My year in China, by Lucille Van Niekerk

A month into my Chinese adventure I wrote a piece about my experiences at the time. I am coming to the end of my year contract and guess what, I am staying. It would generally be a safe assumption to make that for most people when they start something new and like it they experience the ‘honeymoon’ phase and everything is just beautiful and great. A year later, my relationship with China has progressed and I am more in love with the place than when I started. I am more surprised than anybody that this has happened. I have lived in many countries and I seriously would not have put China on my bucket list but this place and it’s people have seriously cast a spell on me.

I truly feel after a year I am only just beginning my adventure as there is so much to do and experience. The affinity and affection I felt for the people I arrived with still exists and has grown exponentially. The group I started with turned out to be the nicest bunch of people I have had the privilege to meet and work with. The older foreign teachers also fall into this category.

I have worked at the same center for a year now out of choice. My work days consist of working with people I genuinely like, laughing so much my insides jiggle. The Chinese staff are wonderful people who are so kind and thoughtful who randomly buy you gifts and do little things because they know you like it. I have taught the same kids for a year and really love them. They have become so accustomed to my hugs that they have just resigned themselves to the fact that I am strange that way.

I have progressed with my Chinese from pointing to saying words now. Okay, so the pronunciation still leaves a lot to be desired but I can write in Chinese and feel like a real little artist. This is huge for me I am not at all gifted artistically. My English has experienced a wonderful fusion of different accents. I speak with a South African accent fused with Yorkshire and Irish and I attempt the Southern drawl. I have been asked to desist with this as I have caused my American colleagues to develop Angina as a result. An example of the Yorkshire, Irish is the following, You have nought (nothing) to worry about. It will be good ‘craic ‘for ye – loads of fun for you.

If you are considering coming to China I truly would wish for you that you have as wonderful adventure as I have. If you have never travelled or lived in a foreign country before I’d like you to keep the following in mind.

Most people don’t like hearing this but a lot depends on you as a person. How willing you are to go out and experience the place and embrace it’s people and culture. You could go to the most beautiful place on planet earth but if your mind set is rigid and you look for things to complain about and moan you will miss the beauty of the place and deny yourself the wonderful adventure.

It’s easy to get into the negative mind set when you faced with something so different but I dare you to laugh and find something humorous in it instead of negative. My relationship with squat toilets is still not a good one and I never think it will ever progress to a loving one but I’ve accepted it’s a way of life here.

Just pack your bag and come. Have no fear, be open minded and watch China weave it’s magic on you.

Teach English in China - Tayla Collins

Getting Lost in Beijing, by Tayla Collins

While touring Beijing it’s very easy to find the tourist attractions, but once you get inside it can be a bit difficult to find your way around because you don’t know which exact building you’re looking for, or the English signs are directly translated so they aren’t helpful. This can be a terrific way to get to see the entire site as you explore every nook and cranny. I have seen some amazing things that I would have never seen if I had known where I was going.

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Ba Da Chu is a great place to hike that is only a twenty-minute subway trip away. It has eight temples scattered throughout the grounds, which are still in use. You can’t get to all eight temples in one day so it is definitely a place that requires repeat trips. We were looking for the path to hike to get to the top of the mountain without using the cable car and we came across this cemetery that had amazing stonework and engraving.

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The Lama Temple actually contains a series of temples, one behind the other. If you don’t keep looking you would miss the best bit which is in the last temple. It is a gigantic statue that is about 4/5 stories high that was carved out of a single tree. It is an incredible sight to see, though it does make you curious to see what the tree looked like.

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While exploring the Confucius Temple, I thought I was exploring the music hall, then music started playing so I took a seat to listen for a bit. All of a sudden, I found myself watching a dance concert with music and commentary (that I obviously couldn’t understand). It made my week!

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Exploring Beijing made me realise that sometimes it’s a good thing to not know where you are going or what a sing says because it makes life so much more interesting. The best way to see and explore is always to get lost.

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Learning Chinese, by Nicholas Flesch

Many people come to China because they’re interested in learning the language. Chinese, to a foreigner, is a mysterious but fascinating thing. Are characters words, letters, or neither? How do you know what sound is associated with a given character? What’s the deal with ‘tones’?

