sonja

In the spotlight in China, by Sonja Magnus

I have been in China for almost three months now. Before I came to Beijing I didn’t really have any expectations for what it was going to be like. However, after only a short amount of time here I have come to realize that not only is China an extremely diverse and interesting country but the people here are also some of the most interesting individuals I have ever met.

Chinese people are welcoming, hard-working and very family-oriented. They are also rather curious about foreigners, which often leads to funny encounters with the locals on daily basis. That being said, one of the things you have to get used to China is getting your pictures taken. The way Chinese people do this is not subtle to say at least and I often spot someone taking a picture of me on the subway, bus or on the street without even trying to hide it. It can come as a bit of a shock in the beginning when random people approach you and suddenly you realize you are posing for a “selfie” with a Chinese family. Especially for a lot of the mainland Chinese people, it is very exciting to see a westerner and it just adds to their excitement if you try to speak some Chinese with them. I have no idea of what they actually do with the photos of my confused face but I’m just trying to embrace it and get used to these moments in the spotlight.

Probably the funniest encounter I’ve had so far was a couple of weeks ago on my way to work. I was walking towards my center from the bus stop when an older Chinese man spotted me. His whole face lit up, he raised his hands in the air and joyfully started running towards me. Speaking in extremely fast Chinese (way beyond my non-existent Chinese skills) he excitedly pointed at my hair and did a funny dance around me. Then for my amusement he got on one knee, took my hand and obviously jokingly proposed to me. People around us were clapping and cheering. Then this sweet man disappeared as fast as he had appeared and I was left on the street with a confused smile on my face.

It’s little encounters like this with the locals that add to the experience and make your stay in Beijing so much more memorable.

Teach English in China - Matthew Jones

Walking on Ancient History, by Matthew Jones

For two weeks every year, inter-city transportation in China is buzzing with tourists. Famous attractions and sights have queues around the block. Chinese flags sprout up everywhere, and in the most unlikely of places.

But these are not foreign tourists. It’s time for a ‘Golden Week’, when residents of China travel, relax, and spend time with family and friends. These are two seven-day national holidays around Chinese New Year, in January or February, and National Day, at the beginning of October.

So, three of us lovely teachers at Aihua – residents of China – were faced with a problem: how could we visit a national treasure, during a national holiday, and avoid the crowds? Our solution: a two hour bus journey, followed by three hours of hiking on challenging terrain, to a remote section of the Great Wall.

The scenery during the hike up the mountain was spectacular, but nothing could surpass the views along the Wall at the top. Did you know that parts of it are over 2,300 years old? Whilst much of where we hiked had been restored we were still, literally, walking on ancient history.

Having spent some time exploring and taking photos, we set up our tents and our guides cooked us dinner. We looked at the stars, sat round the fire and – rolling back the years – roasted some marshmallows. Eventually, we went to sleep. How many people can say they have slept on a ‘wonder of the world’?

The next morning we climbed down the mountain and began the journey back to Beijing, safe in the knowledge that our memories (and photos) of the trip would always be with us. If you decide to work in China, which you should, camping on the Great Wall is a priority. That is, if you like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

patrick_watters

Riding the buses in Beijing, by Patrick Watters

Back home I was not someone who would typically use public transportation. That option is usually a last resort. In America we are so accustomed to driving our own cars everywhere that we forget about the benefits and possibilities of such a service. Since the traffic in Beijing is scary and daunting at all times of the day, I told myself I would not purchase a scooter or motor bike for the fear of ending up at the hospital. Therefore, public transportation is the way to go for me and after my first month it has really grown on me now. I am both a fan of the busses and the subway system, however I tend to use the busses on a more regular basis to get to and from work. I never learned the schedule because they arrive five to ten minutes in between each other so I can catch one at any time essentially. Most of the time I stand because they are crowded, but this too has grown on me. I don’t expect a seat anymore. It is very cheap to ride the bus so when another coworker mentions grabbing a taxi instead I find myself declining the offer because what’s the point? Sure it may take a little longer and you make be squished in with what feels like 100 other people, but you get to your destination in the end. As a foreigner you do get stared at a good amount, and this is no different on public transportation. Many people stare at me and if they are close enough, try to look at my phone and see what I am doing or what music I am listening to which I find pretty funny. You most likely will hear people practically yelling into their phones, but odds are they aren’t mad they are just having a regular conversation. A tip to remember about riding the bus though is to make sure you scan your card before getting off, otherwise you pay more in the end. Trust me its happened once or twice and I wonder where all my bus money went after only a handful of rides. All in all it’s an interesting experience each day I go to work.

