Have a look at this great video introducing the foreign teacher training system at Aihua.
My first dining out experience which I had in China was with my new found co-workers at a restaurant called ‘Meizhou’. With most of us having not a word of Chinese, we relied on our more experienced colleagues to do the ordering. Aware that there was at least one vegetarian among us, they ordered accordingly. Excited to try some of these new cuisines I enthusiastically reached for a delicious looking eggplant dish. With my new arch nemesis in hand (chopsticks) I inelegantly co-ordinated a pile of food on my plate and began to tuck into the succulent slices. As I turned to my roommate Rebecca, she looked at me in horror quickly alerting me to the hidden little bastard chicken which had been seamlessly sown into the eggplant slices. Not to cause a scene with my new colleagues I discreetly spat the contents of my mouth into a serviette and downed several glasses of water trying to quench the tirade of expletives shouting inside my head. How the hell did the chef manage to disguise a dead chicken inside a slice of innocent eggplant? I didn’t know if I was annoyed or impressed. What else was lurking between the green beans and tofu? Was it even tofu? It was probably some cute Labrador puppy that had been ripped from the hands of a crying five-year-old Chinese girl. Someone was definitely conspiring against me. Clearly an over sensitive vegetarian, I was foreseeing the next year of my life starving to death and surviving on knock off Maltesers from the local newsagents. At least my travel insurance would foot the repatriation of my skeleton at the end of the trip and my poor mother wouldn’t have to re-mortgage the house.
Following my first gastronomic catastrophe I thrust myself into an eating lockdown. For the first few weeks of this bumpy integration into a normal Chinese diet, I survived mainly on cereal and ice creams. I suspect the owners of the local shop had me pegged for some idiot hamburger guzzling foreigner who probably had the palate sophistication of a knat. Wishing so much I could express in Chinese that I have actually eaten more nutritious things in my life than Cornetto’s and Magnums, I would take my change, run away and shamefully feast on my sugar pile until the deadly withdrawal would see me drag my hypo-glycaemic corpse through their doors again. Having cut out the food pyramid entirely from my diet I rapidly dropped a half stone in weight because I was so utterly paranoid that everything was tainted with meat products, meat juices or secret meats of some variety. Twenty-two years of abstaining from eating anything with a pulse was proving difficult to ignore, and having inherited from one of my generous parents the type of appetite that could cause famine in small villages, I knew this life style would be unsustainable. I was going to have to figure out a compromise with my personal values which were etched into my being.
Luckily this realisation coincided with Rebecca’s own enlightenment (she was equally perturbed by the eating situation and was surviving solely on Nutella and crackers) and we began to slowly suss out the plethora of local Chinese restaurants dotted around our neighbourhood. Thankfully what came out of it was the overdue wake up call to our temporary close mindedness. We both needed to realise we were not living on some other planet with a bunch of barbarian, dog-killing, murderers who would eat their granny on a stick if they could. Quite the contrary. ‘The Shan’ (our affectionate name for our home in the district of Shijingshan) has endless gastronomic experiences to be discovered. Food is so cheap we could order as much as we wanted. Our philosophy was to experiment with a random dish (often there are no English menus and a just a photo to decipher it), discover if it had meat in it, eat it or not, and try something else. It was a simple process of elimination and we quickly amassed our own personal menu of vegetarian dishes which were tasty and cheap. So cheap in fact that we could order a ton of food and still only pay the cost of a few pints of milk back home.
Being a vegetarian in China does not equate to a life sentence chained to the junk food aisle at the grocery store. In fact, China has a massive Buddhist culture, so coming across vegetarian and vegan restaurants is much more common than you would imagine (you just need to seek them out). A veggie restaurant just popped up near my work place which is located deep in the west of Beijing (a very non-westernised area) so things are moving forward in terms of variety and mind set. Favourite vegetarian Chinese dishes of mine are ‘enoki salads’, ‘spicy potatoes’, ‘egg fried sweet potato’, ‘scallion pancakes’ and ‘vegetarian chuan’ (vegetables on a stick), and if you are so inclined, the range of mock meats (soy based dishes) are abundant. As long as you can turn a blind eye to someone dipping their chopsticks from the ‘gōngbăo jīdīng’ into the ‘qié zi dòu jiǎo’ then you are full steam ahead for a culinary experience that will enrich your journey here.
Living in Beijing as a vegetarian has a different meaning to me now than when I was the over cautious, fresh off the boat ‘lǎo wài’. I appreciate the importance of the relationship Chinese people have with food as a tool to show appreciation for each other and form bonds with new friends, and having adopted a similar sensibility has helped me to create my own community of friends through a shared love of food. My core belief system is still intact and I uphold it pretty easily here.