Whilst detailed answers to these questions can be found on Chinese language learning websites, I will give my personal opinion on perhaps one of the most pressing issues: how difficult is it? The answer is simple: it depends.

In some ways, Chinese is an easy language to learn.

Whilst some of the sounds in Chinese are different to English, there are far fewer: it has roughly 1,300 different syllables, whilst English has 10-15,000! Of course, this runs both ways: it makes speaking easier (once you get used to tones), but listening more difficult, since many words can (or do) sound the same, with meaning determined by context.

Another interesting thing about Chinese is how ruthlessly logical some of its words are, which makes them much easier to remember. Consider the word ‘computer’ in English. How could you convey this idea using only two basic words? How about ‘electricity brain’? That’s how they say it in Chinese: 电脑. ‘Taxi’? Go out rent car: 出租车. ‘Lighter’? Hit fire machine: 打火机.

In other ways, however, it’s an extremely challenging language for the learner. Needless to say, learning to write characters is a time-consuming process. You need to be very consistent and organized and, in my experience, practice writing the characters by rote – every day.

But what if you don’t want to write by hand, but only read – or even write on a phone or computer? Then you’re in luck.

Reading characters is much easier than you think. In English, we don’t read words letter-by-letter, but view the word as a whole, and I believe something similar happens with characters: you can read and understand it without necessarily being able to write it.

Similarly, writing characters using technology is much easier than you think, because there are some very intelligent predictive keyboards available. When I wrote the word for ‘taxi’ above, I typed ‘chu zu che’ into my computer and it knew what I meant. I didn’t even need to remember the tones.

So, how difficult is Chinese? It depends on your objectives. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy – no language is easy to learn – but I certainly don’t believe it’s as impossible as you might be led to believe. With consistent study, a good attitude, and the right reasons for learning the language, you can succeed. Good luck!

Teach English in China - Andrew Cooper

Street BBQs in Beijing, by Andrew Cooper

Honey glazed chicken on a stick! Cumin spiced lamb on a stick! Bread. On a stick! These are some of the delights available to you at one of Beijing’s millions of street food carts that occupy pavements and block cycle lanes at this time of year. Whether it’s a backstreet or a major junction, anywhere is liable to become a hotbed of bustling bodies and incredible smells: traffic flow be damned!

Some hardy species of street food can be found out and about at all times of the year. The humble jian bing (an egg pancake fried with sesame seeds, coriander and spring onion, artistically painted with a smear of thick soy sauce) is an ever-present even during the depths of winter. Lettuce and a crispy cracker (called bao cui) add bulk to this delicious, decadent wrap. You can also add one of the alarmingly sweet sausages that are unaccountably popular here if your taste buds are beyond saving.
Baked sweet potatoes are also a year-round feature of the Beijing streetscape. There are few things more comforting than struggling through a bitingly cold morning and getting a noseful of the warm, earthy smell of a wood stoked brazier stacked with a dozen sweet, sweet potatoes.

As for the summer arrivals, those fair-weather BBQs that can’t offer the reassuring stodge required in winter, the most common type of fare offered is chuan. These are like a typical shish kebab: skewered pieces of generously flavoured meat flame grilled to perfection. Vegetarian options are available too in the form of sweetcorn and, less interestingly, bread. Chuan are extremely addictive. It’s dangerously easy to stop for just one or two and end up requiring a taxi to take you home, weighed down by the 2kg of grilled meat sitting in your stomach and the crushing weight of your food shame. I’m an optimist though, and I always reason that this extra weight must be partially offset by my lack of self-control.

As with all street food it is wise to indulge in moderation, although I tend to do so twice in one sitting.

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Making Chinese friends, by Peter Campion

As an immigrant in China, it is often easier to gravitate towards peers who find themselves equally new to this land. The immigrant community in Beijing is vast and vibrant, and there are frequently events allowing you to meet new people. However, there is one significant issue with this network – it’s transient. The immigrant community is in constant flux and if you are looking at spending longer than a year in China, it is wise to make some Chinese friends.

Prior to coming to China, I had a number of Chinese friends from when I studied abroad. I am lucky that some of these are based in Beijing and we meet frequently. Through this network, I have met some new people, who have helped me to settle into life here.

