Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

As we walked to the subway station one evening, my pal and I chatted about a few folks we mutually knew in Beijing. About who knew who, how they knew others, who had dated who, etc.

"You know, this sure is an incestuous sort of place, isn't it?" I commented.

"I don't know about that," he started to argue, but I explained. I wasn't saying everyone had slept with everyone else — more that everyone seemed connected in some way. He shrugged, his version of agreement I suppose.

In my eyes, Beijing's expat community seemed made up of circles of people. I picture large groups en masse, all joined by some WeChat* group or other. Inevitably, these circles would collide — people will belong to various circles, each with their own value to that person, and that person became a bridge between them.

Not unique to Beijing, this is largely how communities work. But in a city where you're the minority — and up against one hell of a language barrier — these circles seem more pronounced than they did in Colorado. Vital, too, because of how much information they offer.

Back home, I had all sorts of ways of finding an elusive supply or a new dentist. Siri would literally tell me where I could go. If she fell short, Google came through with varying degrees of success. Depending on the need, my friends had recommendations — they'd throw a phone number my way or describe where a shop was located. Boom, I'd be on my way.

Here, I find resources far more limited.


Take that online search. Even if your VPN connects to your unreliable data provider, often an online link will be outdated. You'll end up staring at an empty store front or unable to locate the street at all. Remember, this is a country where Google is banned, and Beijing is a city that transforms so quickly, local map makers produce a new guide to city roadways a few times a year.

So it comes down to a question in a WeChat group chat. "Hey guys, who knows ...?" In flood the responses. "Well, I don't know if it still exists, but this shop was great." "I don't know, but let me ask another group ..."

And then, not only do I have my answer, but my personal database of contacts and resources is expanded and more comprehensive. We'll share a contact card, start a new conversation and somehow end up in a new group chat. No matter the situation, someone will know (or at least know a guy who knows) the best option.

On a different walk, with a gentleman from an entirely different circle, the conversation was about health. With his eyes growing a wee bit weary of late, he asked if I knew where we could go for an optician.

"Well, I know where we can buy glasses. When you make a purchase, they include a free eye exam so they can verify your prescription."

"Is this where you'd go?"

"Uh, I mean, I don't really know any other options. So ... yes?"

And so it was: We'd take a trip out to the multi-story eyeglasses market and see if we could sweet talk one of the vendors into giving him an eye exam at the start. My recommendation became a plan, based on my personal experience.

Well, that and a tip I'd been given a year ago from a friend who'd had a similarly good experience.

Another link in the expat chain — I can only guess who he'll share this information with next.

* WeChat is a communication platform made almost exclusively for China's population. It is used for messaging and calls but also for making payments, promoting businesses, etc.

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