Nature is relatively scarce in Beijing because the place is about as metropolitan as the definition of the word allows for. It’s not unheard of to catch a glimpse of natural beauty here, though. The parks are quite nice, my personal favorite being XiangShan, or “fragrant mountain.” Its rolling hills, green foliage, and beautiful police station are a thing to behold. It also has a nice pond with no less than three swans, nature’s beautiful jerks. Any public park can surprise you, though. It’s not uncommon to catch sight of a hedgehog scurrying near dark. Don’t actually catch one, though, because that’s a cultural no-no. Also, they have spines. Even on the streets in some areas, you observe the habits of the semi-domesticated Beijing street dog. These guys are street-smart as animals come; they’ll switch to the other side of the sidewalk to avoid bumping into people, or even wait for pedestrian signals to cross major intersections. In other words, it’s very much a city, but if you look, you can find nature growing between the cracks.
The first thing I did before I arrived in Beijing was get in contact with the chairmen of the Beijing GAA club through Facebook. He wrote back to me in a matter of minutes expressing his delight that I wanted to join the club. He informed me that there was a massive social and completive aspect to the club and that they enter many tournaments through the year.
Moving to a new country was one of the most daunting things I have ever done, however by joining the GAA team it made the transition much smoother and it helped me settle into China a lot quicker.
We train on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings and it’s the most enjoyable thing I do during the week. The people that have set up the club are fantastic people and so are all the members of the club. They welcomed my friend and I with open arms and I haven’t looked back since.
The social aspect of the club is also fantastic, we regularly go on pub crawls in the main pub sections of Sanlitun, or we visit the old part of China called the hutongs where you get the real experience of China.
I would highly recommend joining the Beijing Gaa club even if you don’t play Gaa, you will meet some fantastic people and have an absolute laugh in the proces
“It will get easier.” That is a phrase I’ve heard so much since I got here, and it sure does even when it comes to ordering food. Not easy though, just easier. Don’t confuse the two.
The first big meal I had here was with all the new teachers, a few of the Chinese staff, and our executive Headmaster. The food was delicious and it just kept on coming. Never giving a thought about how it got to the table. Until all was done and we actually had to start wandering around looking for food and ordering it by ourselves.
Using your sense of smell might help a little. Walk out onto the street and sniff your way to the variety of different restaurants available to you. If they smell bad, try the next one. Keep going until you like the smell and are intrigued enough to try the food. (Well, in China looks and smell can be deceiving.)
Next, decide if you want to be able to understand the menu and know what you are eating, or if you want to gamble a bit and test your skills of pointing and guessing. Then you think “Hey I’m in China”, so why not try the new and unexpected.
First, point at the meal you have blindly chosen. Let them know you only want one order for yourself. Then smile big which says: “Yes, I have no idea what I just ordered but I am trusting you as my waitress/waiter to bring me something delicious.”
You will most likely end up with something like this: mystery meat, in a questionable broth with overly chewy noodles. It’s about the experience…so dig in and plan on making a beeline to the closest bakery in the case that it leaves a foul tasting flavor in your mouth- but “Hey, I’m in China.”
This will only be one of the many situations where you stare at the waiter repeating yourself in English thinking why don’t you understand me while they probably think the exact same thing, or grabbing your phone to ask “PLECO” for some help. (It does help hehehe.) Use the numbers 1 to 5 to decide how cooked you want your meat. Safest bet would be 5. Point at pictures or just using your wonderful teaching skills by playing charades with the waiter trying to order a simple dish like chicken.
But what can I say. “It gets easier.”
Not long after arriving in Beijing and starting my new job teaching English—in fact it was during the first week of training before classes started—I decided to have a get together over lunch in order to get to know my coworkers better. I was far too reluctant to buy any meat from the super market, meat that had been sitting on a table for God knows how long, and so chose to do vegetarian burrito bowls. This was fine, because not only were some of my coworkers’ vegetarian but I could also easily find the ingredients I needed so long as those ingredients weren’t spices.
Hosting this party in my new apartment was something of an anxiety for me. My apartment, I’d say, was and continues to be a little grungy. It is also not unlike a cave and very dark throughout the day. I needed light, and so found all the lamps left over from the previous occupant that I could and set it up in my living room. Earlier that morning while buying all the ingredients I would need I also bought a lightbulb for this lamp. Now I was already in the process of cooking lunch and it was only twenty minutes before my guests were due to arrive when I had a lull in the preparations. It was in this lull that I decided to change out the lightbulb of that lamp.
Unbeknownst to me, that lamp was left in the corner because the last lightbulb in it had broken clean off, leaving only the metal piece at the base still screwed tightly in. Foolishly I had already plugged in the lamp and, while attempting to put in the new bulb, blew out my breaker with a fantastic show of electric sparks. I was now officially panicked. The lights were out, but the stove was gas and still running hot. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, but I knew I couldn’t very well host anything in the dark. In my panic I turned to the only people I figured who could help me: my neighbors.
