water be, hoping it’ll clear up somehow, maybe with the force of nature.

6 tips traveling with kids in Asia

One of the perks of my job is traveling with my kids. Over the years, I’ve saved up a few tips to share.

Fish Spa in Cambodia

1. Slow down the Pace and allow kids (and yourself) down time.
We tend to feel pressured to pack too many things into one day’s travel plan. The pressure is well justified as we are often talking about thousands of dollars of plane rides for the family, so get as much as you can.  But, in the end, kids get grumpy, parents are exhausted. To me, that’s a lose/lose situation.  So, I often plan just one major outing for each day, and have the rest of the time for hanging out.  Take Cambodia as an example, the temples can get repetitive really quickly.  So, I made a deal with the kids, one temple a day! That plus the time they spent watching monkeys in the temple grounds would usually take us to noon, then, we grab a nice lunch in one of the road side restaurant, back to hotel for the baby to nap, the older kids for an afternoon movie, while I get a massage.  Then it’s pool time, followed by excursions for dinner and ice cream in local markets.
2. Stay put in a place at least 2-3 nights before moving.
city hopping was driven by the same pressure.  I got to see everything! . Wrong. it burns out the kids and you. Stay at a place a little longer so they develop a sense of routine, which calms them down.
3. Try to take 1 or 2 kids on a special “date” trip with mommy or daddy.
We often travel as a whole family entourage for chrismas and spring break, but through out the year, I try to take the kids on separate trips to match their time and interests. The younger ones could afford missing preschool for long stretches at a time. So, I took them to China with me for 6 weeks, slow pace of travel worked great. We covering Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Cambodia.  Then I didn’t want the older child to feel left out, took just him on a cruise to patagonia as observing animals/hiking in nature was his love, while if we had the little ones, we wouldn’t have been able to do as much.
4. Choose a hotel or cruise that’s kids friendly and also with family clientele.

A lodge or cruise sounds great, until you discover that your kid might be the only child among large groups of baby boomers. That puts too much pressure on the parents to constantly provide entertainment. It’s best, when on a cruise, your child finds a pal to play cards, chess or watch movie with.
5. Whenever it’s affordable, take a guide, sometimes they can double as sitter.
I’ve found this often possible on my travels. Most guides in China, Cambodia are so eager to help that they are willing to spend time to help out with the kids.  I had 3 kids with me at the Great Wall, the oldest one ran fast, while the baby was still in my arms. So the guide willingly took the hand of the middle child and helped her up and down those steep stairs. Same thing as in Cambodia, I hired a guide for the day, but was done with touring by lunch time, so the guide happily played games with the child back at the hotel. It’s often fun to see the kids learning different games from different cultures.
6. Favor houses and villas over hotel, favor places with a pool.
I always needed a microwave to heat up milk at 6 am.  Some times kids want to climb into my bed.  Hotels just don’t work as well with 3 kids.  Houses always! Pool is always a lifesaver!

Why Chinese love Obedient children?

A very happy client of WildChina sent in a quick note to thank us “I just wanted to let you both know we are having a great trip here in China. It is a beautiful country with incredible sights and history. All of the people we have met have been wonderful! And your guides have all been terrific. Thanks for setting everything up!”. A bit background, this is one couple traveling with more than a dozen kids – a feat that I can only admire!

Then came my staff’s response. “ Guess not easy for you to manage all the kids, but heard from our guides, the kids are quite obedient and sensible…” I am not sure how our clients would react to this, as I knew my colleague only meant it as a compliment, without realizing there is a different connotation in English.

The word “obedient” was “ 乖” (pronounced as Guai) on my colleague’s mind. 乖 is translated as “obedient” according to google. But the truth is, there is no word in English that expresses what “Guai” means. This is one of the few cultural incidences that made translation impossible.

