Living in Beijing


Beijing is an amazing place for a western person, mainly because of its differences. Living in Beijng can feel a bit like living on another planet. Whereas European languages are all pretty much dialects of one another — derived from Anglo-Saxon and Latin, and using the same alphabet — the roots of Chinese are utterly different. Even beyond language differences, the basic assumptions of the cultures, and the basic ways of seeing the world, are totally different. It is enlightening to live here and to recognise that so many of the things we consider to be universal are merely assumptions or ways of seeing specific to our culture. It is amazing then, to go a bit deeper, and to discover the things that are indeed universal.

Living in Beijing can be terribly disorientating. Everything is different: the words you hear on the street, the writing on the billboards, the crowds, the traffic, the food, the smells, the humour, the ways of doing things. When it comes to living in Beijing, there seems to be three types of people. There are some people who come to Beijing and are so overwhelmed by the differences that they almost immediately run away with their tails between their legs. When we interview potential teachers, we do our best to identify such people before they get on the plane, because it can be such a demoralising experience for them to make the commitment to come to Beijing and not be able to follow through. The next type of person comes to Beijing, sticks out their year contract, and then goes home, happy to have seen something different, a little bit wiser, and more appreciative of the advantages of their home countries.

There is a third type of person who comes here and thrives on the disorientation; who always wakes up eager and untiring in amazement at seeing something different every day. These people are the core of Aihua, and the teachers that have stayed on with us for years. They are heroic in their openness to difference. They find old men beneath a bridge playing cards, and they join in. They buy a tai chi sword and join the old people in the parks in the morning. They travel out to the mountains, and visit the villages. They learn how to speak and to write Chinese. They have a deeper understanding of the world; of what is superficial, and what is essential.

The people who thrive in Beijing are people who bring a hobby, a driving interest, or an inner life with them. Somehow, when we move away from our own culture, more space opens up for ourselves, and there is less to distract us from our own inner worlds and our own personal development. The comforts, and the curtains of habit, are stripped away. There is no TV to watch, no radio, no coffee shops or public spaces that we are used to. The best Aihua teachers are those who use this extra space to develop themselves while they are here. Learning Chinese is one of the main interests of our foreign teachers, but we also have those who meditate, who do tai chi, boxing and kung fu, yoga, Chinese cooking, craft beer brewing, painting, writing, movie making, photography, etc etc.

Aihua’s location is perfect for people who want to jump into the deep end of Beijing. We are in the extreme west of Beijing, but still on Line One of the Beijing underground. It takes about 25 minutes by subway to get from our main centre of operations to Tian An Men Square, which is the geographic centre of Beijing. It takes, though, about 45 minutes to get to the international part of the city, Chaoyang. Chaoyang is where 90 percent of the foreign people in Beijing live, and living in Chaoyang is like never really coming out of the airport. You can get by in Chaoyang quite easily without learning a word of Chinese, and the atmosphere of the place is tawdry and false. Furthermore, the cost of living in Chaoyang is much higher than it is in our district.

Four of Aihua’s Centres are in Shijingshan district, where most of our teachers live, and three of our centres are in Haidian, which is the university district to the north of Shijingshan. Many of our teachers have their nights out in Haidian. Haidian has a number of very interesting districts, such as Gulou, which combine traditional Beijing housing styles with modern restaurants and businesses. Some of our teachers go to open-mike nights in Haidian.  We have had a punk band and a rock band formed at Aihua, as well as a number of excellent musicians.  We also have a few teachers brewing craft beer in their apartments in Shijingshan, who take these beers to craft beer festivals in Haidian.

In Shijingshan, life is much quieter, but we have a nice coffee shop, and our teachers develop their own social life. You can see the mountains to the west of Beijing from our district, and it is about a 20 minute bus drive to get out to them. If you get out to the mountains, and go into a little village, the locals will come crowding around you pressing fruit and gifts into your hands. This is the real China, and it is hard to get farther from home than this.



Take a look at what’s happening in our neighborhood.


Part 1 Part 2

Walking up to Fahai Temple.


Our foreign teachers studying Chinese.