I knocked on my neighbors’ door for some time before the middle aged woman who lived there timidly opened the door a crack. I’m sure she was not expecting a fat white man to call on her that day. In the worst Chinese I could muster I said: “I have no electricity!” To which she said: “What?” I pointed across the hall to my apartment, the door still wide open, it’s interior very dark. “I have no electricity,” I said again.
My Chinese was bad enough that she gave up talking to me and went into my apartment. It was a moment before I realized that she was hunting for the circuit breaker box. I joined her, and after several minutes we located it. It was well out of sight over the top shelf of my coat closet. I flipped it back on and light was restored as was normalcy to this poor woman’s day. She was grateful to retreat back into her home.
I managed to remove the remaining bit of bulb from my lamp and insert the new one, giving light to my living space. I finished up the burrito bowls and everyone enjoyed them, though they were weirdly spiced, and afterward I reflected on how strange it was that this was the most successful party I had ever thrown.
Welcome to Beijing, one of the largest, most populated cities in the world. Though the Chinese have basically mastered public transportation, and are trying to limit the number of cars circulating around the city, traffic is still a huge problem at pretty much all times of the day.
Knowing how easily frustrated I can get, I told myself “be a wolf, not a sheep” (surely that’s in some awful action hero/sappy war movie?), I decided to buy a second-hand electric scooter. I don’t have a drivers’ license but I figured, how hard could it be? It’s just like a giant bicycle without pedals… There’s a certain appeal in being able to weave in and out of traffic, to not stop at red lights, and to drive on the sidewalks/wrong side of the road when in a hurry.
I would recommend buying an electric scooter if you possess the following qualities:
- You are willing to risk your life on a daily basis
- You are a master of Mario Kart
- You have minimal road rage
- You don’t feel pain and you don’t scar.
If you do indeed possess these qualities, then by all means! Go get your bike! It goes without saying to check brakes, lights, tires, accelerator, kickstand and battery (60 volt bike: 1300 – 1600CNY for a second hand bike) before handing over the cash.
There are more ways to stay entertained on the Beijing roads. A few of my favourite games include A) Racing random people, B) Never letting your feet touch the ground, C) Practising your Chinese cursing
To put it into perspective, if I were to take a bus to work (a 6 km distance from home to classroom) it would take me 40 minutes: Walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, stop at every stop for a million people to get on, get off the bus, walk to the school. On my scooter, it takes a whopping 12 minutes, door to door.
I say get out your leather jackets, your boots, your Raybans, and feel the wind in your hair (at a max speed of 50km/h)!
NB: You can also decide to buy a gas scooter. Much faster, much more expensive, and legally questionable for foreigners to own…
“What are our expectations… which of the things we desire are within reach? If not now, when? And will there be some left for me?” –Anthony Bourdain
It has been three months since I’ve landed on Chinese soil; China with a capital ‘C’, it feels like just yesterday that I was greeted by the blank stare of an immigration officer, in a city far from home. They wanted to know what business I had in China, I replied, “I’m an English teacher with Aihua. I will live in Shijingshan”, they stamped my passport and I hurried along. No expectations, no idea what I had just signed up for, and no regrets.
Our apartment overlooks the vast and fragrant city; in the daytime the image of a glorious mountain range fills our view, at night the buildings come to life with Chinese characters lit up as far as the eye can see. China is too big, too diverse, and forever changing at a rate so fast that no matter how many times I try to understand China, I remain blissfully ignorant. I can gaze out at the city and find something new every single day; look out and say hello where did you come from? A familiar concept here is to try and dissect China, try to understand why it functions in the way that it does, why don’t they just do this –or if they just did this like we do back home…! I myself am guilty. China isn’t meant to be understood in the eyes of an expat or even its own people, it functions in its own right and they do some things better than anything I have seen from a mega-city; it is China with a capital ‘C’.
The subway system is the most efficient in the world, it can take you anywhere in Beijing. The rides, depending on the day, could either be arduous or therapeutic. The sound of subway echoes like a mantra of Chinese efficiency…”Baboashan….Bajiao….Wukesong…..” Careful or you might miss a stop… it’s always the best for people watching; they wonder where you’re going or where you’ve come from and you wonder what their stories are, what does China with a capital ‘C’ mean to them?
The food is unpredictable, yet time and time again satisfying. Food here, like many other places, feels ritualistic; a bonding of necessity and pleasure, with laughs thrown in as a Chinese imperative. It’s an outpour of pork, beef, lamb, squid, fish, and oil – don’t be scared to dive right in, it’s the only way. Chop stick skills are not optional.
