To Organise or Not to Organise – how life in China changes the game plan

Beijing Tai Tai

Today’s post is from the wonderful author Tania McCartney. Her latest book, Beijing Tai Tai
is a collection of shrewdly observed, heartfelt and humorous insights into Beijing expatriate life. Beijing Tai Tai ($24.99) is available from

You can read more about Tania at the end of this post, in which she shares how organisation and routine fitted in to her expat life!


drinks and nails
I’ve moved, at last count, 68 times in my lifetime. Am I somewhat of a nomad? Yes. Has this frequent moving made me more organised? Yes. Has it given me a permanent facial tic? Oh, yes.

Moving within your own town requires organisation. Moving inter- or intrastate requires even more organisation. Moving to China with two kids under five requires a government department if you want to keep your sanity.

Thankfully, we were very fortunate when we moved to Beijing – we had that government department. And I kept my sanity (that is, until we arrived). So whist moving to China did, of course, require a large measure of personal organisation, it wasn’t the mega debacle I had feared it would be.

Like I said, until we got there. Let’s just say China is a place where DISorganisation is the norm.

The thing about moving from a Western country to an Eastern country is that no one can ever fully prepare you for ‘what you will need to take’. This is because necessities differ from person to person, family to family. One family I know brought four tea chests packed with Weetbix to Beijing. Another family used up eighty-per cent of their space allowance on toys. Others – nappies. For us – it was books, underwear big enough to encase my gigantic (size 10 – 12) backside, and kitchenware.

I will never forget the incessant muttering from my ayi (maid, cook, child-minder) as I hauled out yet another fandangled kitchen gadget and stuffed it into the drawers of our high rise Beijing apartment.

“Tai duo le”, she would sniff, over and over. Too much. She was right.

If I had our time in Beijing over again, I would take the underwear and not much else. Quite literally. And here is why . . .

One of my biggest fears upon moving to China with two kids under five, was this: what will we miss out on? What will we be unable to find? Do they have bread in China? We’ll need a bread maker. Oh my goodness, what about English language books for the kids? Nappies? Rice bubbles? Panic! How can we live without low fat, decaf, soy vanilla lattès or gummy bears?

The truth is, you can. And by the time you’ve finished your posting, you won’t even crave the familiarities you’re convinced you couldn’t live without . . . because a new craving would have pervaded your life, just like it did mine. A craving for China. A craving that allows you to fully immerse yourself in a place like no other.

They say “When in Rome…” and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, we craved warm donuts dusted in cinnamon sugar, wobbling tubs of buffalo mozzarella and curling slips of shaved honey ham in our first months in the capital. We craved the Disney channel. We craved being able to walk on a pavement and not have to side-step poop and whiz. There was lots we craved and thought was central to our very being. But soon enough, something began to shift in our family. Mostly, it was our palates––sliding sideways like an oral continental drift from Australia to China. After four years in China it appeared our mouths had become Chinese.

But that’s not all that changed for our family. In China, so much happens on a whim. It unfolds with the seasons and is far more relaxed than our harried, tightly-scheduled Western world. Sometimes things can be done, sometimes that can’t – and unlike Australia, where just about anything you want can happen (if you have enough cash), relaxing into this new, less-organised way of life was confronting because it meant less control. And for anyone who is super organised and ‘onto it’ – like me – losing control is a confronting experience indeed.

Our family lost control in other ways during out stay in China. Suddenly, we had to fit into a whole other set of rules – a whole other way of thinking, let alone acting. We had language limitations, cultural limitations, social and work limitations. Forget the previously-mentioned government department – China is the department of red tape.

Nevertheless, organisation and control is as much a way of thinking as a way of being. And freedom of the mind is one thing anyone can achieve, even the mildly-Cadbury chocolate-oppressed (Cadbury did arrive in China shortly after our arrival, but, well – it still wasn’t quite the same as home).

So, for me, Cadbury-deprived or no, being organised, especially when living in a country so polar opposite to your own – is all about routine. We kept our regular routine and family tenets, but we also introduced new ones.

Being a notoriously filthy place, where superbugs have their own strain of superbug, we quickly developed this catchcry upon entering the house:

Shoes off, hands washed!

This single, faithful ethos kept us relatively illness-free (I said relatively) during our time in Beijing – a time where being seriously health-conscious was paramount. In fact, it was so effective, we have kept it up even now (back in Australia three years) and are rarely sick as a result.

We also kept thanking. In China, thanking anyone close to you is considered trite. Embarrassing, even. It’s just not done. In the West, if kids don’t thank, they’re considered reprobates. “What’s the little word???” But despite ayi’s constant refrain – “Bu xie! Don’t thank!” – we continued on because, despite wanting to culturally assimilate as much as was humanly possible, thanking was a far too important part of our own culture.

