Every so often, a bad “Beijing day” happens to every foreigner in Beijing. It’s on these days that I have to remind myself why I’m in Beijing. While there’s many amazing reasons why I’ve stayed two years so far, two reasons usually stay at the top of the list – quality of life on an English teacher’s income, and the fascinating mix of people I meet in Beijing.
I work far fewer hours than I would at home (which for me is the US) on an income that stretches far beyond what it would in the US. No matter where you live, it’s up to you to manage your income, but I find I’m able to live comfortably—I don’t splurge but I have a nice two-bedroom apartment shared with one other person, I go out for dinner and drinks very regularly, and I’m still able to keep some money at the end of the month for traveling and savings. I’ve also had numerous opportunities to travel internationally and within China: for me, that’s included adventures like snorkeling off the island of Koh Chang; meeting up for local Chinese food and beers at “beer jug” place after work (when you can’t read Chinese, you might as well give things your own names!); motorbiking to hidden beaches in Bali with a South African friend; sipping tea shared by a tea master in a seaside hostel in Dalian; getting local food for dinner at a hawker center in Singapore (with a local Singaporean I met on a short solo trip to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia); getting foot massages at the place across the road from my Beijing apartment and talking about life’s drama (your masseuse is also a great person to practice Chinese with!); finding a restaurant still serving fried chicken at 3am in Seoul (don’t ask!); being fed fresh cucumbers and invited to small Chinese hometowns on a 12-hour crowded standing train (with absolutely no other foreigners anywhere for miles – pro tips: don’t stand near the bathrooms and buy the tiny stools—they’re worth it!); staying with a Muslim family in a tiny Indonesian village in Lombok; Sunday brunches with church friends (followed by anything from water fights in Chaoyang Park to deep conversations over craft beer at 京A—the sky’s the limit!); a luxurious stay at a 5-star resort with a rooftop pool in Shanghai; numerous late night hangouts at our apartment; floating down a quiet canal in Suzhou; singing Mongolian songs around a campfire next to a yurt on the grasslands; watching the sunset from a watchtower after a night of camping on the Great Wall; days of exploring Beijing’s old hutong streets; and the list goes on. (The previous sentence is ridiculously long for my writing-trained brain, but yet doesn’t include half of the adventures I’d love to mention.) All of those opportunities would not have been possible without Beijing, without the people I’ve met and ways I’ve been challenged here, without being an 英语老师 .
Secondly, Beijing is a multicultural city like no other. Most, nearly all, of the foreigners you meet are not tourists—they are people who live and study or work abroad and often have fascinating stories and backgrounds to share. When I’ve traveled and worked in other locations, you tend to meet three types of people: the locals who will generally live and work in one place for the rest of their lives, the foreigners who are in and out the next week or the next month (generally people taking a break from school or work in Europe or the US to travel), and the few who actually plan to live there (but still usually not for more than a few months). In Beijing, most of the people you meet are here for a year or longer, usually as an English teacher, as a student (over 100,000 students from every continent study in Beijing), in international business, or working for an embassy. People come from all classes and backgrounds. They are not (necessarily) privileged—a good number of students in Beijing study here because it’s more affordable than other study abroad locations. There are four foreign teachers (including me) at our smaller center, and we come from four different countries; it’s not uncommon for me to look around a get-together in Beijing and realized that a dozen or more countries are gathered. Last night, I met a group of friends for quiz night at QMex—our group of seven friends represented five different countries and three continents, gathered in China to eat Mexican food. I’m involved in an international church where our small group’s Thanksgiving dinner this year was attended by friends from the US, Canada, South Africa, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and China—and this nowhere touches on the number of nationalities represented in the church as a whole. It doesn’t get much more multicultural than that, especially for a girl who grew up where anyone who doesn’t speak English as their native (or only) language is unusual.
Living in Beijing is a challenge like no other. It teaches you problem solving, how to interact with people who think and act differently than you, and how to stay sane in the midst of it all. But at the end of the day, the challenge will bring so many new opportunities.
And when you’re alone there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants…
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure where you step. Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just
never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up
your right foot with your left…
be your name Buxhaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!
(Dr. Seuss, “Oh the Places You’ll Go”)