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Arriving in China, by Peter Campion

As I am writing this, I am marking the end of my sixth week with Aihua in Beijing. Every day presents new challenges, however these challenges have made this experience more enjoyable and I am definitely looking forward to the months ahead. My impression of Aihua from the outset was positive. Throughout the interview and visa application process, communication was clear, comprehensive and prompt. Since my arrival, this professionalism has continued and helps to make life in Beijing somewhat easier.

Training
During our first two weeks, we complete a training course with the school’s Training Managers. For somebody coming from a non-teaching background, we were provided with practical advice on managing your class. Beyond this, our Foreign Centre Supervisors are on-site to provide us with help and support when issues arise.

Work
Following the training period, we were allocated to one of Aihua’s six centres in West Beijing. I was assigned to Wanshang. I work alongside four foreign teachers, our Foreign Centre Supervisor, five Chinese teachers and the Chinese sales staff. From the outset, we were made very welcome with offers of food on a daily basis, as well as a welcome gift following our first month. Besides working with a fantastic bunch of Chinese and Foreign Staff, I was pleased to discover a coveted “Western loo” on the third floor of our building! It’s the small things…

Accommodation
Aihua provides all Foreign Teachers with accommodation in Shijingshan. West Beijing is traditionally not frequented by many westerners and consequently, we are a novelty for many of our neighbours who frantically force their grandchildren to speak English with us. Nevertheless, people are very welcoming and friendly.

The accommodation is of a Western standard. I share a two-bedroom apartment with one other Foreign Teacher. We have been unfortunate enough to experience a number of maintenance issues over the last few weeks, however Summer (foreign affairs officer) has come to our rescue on each and every occasion.

Administrative Support
Aihua provides Foreign Teachers with a Z visa, which is necessary to work legally in China. Luke (foreign affairs officer) completed this timely and complicated process on our behalf. We had to make one visit for a medical check and one visit to the visa-processing centre. Both visits were uncomplicated and fast. During the first few days, Summer and Luke also helped us to open a bank account and buy a SIM card. Again, without Summer or Luke, both processes would be timely and almost impossible.

Food
Food is cheap and plentiful in Beijing. You can enjoy a Chinese meal for 10-30RMB. Nevertheless, after a few days of fried food, a trip to a Western restaurant is welcomed. Many Western dining options are available in Shijingshan, however they do tend to be somewhat more expensive than a Chinese meal. Grocery stores are also common and offer a variety of Western products.

Beijing
Beijing is an awe-inspiring city. As the capital of the PRC, it has a long a long and varied past and this is seen in it’s people and it’s architecture. Over the past six weeks, I’ve visited many of the tourist sites in the city, as well as making a visit to a village outside of Beijing. The highlight of my experience thus far has been visiting the Great Wall. This mammoth structure is something to reckon with and I will most definitely return.

As week seven approaches, I’m looking forward to our October holiday and the coming months. I’ve yet to experience a “bad China” day and I am confident with the support shown so far, these days will be very few and far between.

sinead_hegarty

Misadventures in Chinese, by Sinead Hegarty

While my love for China and the Chinese people grows most days, the language barrier is still one issue that refuses to let go. Every day brings new challenges and tests in communication. One such test occurred when ordering my favourite breakfast food – baozi or 包子 – a small steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables and typically dipped in a concoction of chili and vinegar. Delicious. Now, when you first start learning Chinese you soon realise the importance of choosing the correct quantifier for each word, for example it’s not one water it’s one bottle of water. In my excitement for baozi all this went out the window and instead of ordering a plate of baozi I ordered one tiny little bun with a side dish of one bemused waitress. Being too embarrassed to admit my mistake I explained how I had already eaten today, ate my tiny baozi and left. Never will I neglect my Chinese grammar again.

While I would love to say this is my only mistake in Chinese, unfortunately it is merely the beginning of a very long list. This list includes ordering pig intestine rather than mushroom, realising I was saying diarrhea instead of thank you, ordering 50 dumplings rather than 15 and buying a train ticket to the completely wrong city. The final mistake was only rectified when I started speaking to people in the queue and realised I was about to travel 700 miles north of where I wanted to go. However, despite my frustration with Mandarin the language has allowed me to make Chinese friends, experience the amazing variety of food that this country has to offer and see the most breathtaking landscape.

lucille2

My first month in China, by Lucille Van Niekerk

If you had asked me a year ago where I would find myself living and working I would most assuredly have said somewhere in South America. Yet, here I am in China. The question that begs answering is, why? I instinctively knew that it would be the antithesis of my own culture and upbringing. In this contrast and difference I have experienced a plethora of emotions. I have vacillated between extreme joy and frustration. Now, now before you go and diagnose me with a personality disorder let me explain further.