The other thing we did was ensure we were stocked with our few base necessities – those things from Australia we actually could NOT live without (as opposed to the many things we THOUGHT we could not live without). Life in the capital could be hazardous in terms of weather and pollution extremes, so we spent a lot of time indoors. We therefore kept a decent stock of indoor play toys that wouldn’t impale or poison our kids. We also kept stock of three other priceless items – Napisan, hair colour and tampons. You see, brightening your whites is near impossible under Beijing’s grey skies and the Chinese cannot colour hair in any shade above chocolate brown. Tampons are a whole other topic.

Other than these [very] few things, I was surprised to find myself ‘letting go’ of a strictly-bound set of rules and routine for our lives in China. In a place where the unexpected was a daily occurrence and new challenges constantly underscored every reaction, learning to go with the flow and release my grasp on being ‘organised to the back teeth’ was surprisingly freeing for me.

Well . . . that, and having an ayi to do everything for me.

So, have I adopted our regular, organised, ‘normal’ routine since moving back to Australia? With no ayi to scrub our toilets, iron our clothes, mind the kids or cook our meals – you better believe we’re back to normal. With a thud!



Tania McCartney Jan 2012 aTania McCartney is an editor, presenter and book-obsessed author of both children’s and adult books. As an ACT Ambassador for the National Year of Reading 2012, she is passionate about literacy and children’s literature. Tania runs literary site Kids Book Review, writes for several online sites and loves paper, travel, marshmallows and laughing. And yes, she used nappies on both her kids. Tania blogs at

Have you lived as an expat before?


  1. Paula says

    Thanks for make me feel less odd. Australia is the 5th country were I’ve lived. I’m 34 and I’ve had 17 different houses/apt. My kid (born in NZ) loves vegemite and I love ginger beer. The countries weren’t as different as China, but is always different nonetheless (even from NZ to Australia).

  2. says

    You’re post brings back memories Tania. We moved to Beijing as a couple and left 3 years later with a preschooler and toddler. Last year we moved to New Caledonia with a newborn, toddler and preschooler. I’m pretty sure we packed a lot of weetbix for both international moves! I have actually found Noumea harder than Beijing in that Beijing has a thriving expat community. I too miss my Ayi, the food and lots of little cultural differences that drove me nuts while I lived there. I find that with each more we are better prepared, although possibly not more organised, but we know what to expect from an international move, and importantly, what questions to ask. We still enjoy reading “Riley and the Sleeping Dragon” :) I think there is a lot of truth in the common saying that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. Rewarding, but stressful. I still dream about where to next though ;) Now I’m off to check out your website :)

      • says

        Hi Gemma – so lovely to see you here! Now, that’s something I DIDN’T do – HAVE babies in China. THAT I admire you for. I can understand your missing Beijing by comparison to Noumea. Where’s next for you?? (I’m greeen! Though, if Marco reads this, he might accuse me of being unkind to frogs).

  3. Marco says

    Sorry, stopped reading after author stated Size 10-12 was a gigantic backside. What an unkind comment. If you can’t be nice to yourself, at least be nice to other women.

    • says

      I don’t think you ‘got it’ Marco – I was saying a size 10 to 12 is considered enormous in China. And it is. I can’t for the life of me see how saying that is being unkind to other women. Sheesh. Why can’t people read posts in their entirety or get a sense of humour?

  4. Karen Stanton says

    As an expat who currently lives in Singapore, I can relate to many of your stories and experiences – I’ll be picking up your book to read on my next flight to China! THankyou!

  5. says

    Really enjoyed this post, thank you. I only visited Beijing for 10 days as a backpacker (many years ago) and found some of the things you mention challenging (side-stepping on the pavement being the main one), however it’s a fascinating place and great to hear how well you settled in the end. We’re not necessarily expats (this makes our stay sound temporary) but new Australian residents and I can relate to much of what you describe; it hasn’t been such a huge change coming from the UK but we’ve had to adapt, embrace a slightly different approach to life and acquire a taste for Cadbury’s chocolate as sold down under :-)

  6. hkmama says

    Very nice post. Wanted to quickly say that although “bu xie” literally translated does mean “no need to thank”. In practical terms, it means “you’re welcome”. You should most definitely keep on saying thank you for people (close or not close) that help you out or give you a gift. Not to do so would be rude.

    • says

      Thanks hkmama, yes it does mean ‘you’re welcome’ but literally ‘don’t thank’. Mandarin is so interesting in its construction. Most Westerners would not know that the term for ‘hello’ – ‘ni hao’ – literally means ‘you good’. I particularly love the term for ‘never’ – ‘cong lai mei you’ which literally translates as ‘from come don’t have’. Don’t you love it? So glad you agree on continuing to say thank you and that I’m not alone in this!