To those thinking about moving to China for the first time, the idea of leaving everything you know is a daunting one to say the least. At home, we’re often living in a bubble without even knowing it. Being able to rely on a network of family and friends for support, or even just having others comprehend our meaning on a linguistic and cultural level is something that we often take for granted. But the prospect of moving to China and battling to communicate with those who don’t understand the same words or even basic hand gestures, such as counting, as we do throws all of that into question. ‘How will I survive on the other side of the world outside the bubble of everything I know?’
Yet the reality of moving here is that we can choose exactly how and when to break out of our bubble. When you first arrive, you’re greeted at the airport by fellow English speakers. From there, you’ll be bought back to your modern, furnished apartment in a relaxed neighborhood called Shijingshan (‘the Shan’). Here, you’ll find a welcome package with all the essentials and be introduced to your new English speaking roommate. Over the next few weeks, you’ll go to other people’s apartments, local restaurants, coffee houses, parks, pool bars, cinemas and karaoke events with a new group of friends who all have something important in common. Being a teacher in ‘the Shan’. In other words, you’ll be surrounded by a close support network of people who understand you.
But then, when the time feels right, you can always break out of this bubble and start doing new things away from the comfort of ‘the Shan’. In addition to world class historical sites, such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and others, the capital has so much to offer culturally. One of my favorite times in Beijing was at an alternative music gig held in ancient Chinese courtyard neighborhoods called Hutongs. The bar, Modernista, made me feel like I was in the middle of a 1950s party, and the band’s lead singer, a woman who performed upbeat jazz fusion songs well in four different languages, made me realize that 50s parties were probably surprisingly decent. But what really caught my interest was the fascinating mix of young Chinese and Western people dancing together and having fun.
This intriguing cultural blend of East and West can be found in hidden pockets all over the city if you go out and look. WeChat is the Whatsapp of China and there’s a meetup group for virtually any interest you could have here in Beijing, from mountain biking to Chinese cooking classes. I’ve spoken to people from all over China/the world by going to culture mix events in the student district Wudaokou and, despite occasionally having to mute the group chat for the sake of my sanity, I have no plans to stop putting myself out there and meeting others keen on international exchange anytime soon. As a result, I’m now getting used to more than just a new language, but also the bulk of the iceberg that lies beneath the surface in terms of a distinct culture, such as, for instance, different hand gestures for counting.
If you just venture outside your comfort zone, the Chinese capital offers a unique opportunity to try new things, make diverse new friends and see a surprisingly fascinating new part of the world in a different light. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The best part, though, you can decide exactly how and when to leave the coziness/familiarity of your local neighborhood ‘the Shan’. You choose when to break out of your bubble.
So what are you waiting for? Come to Beijing for a year, explore a fascinating city full of hidden surprises/cultural niches and, in your own way, break out of that bubble!