Teaching is the primary reason I came here. I received the news of my visa approval on the jungle floors of Minca, Colombia. I was sharing a tent with Alex, my older sister of 26. She’s of a small frame, tenacious, and has an unquenchable thirst for the unknown. I had met up with her on her travels of South America. I said good-bye to the howler monkeys, coffee, and my sister, and headed into honking horns, new smells, and tiny children looking at me for answers in Chinese- “English only”, I repeated. Teaching for me did not come naturally, however there isn’t much time to dwell on it. You must look your students straight in the eye and say, “Repeat after me…” You will be trained as much as you can be; the rest is up to you. Once you get into a rhythm there is no shaking you. Some days you feel as if the kids absorbed more knowledge than you have ever possessed yourself…other days they will test your will and make you question all of your choices leading up to that moment…don’t worry that too shall pass. The kids are great, they go absolutely mental when I speak Chinese, and at the end of it all remember that they’re just kids. Take away a few cultural conventions, two separate languages, and you realize you’re not so different at all.
The amount of exploration here is also endless, you’ll find that on your days off you will explore as much as you can of the city and be helpless at the end of it all, knowing that you could never possibly finish exploring Beijing let alone the vast country that is China. Be sure to go to Yuanmingyuan Park, The Summer Palace, The Great Wall, and if you really want to get a feel of what the Chinese are all about, go to Shanghai, a city renowned for its rapid growth and urbanization. Don’t be scared to wander off down a hutong, for there you will find the best gems of all. Dumplings, duck, and whatever your eyes can see will be found down a hutong. They are traditional to Beijing and embody a kind of dichotomy native to China; the balance of old and new. Here you will find no one speaks English because there is no need to, just grab a seat, politely say “Nihao” and go along your business just as the locals do…after all these 21 million Chinese are your neighbors. It’s our China with a capital ‘C’.
P.S- If you own a motorbike like many of us, drive safe, invest in good breaks/horn, and wear a helmet. If you survive a year of driving in Beijing traffic…go hike Everest, you don’t fear danger and you are a crafty, resourceful person, you’ll make it in no time.
With an extensive and affordable public transportation system, Beijing is an incredibly easy city to get around in. But the subway does close fairly early, making it difficult to stay out in the city for any time past 11:00. And sometimes, you want to get around a bit more quickly. And other times, understandably, you might just want to avoid being packed so closely to other people. For these times, taxis serve as an inexpensive alternative.
I’ve taken many taxis in my time in Beijing, and I’ve found using them to be a pretty simple experience. With some basic Chinese, or even a finger to a map, it’s easy to tell a taxi driver where you’re trying to go. And it’s much less expensive than taxis that I’ve used in other cities. An average 20-minute ride only costs around 50 yuan (about 8 dollars). It’s a convenient service. However, it is not without its faults. And those faults mainly depend on your driver.
Taxi drivers can be very nice people. Usually they’re very excited to have foreigners in their cab. I’ve had one driver even sing me a song as he drove me through the city. Other rides can be more difficult. One well-known reason, is that taxi drivers seem to have the thickest accents of any profession in Beijing. With some, it’s near impossible to understand what’s being said, even with some knowledge of Chinese, which can lead to some confusion. Some taxi drivers are more reluctant to take foreigners to destinations because they don’t seem to believe that a foreigner could give them directions. Other issues have come from the fact that my apartment is in Shijingshan, a district of Beijing that’s a bit of a trip outside of the city center. Plenty of drivers have told me that the drive is too far, and others have admitted to being unfamiliar with the area. I’ve been in a cab before, where my driver drove around aimlessly for quite a while before finally stopping his car, pulling out a map and having me point out the route myself.
In Beijing, each ride in a taxi is a new experience. Often, they are good, but sometimes they can go wrong. Sometimes they’re straightforward, and other times they can be very memorable (for many reasons). Still, it’s something that you will quickly get used to, and it makes an already easy to travel Beijing, even easier.
Our Chinese classes are getting better every week! Last week, when we were learning about food, one student asked me the question: “Why do Chinese people usually ask me ‘吃了吗’ (chi le ma?) or ‘吃饭了吗’？(chi fan le ma?)” I smiled and asked: “Has anyone else gotten the same question?” All the students raised their hands. I asked : “So if your answer was ‘没吃’ (mei chi)，did he or she invite you to dinner?” They all laughed: “No. But why do they care about whether I have eaten?” “Because we have a saying ‘民以食为天’(mín yǐ shí wéi tiān) which means “People regard food as their prime want”. There used to be a lot of famines in Chinese history, and many people died during these famines, so food is a thing of great importance in daily life. When people ask “吃了吗”, it’s just like saying “Hello” or “how are you?” in English.