In Chinese families, kids are praised if they behave well, i.e. listens to parents and elders, does what he or she is told to do, does not challenge authority, or creates mischief. Adults would say, “孩子真乖,听话”. (you are Guai and listened well.” So, this is praise simply on the child’s behavior, as a compliment. There is a general social acceptance that adults’ words are to be heeded and respected.

But in English environment, we still want the kids to listen, but there isn’t such a praise word for obedient behavior. Usually, if my son did his homework by himself without me prodding, I’d say “Good Job.” When he doesn’t listen to me, I count “1, 2, 3” and then “Time out”. “Guai” concept simply doesn’t exist, as sometimes, kids being naughty and breaking rules is viewed as “entrepreneurial” potential. It’s true, I am sure Mark Zuckerberg, founder of facebook wasn’t a “Guai” child.

At the same time, the word “Obidient” often has a negative connotation on both the parents and the kids. It comes across as the children being overly pressured to follow rules, and the parents overly managing their children.

Hope our clients didn’t take this as an offence.

Lonely Planet China guide is good looking with mediocre content

I was very impressed by the beginning of the Lonely Planet China Guide book. “the Best of China” page offered a quick summary of the classic highlights of the country that one should never miss – The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, etc. The photos are beautiful. I also liked the section that introduced the writers, bringing a human face to advice they are dispensing.  Then the Rural China, Eat China, Hike China and Red China pages all offered some interesting sites, and are very helpful for those who want to venture off the Yangtze Cruise to experience the real China.

But, to me, it also demonstrated the lack of access due to language constraint. For example, the Hike China section is a bit limited. Having hiked most of the trails listed in that section, I beg to differ. For example, the Yubeng hike aka. Pilgramage trail to Mt. Kawagebo is among the most breathtaking and spiritual hike. WildChina team members first hiked in this area in the late 90s, and only now that trail is gaining some awareness among Chinese speakers. Not sure if the guide books’ outdated or the writer didn’t know about it. Either way, I think there could be a better guide on hiking ops in China.

Then I went straight for the section on lodging (called “Sleeping” in the guidebook) in Beijing. It is unfortunately written by a backpacker who is too well versed in adjectives such as “top notch”, “Elegance”, “gorgeous” “stunning”, “impressive”, “outstanding”, “splendid”, “enticing”.. I’ll save you the rest, but seriously, these words all appeared in 3 paragraph describing St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, and China World Hotel. You can basically randomly re-allocate these words, and the information you are getting won’t change a bit.

Obviously, the writer hasn’t stayed in any of these places.  I wish there is a bit more details like, The Made In China restaurant in the Grand Hyatt serves the best “Begger’s Chicken” and is one of the most interesting Chinese restaurants to dine in because of the open kitchen layout. You get to see the chefs tossing the greens in a wok alight with fire!  By the way, I think the Frommers Guide does a much better job with restaurants recommendations. Also, for families traveling with children, the China World Hotel Service Apartments offer the best option- with large rooms, ensuite kitchen, etc.

Also, among the top notch, I’d add the Opposite House for its zen like design and personal service. Not to mention the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace. These are the more boutique hotels that really make Beijng an interesting destination to stay.

What got me most is the section on “Beijing for Children”. I have a feeling that the authors didn’t really travel to Beijing with kids. The hardest thing I found upon arriving in Beijing is how to kill the early morning hours due to jet lag. Two very important things for me: breakfast at 金湖茶餐厅 (GL Cafe Restaurant),and morning walks in Ritan Park. The Café is a 24hr Hong Kong style restaurant, very helpful at 4am when there is no other place to eat, and the kids are crying! They have branch locations next to the St. Regis and the China World. Hotel. And they have high chairs. Ritan Park is a major source of entertainment as it opens at 6am for the morning exercises- an entertaining place for the kids to watch others play badminton, or do taiqi. Maybe that’s me, but I need to have the jetlag bunch taken care off before I could think of ice skating in Beijing. A good source, follow @BeijingWithKids on twitter.