Chinese people are in general very warm and friendly towards outsiders. While some pessimists will say they are merely interested in either improving their English or having a “token” foreign friend for those all important WeChat moments, you will face this dilemma wherever you meet new people.

Food and conversation
Food is key. The Chinese love nothing better than to sit around a hot pot and complain about the cost of living in Beijing. Cost of living, food and sport are safe topics of conversation. The sharing of political or economic views is best avoided.

While this is something that I tend to avoid, the Chinese have a great affinity for singing and giving their best rendition of “小苹果”. You will inevitably be forced to perform a cheesy 2000s song by some artist who should have long been forgotten.

Chinese guys love everything basketball. I had little interest in basketball before coming to China, and while I still don’t care too much for it, I have to acknowledge its existence and importance. An affinity for basketball will go a long way towards making local friends.

While it is certainly easier to gravitate towards the immigrant community, I would encourage anyone who is hoping to spend longer than a year in China to challenge yourself to make Chinese friends. I promise you, you will be glad of it in the long term.


Parks in Beijing, by Haley Muth

It’s early in the morning and already the park next to my apartment is filled with old folks practicing Tai Chi and stretching. There are tens of them, all moving in time with each other, as I am making my short commute to the area where I take Chinese classes.

Around lunchtime I go to sit and work at my favorite coffee shop, and through the window there’s another larger park and the people in it are now dancing. The songs they dance to range from old Chinese folk songs to upbeat western pop music. I once saw a group of old folks dancing to a remix of Fergie’s ‘My Humps’. They know all the moves to all the songs. There are also young children playing on bikes, scooters or with jump ropes. Some people are playing Chinese Hacky-Sack, including workers on their lunch break, even a woman wearing a tight skirt and high heels.

Later, after work when it’s already dark, I go to sit in the park by my apartment. People are still dancing, but the mood has changed and now they are in pairs, waltzing or swinging or tangoing to the music. Some of them are quite good and some of them not at all, but no one is bothered to care- they are just enjoying themselves. I walk to the far side of the park where a woman is singing sweetly in Chinese, accompanied by a man playing a classical Chinese instrument. This is my favorite time of the day.

To me, parks are the heartbeat of Beijing life, and park culture is my favorite thing about China. By going to parks and watching the people there you can see the values of the Chinese people- community, family and harmony with one another. These people will welcome you if want to join them (and have the courage to dance), but if you prefer, simply take a Chinese textbook to the park and begin studying and in no time you will meet many people excited to share their language and culture with you.

This is the China that I’ve fallen in love with.

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How big is Beijing?, by Patrick Watters

Before I moved to Beijing eight months ago, I was told that you could live in this city for many years without experiencing or seeing all that the city has to offer. After living here for some time now I firmly believe this to be true. When friends and family ask me what Beijing is like, the first word that comes to mind is big. Any synonym of that I can think of follows thereafter. This city is massive! However, it isn’t that difficult to navigate once you give yourself some time to settle in and get your bearings. I am a big fan of the subway system that crisscrosses its way all over Beijing. It is convenient, cheap and gets you anywhere in this bustling city. Here’s a fact for you: Beijing is ten times bigger than London. I have been to London and New York City but Beijing surely trumps both in size. You will definitely feel the intensity here when you experience the amount of people, cars, bikes, and scooters that are ever present around you. It can be quite daunting at first to venture around the city because of its size but what I would like to tell newcomers who are trying to find their way is to locate landmarks such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and Sanlitun district so you can get an idea of how far your apartment is from places and for those times you get completely lost. This way you can justify if it is worth it to travel to that pizza joint, but trust me most of the time the craving will outweigh the travel time. A game I played in the beginning was to hop on the subway and get off at a random spot to explore and navigate my way around. It was fun and challenging and yet somehow I’d find my way home feeling accomplished. By now I personally feel that if I can live in one of the largest cities in the world, I can live anywhere!


Easter in China, by Sorcha M. Smith

I’m not a very religious person and in the last few years (especially living in China) my sweet tooth has dwindled. At home, religious holidays were used more of an excuse to cook at dish and bring it to the rotating household that we used as a little family gathering. Our family has members worldwide so this is more precious to me than anything else. And as this is my second Easter in China, it was sorely missed.

