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Beijing’s many gems and the unfamiliar hidden gems, by Lucille Van Niekerk

I have now been in Beijing for almost 8 months and still haven’t fully seen all this wonderful city has to offer. I will list some wonderful places to wet your appetite but indulge me and allow me to offer you my own personal version of gems I discovered in Beijing. The following will probably be the 10 tourist sites that you must see when in Beijing it will transform you with it’s rich culture and beauty.

1. Forbidden City- one of the worlds greatest palaces
2. Summer Palace
3. Temple of heaven
4. Tiananmen Square – largest city in the world
5. Beihai Park – Central Beijing. You can ice skate on the lake in winter and stroll around it in spring.
6. Lama Temple – one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world built by the Chinese.
7. Nanluoguxiang is Beijing’s yuppie street. The nightlife and trendy bars and restaurants are great.
8. Art District
9. Golou and Zhonglou – official timekeepers during the Yuan and Ming dynasties.
10. Badaling – easiest access to the Great wall of China

In all fairness the above is probably not unheard of to most of you flirting with the idea of coming to China. If you anything like I was I googled and read about all that China especially Beijing had to offer. However, what this didn’t show me that my experience here has, is that added to it’s rich culture and beauty day to day life as well has many hidden gems.

Allow me to extrapolate. In my day to day life perusing Beijing and living here these are what I would call hidden gems in my opinion.

1. Dancing in the park and any available space
You will find Old Chinese people dancing and they take it very seriously. It is very beautiful. You will see Chinese dancing, Arabic dancing, Salsa dancing, however with a small catch. They interpret all these various dances with Chinese music. They are very welcoming and enjoy foreigners watching them. I on the other hand have a great affinity for dancing and couldn’t resist joining. It was salsa music accompanied by yes you guessed it Chinese music. This was a first for me as I am used to salsa music. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the instructor politely took me under her wing supervising me and instructing me. She was very pleased but admonished me for too much hip movement. I now fearfully salsa with less hip action as her disapproving face is etched in my mind and I don’t want to disappoint her.

2. Scooters
You can buy a scooter for next to nothing without a license. It is wonderful. Many of the foreign teachers have scooters and it is so much fun. I, myself haven’t yet procured one but have been fortunate enough to be a passenger on numerous occasions. It truly is so much fun and although the Chinese loosely interpret traffic rules owning a scooter almost makes you immune to any traffic rules. It truly is pure joy and I have noticed that most of the owners with scooters walk with a confidence that speaks volumes because if you can drive in this traffic you have gained an important skill – great defense driving skills.

3. Foreigner magic
Truly been a foreigner in China especially Beijing comes with many perks. The Chinese are more kind, forgiving and accepting of our foibles and mistakes than with their own countrymen. I think they put all our mistakes down to just been a foreigner. They will go out of their way to assist you. My transport card wouldn’t work because I forgot to swipe when I got out of the bus and this can lead to a fine or other problems. When I took the subway it wouldn’t let me enter due to this mistake. To cut a long story short when they found someone who spoke English and explained to me the mistake I was willing to pay but the foreigner magic worked and they swiped some things smiled at me and kindly sent me on my way. Rachel, a colleague of mine had a flat tire on her scooter. A resident in her block refused to leave her alone until it was sorted. They paid for the tire, found a person to fix it, stayed with her and offered to take her to lunch.

I have many more personal instances of day to day gems but I am afraid instead of a blog piece it will turn into a mini dissertation. If you have stayed with me thus far I would like you know that no amount of research and reading prior to coming will aptly give you a sense of China. An open mind, a child like joy for learning new things and realizing that you are in a different country so it will not be like home.

It is interesting. It is unique. I am glad I came.

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Busy in Beijing, by Rory McGillycuddy

Arrival
There I sat on a crowded, stuffy plane flying over Dubai and I thought to myself “What am I doing flying to Beijing” “Will I enjoy it?”, What if something goes wrong? What do I do then? Blah blah blah blah.

Naturally, these are some of the questions you`ll find yourself mulling over during your long journey to parts unknown. There`s no question about it, it`s a big step to pack up your life and move to a country where you don`t speak the language, have never been to and are expected to work, live and survive. Let me assure you that Aihua has your back, allow me to explain.

Once I stepped off the plane and arrived in the intimidatingly huge Beijing airport, I was greeted with a smile by the foreign headmaster Fredrik who immediately made me feel at peace once the nerves had subsided. From there, I met a handful of newly arrived English teachers who were experiencing the same jittery nerves as I so naturally, we all got on like a house on fire. After meeting the other new foreign teachers, I knew that my China experience would one to remember. Each of them came from different backgrounds with varied reasons for coming to China so it was fascinating to listen to their stories. We were all then escorted back to our apartments where we would be staying for the year. After being dropped off and given a welcome package, we were given a guide to our living area and a timetable for the next few weeks, it was packed with things to do so we were advised to get some rest and prepare for the next 2 weeks.