Food for Your Picky Little Eaters in China

I don’t think anybody else can have a pickier eater than my son. I know, a lot of other mothers feel the same way about their own children. Well, traveling to China with picky eaters can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. The food choices in China broadens at an amazing rate both in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also at unknown smaller cities or towns like Kunming or Dali. Rather than providing a complete restaurant review here, I will simply tell you how my son survived his three weeks in China.

Breakfast: All major hotels in China provide a mix of Chinese and Western dishes. You can easily find bacon and eggs, or corn flakes and yogurt at breakfast buffet table. The situation changes immediately if you are headed towards any cities lesser known than their provincial capitals. For example, in the panda nature reserve I visited near Xi’an, I was served 4 dishes of cold and spicy salads, a bowl of Zhou (very watery rice porridge), a couple of steamed bread. In situations like this, my goes for his default backup-
White Rice –available at every single Chinese restaurant, and the cheapest solution. Usually costs less than RMB4 (US$0.5)/bowl.

Lunch: One of the things that frustrate me most at WildChina is that our local guides still insist on serving a HUGE 8 course meal for lunch, regardless of how much we tried to change that. This is true for most foreign visitors, alarmed by how big those lunches are. Only on hiking trips, are we able to really change things around and provide only sandwiches and chilled drinks. If you are traveling on your own, go for local noodle soups and dumplings. Those are tasty and more than sufficient for lunch. My son would touch any of the Chinese dishes, despite the fresh green beans, broccolis, and noodle soups, he opts for –

McDonalds Happy Meals. Yes, McDonalds is practically around every major corner in Beijing, and widely available in all provincial capitals. In fact, KFC is even more successful than McDonalds, because most Chinese finds KFC more similar to Chinese tastes. That said, KFC also made some amazing localization in their menu. For example, they serve youtiao (fried dough) and Zhou (the watery rice porridge I mentioned above) on their breakfast menu too! My son was happy with McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, but didn’t like any of the toys, since they are local toys based on Japanese or Korean figures. My daughter on the other hand, LOVED those RMB10/piece Hello Kitties.

Dinner: Dinner in China is a big deal, particularly with guests. All the meals that I went to served on average 20 dishes on the table! I don’t remember any dish being completely finished off. Quite a bit wastage. In Yunnan, it’s wild mushroom season – enough reason for me to travel there just for the mushrooms. My son didn’t even taste any of that, instead, his grandfather went to fetch him a –

Pizza from Pizza Hut every single day. Yes, Pizza Hut also made successful entries into China. Although the restaurants are all regarded as high-end places that are 50% empty at all times. If you go in there to order a pizza, they ALL tell you that it’s a 17 minutes wait time for the pizza to cook. I bet their management drilled this sentence into every server’s mind. So, my dad would call the Pizza hut that’s right next door to the Carrefour Supermarket, then take a 20 minutes round trip walk to bring back dinner for his grandson. The 乳酪大汇 (rulao dahui) on a round dish is the same as a regular crusted cheese pizza here. It costs RMB 76 ($11) for a 12 inch pizza.

After all grandpa’s effort. My son made the conclusion in the end: America is better than China because there is clean air and youtube here. What can I say?

Bookmark and Share

Family get together in China with kids

A friend and I are considering bringing both of our families to China for a reunion next summer. My kids are 6 yr, 3 yr, and 9 month old. His 3 girls are 9, 7 and 3.  So here is his questions ” Should we take Josh’s Tangula express to Lhasa?   Or do we want WildChina to organize a princess tour of the wonders of China? Tibet?”

Here are my answers:

Tangula express would be cool, but not for kids. It’s too long a ride and kids get antsy. I know mine can’t handle it. I actually think it’s best to anchor kids at one place for 3 days, have lots of little fun stuff for them to venture from one base.  I would say, hang out somewhere near Guilin or Dali, go on short hikes, bike rides, fishing, crafts, etc.

Bookmark and Share