Thankfully this year my parents and little sister were able to visit and were here for the Easter weekend. This made work a lot more fun as I brought my sister into the centre with me, she’s twelve, and basically used her as a prop in classes. Chinese people can be shocked and awed by seeing just a normal white westerner, just imagine their reactions to a mini white westerner… Priceless! A few girls in one particular class became extremely fond of her and she was dragged from one thing to another while they all practiced speaking English with her. The odd Chinese word was used as my sister had just done a Chinese language class with my tutor and wanted to do some practicing of her own!

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The remainder of the next two days were about the Easter activities and as most of my younger family members had grown out of playing games such as The Easter Egg Hunt, or the notorious Egg and Spoon Race, thankfully these guys hadn’t! Watching four year olds destroy each other to find the most eggs shouldn’t be as funny as it actually is and watching nine year olds try to outsmart their Chinese Teacher to win the egg and spoon race? Genius!

But there’s nothing quite as good as after days of exploring Beijing to areas such as: The Botanical Gardens, Badachu, 798 Art district, Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo, Forbidden City, the Great Wall, etc. to simply come home, put your feet up and be surprised with an Easter Bunny that your parents had wrapped in bubble wrap and brought across the world so that on Easter Day, you would have a little bit of home.

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Laoshi Life, by Rachel Reger

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”)


The Beijing music scene, By Gareth Wandless

Being a musician and music fan, living in Manchester and London over the last 12 years, how was Beijing going to live up to my hunger for music?

I had researched on the internet after deciding to take up the position at Aihua but I could not see a great deal of prospect in the music world. Oh well I thought, I will have a break from the music scene and concentrate on my teaching. How will I have any time with a teaching schedule to even continue playing in any band or going to watch any great gigs? However, I was wrong. I have enough time and there are enough places to go, but mainly in the East of Beijing.

After a month of finding my way around this busy bustling city I became aware of some great little venues like Temple Bar, 4 Corners, Modernista and The Dirty Duck. Good amateur bands were playing and I soon discovered there was actually a strong need and want for western music as well as the Chinese actually loving indie and punk rock. They’ve even formed their own scenes. Within several months I organized a gig at The Dirty Duck and I put on an open mic. Now I have contacts with a small scene in which some of the members are from Aihua or friends of friends.

On a few occasions I have been walking along a Beijing street or Hutong and came across a busker or a group of locals playing Guitar and singing away. The locals are very happy for you to sit and have a drink with them and have a jam using there guitar. Once or twice after a few bai jiu (mental rice based spirit, drink with caution!) I sat and exchanged songs and did my best to explain the band name or a certain song in the few Chinese words I know, mainly in a game of charades, but music is a world language so they say.

For you fans of live bands there are some good venues to watch famous bands in Beijing like at the performing arts centre and the workers stadium or Houhai Park who have hosted bands from The Killers to The Backstreet Boys. If you have a thirst for your X-factor type musicians you can even watch all the Chinese X-factor failures, who all seem to play around Houhai Lake in dozens of bars with a big video of the show in the background showing the highs and lows of the show. It is quite amusing to watch the small crowds outside the venue who can’t get in peering through the big window.

There is also a great Jazz bar around the Houhai Lake and the great 4corners who host open mic nights every Thursday as well as comedy nights is also around that area. Any clubbers who want to dance the night away there is small club called Dada which is downstairs from Temple bar and frequently hosts DJs from Europe and the US, it is a very cheap (even free sometimes) and a favorite with Aihua teachers.

If you want the whole Western feel then the bars and clubs around Sanlitun have everything you desire, there is a cool rooftop bar with swings at the bar–need I say more? You can have from cheesy to cool to outrageous in Sanlitun, however it is quite a pricey area! Also around the workers stadium I once went to a club who let us in for free just because we were Western and supplied us free drinks! (Be careful because I do not think the alcohol is really what it says on the bottle, so again! drink with caution). You will not remember half of the clubs’ names or won’t even be able to pronounce them but with a very cheap subway system to get you anywhere and a cheap taxi home who cares! You’ll never have any problem living in the west part of Beijing and getting to and from these venues. On almost every street you will see KTV’s “Karaoke TV” where you can hire a room and sing until your hearts content 24/7, on a couple of occasions we have gone from Aihua for work events and birthdays. All in all Beijing is cool and there is music to be found!

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