The following morning, the sun rose and I heard a knock on my apartment door, I was greeted by the school’s foreign affairs officers, Luke and Summer. Words cannot describe how giving these two were during the first two weeks and still are incredibly helpful. Any issue I had, a quick message to Luke or Summer and the problem would be sorted within minutes. If I was to think of a buzzword to describe Aihua, it would have to be “support”. A word I shall keep reiterating throughout this post. Over the next few days, we sorted out all of the necessary tasks with incredible efficiency and speed, setting up a bank account, purchasing a phone, finding out how to pay for utilities, getting a medical etc etc. Already, I was starting to feel comfortable, a testament to Aihuas work ethic and commitment to ensuring the newly arrived teachers are at ease with the new surroundings and are ready to work hard. During this frantic period, we still had time to explore, have meals together and discuss the experiences so far. What followed next was extensive training, receiving our work timetable and voila… go make us proud!!

Introductory training
During our first two weeks, the newly arrived teachers undergo an extensive, detailed training course with the school’s Training Managers, Aoife, Andrew and Francis. Although I had a small bit of teaching experience back in Ireland, I found this to be incredibly useful and necessary in order to deliver good lessons. My advice for this period would be to get plenty of rest and stay focused as it`s a lot of information being thrust onto you. That being said, help is ALWAYS there which brings me back to my buzzword, “support”, not only with Luke and Summer, the FCSs (Foreign Centre Supervisors) are there to help you if you need anything at all, that`s what they are they for so don`t be shy to send a message now and then if something is bothering you, be it with lesson planning, classroom issues etc.

During this training, we were given example lesson plans, demo lessons and plenty of tips and advice on how to better manage your classroom and your hyper students. To finish the training off, we had classes to plan our first lessons at Aihua which was greatly appreciated.

Chinese staff
The Chinese staff and teachers known as CT’s were very hospitable and kind. They work incredibly hard so showing respect and friendliness is welcome, some of the CTs will become your very good friends as you work so close with them which is great. It will make your life so much easier to work well with them and take comments constructively, you’re in this together so it`s a team effort. Additionally, the CTs will help with lots of extra issues you may have such as the where the fun bars and restaurants are located, useful apps for your phone and figuring out the subway system (Once figured out, you can go ANYWHERE in Beijing, it`s very simple and easy to use). I`ve had great fun with my CTs thus far and may it continue.

“But I don`t speak Chinese”
A very common phrase I`ve uttered and have heard from many FTs(Foreign teachers), this is not a problem at all. I was incredibly uncomfortable walking into a local coffee shop pondering the prospect that I would have to actually ask for a coffee from the Chinese staff….with NO Chinese. But it was needless worrying, simple gestures can take you a long way here and if you keep hear ears open, you`ll begin to pick up commonly used phrases as you make your way to work. Another great “support” factor is that you get free Chinese lessons provided by Aihua. These are taught by April, a very experienced teacher who will go out of her way to help her students.

Allure of Beijing
As I gazed out over the high rising buildings from my apartment window, I couldn’t help but be excited about the prospect of exploring this beautiful city. Getting lost in any foreign country I find is an adventure. I have had many great (and funny) experiences whilst wandering the populated streets of Beijing….and it`s only been one month! Something as simple as walking home after work and seeing 20 + old men and women dancing in sequence together to old traditional Chinese music in a local park is lovely experience. I have visited serene temples, beautiful gardens, eaten at delicious restaurants, haggled at lots of markets and meandered my way through the amazing Hutongs. All of this in such a short space of time and still so much more to see and do. You`ll never complain of boredom here.

The city is drenched in History and culture so for all the History buffs out there, you`ve come to the right place. If you`re into sports and fitness, there`s plenty of clubs to join from the Beijing G.A.A club, Beijing Celtics soccer team and the Beijing Aardvarks Rugby team, all within reasonable distances from your living area. The gyms are well priced too, ranging from 700 Yuan to 2000 yuan for a yearly membership.
Bumps along the way

You`re in a completely different than back home so admittedly, you`re going to run into a few hardships along the way. If you come in with an open mind and are willing for change then your time here will be unforgettable.
The traffic and cars on the roads are very unpredictable so be wary when crossing a road, the rules of a green light and a red light don`t seem to register with the Chinese so if you want to survive the year, keep your eyes and ears open!!
Be prepared to haggle at the markets and some street shops, some sellers may notice your pale, white complexion and charge a ridiculous price so be wary of prices, learn the numbers and be reasonable whilst haggling. (It`s great fun haggling, you`ll have plenty of laughs)

Yes, yes, most of the toilets here are Eastern style squatting toilets but it`s not a big issue, well at least for me it isn’t. That being said, when you find a Western style toilet, you can`t help but smile.
In my view, if you decide to come to China, you`re an open minded person so you’re already willing to experience and try new things such as food, using chopsticks etc BUT if you`re not that type of person, you`ll be fine here, there are plenty of western style shops and restaurants such as KFC, McDonalds and Carrefour so nothing to worry about.

