Gilbert: Surviving Beijing Since 1980
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Beijing, etc.
I am from Ghent, Belgium where I graduated as an engineer in 1973. After working and living in Brazil and Nigeria I landed in Beijing in late 1980 to open an office for a Belgian company. I never planned to stay that long, the years simply kept adding up. I tried to run away, in 1990-1994, going through Bangkok, São Paulo and Madrid but in January 1995 I was back in Beijing. I run a small consulting firm, I am an author and have other jobs.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Writing seems to be “in my blood”; I simply like it. I started blogging in April 2006. adding a second blog in July 2013. It was also a way to keep friends posted about life and work here and to vent my happy and unhappy thoughts with a good dose of sarcasm.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Difficult to pinpoint one in particular but the one about my bike equipment proved popular, it also shows a lot about me: my concerns about the environment and a bit of sarcasm.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Beijing differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Ghent and Beijing could not be more difficult. The early eighties were pretty tough and pioneering. With China changing so much over 30 years, some difficulties go away, some new ones appear. For me the biggest challenge is still the language, I do my best to improve my Chinese.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Beijing? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
In 1980/1981 nobody was prepared. One had to be very patient, creative and quick to adapt. The only thing I regret is I did not study more Chinese though at that time it was difficult, as contact with locals was close to zero and there were few incentives and opportunities to study.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
In the early eighties my Chinese friends knew I was not enthusiastic at all to have a Chinese girlfriend. So they set me up with all kinds of tricks to “help” a Chinese lady, returning from overseas, to integrate into the foreign community and possibly find her a boyfriend. I should have seen the warning when the introduction dinner served buffalo penis in hot sauce. After getting married I was told the real story.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Beijing?
Learn as much as possible, be flexible and learn Chinese.
How is the expat community in Beijing? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The community in Beijing is different in style from Shanghai and other cities as it is hosting over 200 embassies and is the political and cultural center. Overall a very international crowd with many networking events and a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene.
How would you summarize your expat life in Beijing in a single, catchy sentence?
Life in Beijing can be challenging, exhausting and irritating but where else can you be so never-ever-bored and enjoy the diversity?