The things that have made me so happy are the following;

On arrival to Beijing I was met by the Recruitment Manager, Rob. He was the epitome of friendliness and truly made me feel welcome. It was later that I found out that he and a new teacher fondly known as KB, our Georgia peach had waited for me for 6 hours. Despite this extreme punishment for them and imposition both were lovely and had to be subjected to my verbal diarrhea for an hour. How they never landed in therapy after that is beyond my comprehension. These two individuals allayed any anxiety I might have had and made me feel that coming to Beijing was a good choice.

Meeting the other new foreign teachers just solidified my belief that my China experience would be good. They are truly a bunch of gifted, talented and intelligent people. I have read most of their dissertations which is a newly discovered passion of mine and they are truly a clever bunch. The older foreign teachers have gone above and beyond to facilitate an easy transition and to assist us with anything.

The school’s foreign affairs officers, Luke and Summer are the reason we function so easily in China. They have patiently and kindly assisted us with everything. I mean everything. You struggle to communicate with the plumber, telephone guy we call poor Luke or Summer. Despite this these two individuals still smile and are not yet on antidepressants.

The Chinese staff and teachers known as CT’s were very welcoming and kind. They truly made an extreme effort to make us feel welcome. My first centre meeting they arranged food for us and eagerly laid out the table. There was an abundance of fruit and health drinks and for a brief moment I thought they were hinting I need to diet. Fruit however, is a big deal in China and this was their way of making a big deal to welcome us.

All of the above bears mentioning as without it my story would have read differently. If I was surrounded by people I did not have an affinity for and not felt welcome no matter how many treasures China had I would have missed it because my vision would have been distorted. So, to the lot of you thank you.

I have discovered that Chinese people love salsa dancing. A common passion we share. Beijing has Salsa clubs and I attended a class at the International Art Plaza. I was the only foreigner in the class and it was so much fun.

Music is a great love of mine and Beijing has a treasure chest full of gems I am still discovering. KTV is a karaoke club and normally it would not be something I enjoy. Karaoke in China is just so much fun and different. I enjoyed it so much I lost my voice.

Getting lost in any foreign country I find is an adventure. China is no different. I had such a great experience whilst wandering in the street trying to find a restaurant. A Chinese guy noticed that I was discombobulated and decided to help me. The next thing I know a woman on a scooter tells me to hop on the back and proceeds to take me to the restaurant.

Another joy filled moment for me was whilst I was travelling on the subway. I had a 20 minute discussion with a Chinese lady each speaking our own language and gesticulating profusely. Pure joy! I think we solved the world’s issues in those 20 minutes and I reckon on some strange level we really understood each other.

My frustrations are based around the following;

The toilet issue – It has to be said. I now value, love and respect western toilets on a level I never thought I could or would. When I find one it is one of the greatest joys of my life. I can truly say with utter conviction that I will never truly get comfortable with squat toilets.

My ineptitude at learning Chinese – I feel I have regressed and feel mentally challenged as I point and nod all the time when communicating with Chinese people. I order my food by pointing and a noodle restaurant I frequent has now become so accustomed to my pointing that when I walk in they point. It’s not hard for them as I order the same thing every time.

Chinese traffic rules – China has a unique interpretation or set of traffic rules. When crossing a road at the pedestrian crossing be careful green means a scooter will still ride and cars too even if you are walking across the street.

Rush hour traffic on a subway – I have never experienced been jammed like a sardine before. I still can’t conceptualise how so many people filled one train compartment. I spent an hour with my face in a guy’s armpit due to been vertically challenged and squashed from all sides.

Beijing is truly a vibrant, beautiful city. It has cast some spell on me this surprises me the most. I find the mountains, temples and sites magical, alluring and just beautiful. I feel at home here already. I feel at home in a country where I cannot communicate effectively, have toilet and pollution issues and am afraid of rush hour on the subway. I have found with my travels that anywhere you go you will be faced with frustrations and issues but I warn you Beijing will seduce you with its unique charm.