I heard so many negatives about the pollution here but I`ve yet to experience a really bad day, some days the visibility will low but nothing that causes a sore throat etc.

Keep moving
Beijing is an exciting, beautiful city. There`s so much to do and see, it`s dizzying. I could keep on writing about the first month and things I`ve experienced and seen but that would be pointless. I feel as though you have to come here first to experience it, you can watch videos and read articles online all day, you have to really be here to understand the work culture, the way of life and general quirkiness of the place. I already feel at home in a country where I don`t speak the language which boggles my mind. Truthfully, I think that`s a testament to Aihuas support network they provide for the new teachers and the people I`m surrounded by, from my housemate to all of the Aihua teachers. So take the leap, come on over and have an experience you will never forget.

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Chinese food, by Francis Dorfling

This was one of my biggest concerns when I decided to come to China. I LOVE food, cooking it and definitely eating it, but what would I eat in China?

Did you know that Chinese food has 5 Key Flavours that must be balanced according to Traditional Chinese Medicine — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy?

Chinese eat far more fruit and vegetables than in the West. So, when we go out and stack up on meaty dishes we get a few confused looks from the waiters. Cold dishes are usually served before the main meal. Besides salad and pickles as appetizers, they can range from jelly, bean curd, noodle salad, cooked meat and sausages, to jellyfish or cold soups and your rice will always be served at the very end of a meal.

Chinese like to give to dishes catchy names. Some names have nothing to do with their ingredients. For example:

• ‘Husband Wife Lung Slices’ is not cannibalism (which you’ll be relieved is not allowed in China), but thinly sliced bovine lung, tongue, or some other cut, seasoned with chili oil.
• ‘Ants climb trees’ (蚂蚁上树 mǎyǐ shàng shù) is vermicelli with spicy minced pork.

Even though they have these interesting dished. There will always be something to eat here. I’ve been here for more thirteen months now and I can tell you that while visiting home, I found myself craving some of my favourite dishes.

It will take some time to get used to the food here, but once you do it is unforgettable. Like me, you could find yourself traveling an hour on the subway just for some delicious cheesy fries and burritos at “Pebbles” or just down the street from your apartment for some Kung pow Chicken and cabbage braised with a meaty sauce.

Just recently we came across a hidden treasure called “MAANCAT” a cute little café. I saw a dish displayed near the counter and it looked amazing…waffles, egg, sausage and bacon with a side salad. It looked amazing, I was a bit worried because let’s face it, food never looks the same once it gets to the table. This is the picture I took and it looked exactly the same as displayed.
So, do not be concerned at all. Chinese food is something you have to experience. It will be a journey on its own.

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Teach English in China - Rachel Goodwin

Chinese impressions, by Rachel Goodwin

The biggest piece of advice I could give someone coming to china is to come with no expectations. While I’ve been here I’ve learned that people watch too much tv and expect to come to this fictional place because that’s what they’ve seen. It’s safe to say if that’s the reason you’re coming you will be disappointed. However if you’re coming for a change of lifestyle and a very different culture then you’re coming to the right place.

China is full of weird and wonderful quirks. The traffic was the first thing that caught my attention upon arrival. Not the sheer amount but just the chaos of it. It wasn’t until a while later that I understood that it was organized chaos. I have never seen something so seemingly crazy work so well! It’s quite poetic really!

The language is something else that takes a lot of getting used to. You can’t understand anything or even read a road sign but ultimately it is wonderful. At first it sounds like people are just screaming around you but if you listen carefully it seems almost song like with all of the different tones they use. It’s quite an experience trying to get around at first as you will likely know no Chinese and the Chinese have very little to no English so it’s a lot of gestures. It almost looks like you’re playing charades so be prepared to laugh at yourself. The translation apps can also be a bit off sometimes, I was once told to go somewhere called princesses grave for something. It’s safe to say I found this odd but hilarious.

One of the best things I noticed is how friendly the Chinese are. People just want to stop and say hello, take your picture (granted I found this very strange at first but it kind of grows on you) and just be in your presence.

Not being able to use certain apps and websites is a concern for some people. It does take a bit of getting used to but after a week or so it’s really nice. It’s a very big change after most people live their lives on social media but the restricted access makes you really appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. It helps you to live your own life and not live through the lives of others on Facebook.

China is a very big and thriving place. Its constantly busy but there are the few hidden gems around that are full of nature and beauty. Some of the nicest temples blend in amongst a flurry of trees and flowers. These places are amazing to go to with friends or even alone. The old Summer Palace is a good example of this. This place was buzzing with tourists but the land is that big you would barely see any as you were walking around. It is the perfect place to relax!

China has been a great adventure for me so far, I have learned a lot about a culture that is so different from my own.

Teach English in China - Andrew Cooper

Ordering coffee, by Andrew Cooper

When I first arrived in Beijing, the very first place I went (and the very first thing I bought) was Starbucks, for a coffee. Not exactly immersing myself in the local culture, I know, but sometimes you just need that reassuring cup of warm, caffeinated sludge to remind you that familiar comforts are available even on the other side of the world. They are used to foreigners at the airport, so buying that first coffee was an easy experience: smooth as a Teflon waterslide. Trying to order in Shijingshan was a slightly different experience and I eventually resorted to the tried and tested method of pointing and grunting like a chimp in an experiment. Effective, but slightly undignified.

After a week I had picked up the art of saying “zhe ge” (this one) and “dui” (correct). As with ordering food, I’d point at the picture and say zhe ge. Any subsequent questions I would just nod my head and repeat dui, dui, dui as if I had a clue what was being said. Then I’d sit down to enjoy my gallon of coffee with 32 extra shots and a sandwich floating in it.

These days I’m proud to announce that I can order my own coffee. The staff down at Starbucks were so impressed that they even wrote my Chinese name on the cup like they do back home! Hang on, I’m pretty sure my name isn’t wai guo ren…

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Lesson planning, by Henriëtta Koortzen

It is 1:00am. You have a full day of teaching tomorrow and you are still up. Why? Is it all the excitement of knowing that you will be living in one of the greatest cities in the world for the next year? Or is it nervousness keeping you up because it is your first time teaching English as a foreign language? You could still be up because you are working on lesson plans, making sure every game and activity is perfect for your first couple of classes. In my experience as an English teacher at Aihua, it can be a combination of these keeping you up at night. During the first couple of weeks, however, lesson planning is definitely to blame for your lack of sleep.

During training, example lesson plans and lists upon lists of games and activities are given to you to use as a guideline. Not only does it help a lot with lesson planning, it ensures a fun time for both you and the students. In the beginning, you rely heavily on these materials and always have it by your side when lesson planning. You look through it constantly to make sure you are on the right track and that the games chosen are fit for each section. You spend almost twice as much, or, if you are like me, three times as much time planning a lesson than you spend actually teaching it. Days go by and when people ask you what you have been up to, ‘lesson planning’ is usually the first thing that comes to mind.

However, with the passing of time, you get more and more familiar with the games and the layout of a lesson plan. You feel more confident and you try new things in class because you know what your kids like. You know what works and what does not for every class. You will soon come to find that all the game lists and notes on lesson planning you had once relied so heavily on, is somewhere in a box or file you haven’t look at in ages. Planning a lesson takes a third of the time it used to and you find yourself having time for so many other things. Things you used to miss because you had to lesson plan.

The truth is, when you start teaching, it will feel like lesson planning is the only thing you will be doing for the entire year in China. You will feel down at times, as I am sure most new teachers feel like when they just start teaching. Experienced teachers will all say the same thing though: It does get better. So chin up because when you finally get to that stage, you will be the experienced teacher reassuring new teachers that everything does get better eventually.

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Teaching young kids in Beijing, by Francis Dorfling

When I think of these words “Teaching young kids in Beijing” it brings one word to mind JOY. This is something you need to experience for yourself to fully understand.

I’ve been teaching young kids in Beijing for one year now and it has been the best year of my life. For some young learners, you will be the first Foreigner they ever meet. They will be shy or the most energetic kid you have ever seen, but they will crawl their way into your heart. I have had my bad days in Beijing, but just hearing them call your name when they walk in the door makes it all fade away. These kids will love you in their own way and they will show it.

Come prepared with a list of English names that you like, but not too difficult. Why? In some classes, you will have new kids that do not have an English name, so parents will ask you to name them. You will also find a few strange names like “Starwars, Demo, Yoyo, Coco, Kitty, Tiger and different FRUIT.