Chris T for WP

Food in China by Chris Taylor

Before you come to China, it’s hard to know what kind of food to expect. The first thing you realize when you arrive is that it’s nothing like the Chinese food you get at home and that it’s much, much better! There are a vast number of Chinese dishes and types of cuisine to try and, lucky for us, most of them can be found in Beijing. Each province has its own specialty, its own cooking methods and ingredient preferences. Chinese people tend to divide the country into four areas of cuisine; North, South, East and West. Cooking from cities within each area is said to share similar characteristics but the food from different areas (North and South, for example) are quite different. In practice, it can be quite hard to pigeon hole Chinese food in this way but there are some general differences. For example, food from the South of China tends to be sweeter whereas food from the West (e.g. Sichuan) is often spicy. Some provinces and cities are more famous for their cuisine than others and this is especially the case when certain dishes have made it onto western menus. ‘Kung Pao’ chicken is a good example of such a dish. The Chinese version (Gong Bao Ji Ding 宫保鸡丁) is from Sichuan province and tends to be more strongly flavored, less sweet and less gloopy than the western counterpart. Other types of food have become famous as ‘symbols’ of Chinese food, such as hot pot. The best thing to do is be adventurous, try new restaurants in your area and go to ‘The Beijinger’ or ‘City weekend’ to find recommended restaurants that specialize in certain regional or ethnic cuisines. In the meantime, I’ve included some of my favorite dishes that I’ve never got tired of eating!

 

‘Dry spicy pot’ Malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅 (Sichuan province) This is a ‘must try’ dish for anyone who likes spicier food. You can pick the level of spiciness and also some different ‘flavors’ of your ‘pot’. I find this dish to have more of a ‘dry spice’ so don’t be alarmed by the huge number of chilies that come with it. You can entirely customize what goes into your dish as the menu is essentially one long ingredient list. It can be difficult to judge how much to order at first but, for two people, two kinds of meat and maybe 6 other things should be enough. If in doubt, you can ask the waitress if it’s enough or sometimes they’ll tell you it’s not enough. The menus always have pictures.

 

Dry Spicy Pot

‘Hand pulled noodles’ la mian 拉面 (Gansu province, Lanzhou city) These hand pulled noodles are increasingly popular all over China and originate from the Muslim Autonomous Region of Gansu. It can be interesting to watch the noodles being made and marvel at the effortlessness skill of the chefs as they turn a mound of dough into these elastic noodles. One way to tell the more ‘authentic’ restaurants is to look at the staff working there (for example, the waitresses often wear headscarves) and you can also usually find Halal certification on the walls.

la Mian

 

You Po Mian 油泼面 and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 (Shaanxi province) These delicious noodles are from the home of the Terracotta Warriors (Shaanxi province). They are handmade, cooked quickly then tossed in an appetizing concoction of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, crunchy bean sprouts and some greens (usually Bok Choi). Stir the noodles thoroughly until they’re well covered. If you ever make it to Xi’an or Shaanxi you’ll find ‘Rou jia mo’ on almost every street, in every restaurant. The name essentially means ‘meat between bread’ and it’s is sometimes translated as a ‘Chinese hamburger’. However, it’s essentially a Chinese pulled pork sandwich with slow braised meat in between a plain flat bread.

You Po MianRou Jia Mo

 

Zha Jiang Mian 炸酱面 (Beijing) Zha Jiang Mian is a northern Chinese noodle dish with a sauce comprised of a thick, sweet, salty soy bean paste and minced meat. That may sound a bit strange but when it’s done well it tastes fantastic. The noodles are usually served with shredded cucumber to give the dish some ‘bite’. You can find this dish in many places but it’s worth seeking out somewhere with good reviews to make sure you’re tasting the real deal. Either that or make a local friend who knows how to make it!

Zha jian Mian

 

‘Big Plate Chicken’ Da pan ji 大盘鸡 (Xingjiang Province) A famous Xingjiang dish comprising of chicken pieces, potatoes, chilies, garlic and onions in a really fragrant, smoky sauce with star anise, cardamom and Sichuan pepper. Despite the pepper and chili it’s usually a mildly spicy dish. You might also find noodles buried beneath the mound of chicken and potatoes. This dish tends to come in different sizes to cater for large parties, however, if there is just one size assume that it’s quite large (enough for two or three). Da pan ji is a good example of ‘fusion food’ in that the star anise and black cardamom have strong links with Central Asia while other ingredients like black vinegar and broad bean paste are Chinese. The Silk Road did connect China to Central Asia via Xingjiang so it seems to make sense that the food from this region would take on characteristics of both regions.

Da pan Ji

This is just a small glimpse into the food that Beijing has to offer but I hope it’s sufficiently wet your appetite! Please feel free to let me know what you think of my recommendations when you get here.