It has been a challenge too don’t get me wrong. Most will have a low level of English so you will start from the basics…Hello. My name is ____, but when you get to the point where they can remember what they’ve learned and say it with so much confidence and the biggest smile on those little faces. You will feel that joy.

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Ordering food in Beijing, by Anne Kleimenhagen

Upon arrival in Beijing, there were many things that seemed daunting; calling a cab, buying clothes, and even teaching. The one thing that did not register as being overly difficult was something I had taken for granted up until this point in my life: ordering food. Usually, eating out consisted of grabbing the same menu from the same place down the street. I knew them, they knew me, and the entire process from start to finish was easy. Enter: Beijing dining. The first couple of times out, especially on your own, can be worrisome. The waiters hover while you order food and often times, people are looking at you from the minute you walk through the door. At first, what seems scary and even rude, slowly morphs into curiosity and acceptance. The looks become smiles and the hovering turns into broken, but joyful conversations in Chi-English: something that you will learn not to take for granted. Ordering food can be difficult, but it’s the most difficult times that end up being the most fun and memorable. So explore, try new places and get your pointer finger ready for the most exciting restaurant experiences you’ll probably ever have.

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Chatting with Chinese people, by John Mulligan

Prior to moving to China it is safe to say I had very little interaction with Chinese people. Coming from a small rural town in the west of Ireland I had little idea of what to expect from the culture and the people itself. A quick Google search before setting out for pastures new left me with more questions than answers. With the ‘rules’ I had learnt on the internet for etiquette and conversation with Chinese people swimming around in my head I set off.

My first conversations with Chinese people tended to consist of a lot of blank stares and pointing on my part. Things taken for granted back home became quite the struggle such as ordering food or trying to tell a taxi driver where you want to go. In the majority of these situations however I found the locals to be very patient with me. A few months later and my broken attempts at conversing in Chinese have not improved a whole lot! Despite this I am more often than not greeted with warm smiles and bucket loads of patience, many natives are more than happy to wait for me to try and remember the word for ‘take away’ or ‘bill’. By simply making an effort to learn a few words and key phrases my life is made easier on a daily basis.

My Chinese co-workers are some of the most helpful people I have ever encountered. From helping me to find a way to watch my favourite sports, giving directions, tips on things to see in this vast city and translating I honestly don’t believe my experience would have been as enjoyable without their much appreciated input. They also poses the amazing ability to speak confidently in more than one language (something I fear is a skill beyond my grasp). A group of people every bit as kind as they are clever, I had not meet before. My advice to anyone worrying about how they will talk to people from such a different culture, don’t be! Don’t make my mistake, don’t Google it.

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The Beauty of Beijing, by Carol Whelen

“How will you cope living in such a crowded city?” “Are you going to be ok in the smog?” “How are you going to cope living day to day without knowing the language?” These were the main concerns from my family and friends when I said I was moving to Beijing for a year. Having travelled before, moving to China was going to be a huge challenge due to the language barrier and cultural differences. However four months later I have seen the beauty of Beijing and found I have settled in quite well. I have taken advantage of the lovely summer days in August to go explore the city and even though it is difficult to so in the winter, I’m trying to make the effort.

I love to go explore on my days off, bringing with me nothing more than my travel card and my camera. The amazing Yuan Ming Yuan Park is a fantastic place to visit when you have a spare day. The park is massive and there is a mixture of busy trails and quiet ones. I spent a majority of my day here and it’s easily accessible by subway with the park being located directly opposite the station entrance.

One of my favourite places I have visited has to be the Summer Palace. We went late August and there was a lot of smog around the city. Some of my favourite photos were taken when I was there. The smog added a different atmosphere to the area, it seemed more fairy-tale like and now I find I will go out and explore more often on those smoggy days. The Summer Palace has a lot to offer and is a great starting point for your list while you are in Beijing. Not as expansive as Yuan Ming Yuan but still just as stunning. It is a lot busier though and going on a weekend day you may have to battle your way through the crowds. It is undeniably worth a visit.

Lastly I have to say living in the Shijingshan area is remarkable. You are close to the city, and far enough away to find some peace and quiet. There are many little parks and recreation areas dotted around. Laoshan Park is great to take a break away from the hustle and bustle of the area. It’s a small park located near the Bajiao subway station. It has an old Olympic mountain bike track which you can walk around and some fantastic viewpoints of the Shijingshan area.

It really is the case of don’t judge a book by its cover. All we hear about is the smog, the crowds, our differences etc. When you actually arrive here in Beijing, it is really astonishing how quickly it feels like home. Take advantage of days off and where your located, there are many wonderful sights in Beijing and I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of what this incredible city has to offer.