Living in Beijing – Finding My Feet

What is it like to live and work in Beijing as an Expat?

I recently returned from 12 months of living and working in China as an English Foreign Language teacher. It was an incredible experience filled with great lows and even greater highs. This is my tale.


What have I done? I still remember the feeling clearly. It first hit me during my 3 hour layover in Istanbul airport. My father had drove me to Manchester some 6 hours prior in order to begin the first part of my two leg journey. I was to fly from Manchester to Istanbul where I would catch my connecting flight to Beijing. The car journey there was pleasant enough, we made small talk about the weather and joked about how I would manage to teach English given my rather thick northern accent and tendency to mumble my words. At the airport we shared one of our extremely rare, subdued and only a little awkward father-son hugs. It was nice. We parted ways in the lobby and I made my way through security and into the departure lounge. He had kept me company and helped to distract my troubled mind until it was time to leave and once I arrived at my final destination there would be a taxi waiting for me to drive me to the intercontinental hotel, I place I would be calling home for the next two weeks. But here, in Turkey, nobody was waiting for me. I sat in the designated smoking area (a metal cage tacked onto the side of the terminal), engulfed in a cloud of cigarette smoke and bio so thick it was almost solid, listening to but not hearing the deafening rumble of an unfamiliar language and trying to hold back a single tear which had been threatening to break free of its perch from the moment I had disembarked in this half way purgatory.

Smoking area, Istanbul Airport

What have I done? I have left the comfort of my home, my friends and family in order to travel half way across the world to one of the most mysterious and unknown places in the Western psyche, everything I knew, all the comforts and norms I had grown up on were to elude me for a whole year. Those 12 long months stretched ahead of me now like a prison sentence, locked as I was in this current smoke filled cell. It had never seemed particularly real. Not in my final year of university when I first announced to my friends that I intended to move to China to teach, mainly because I had no better idea (it felt like a cool thing to say at the time). Not when I had been signing, photocopying, editing, notarising, collating, anointing, blessing and posting the seemingly endless streams of documents necessary to secure my temporary work visa. Not even as my dad was firing us down the motorway towards the inevitable. It had never seemed real. There was always time, something would come up, something would change, I would come to my senses, it was surely implausible that only yesterday I was getting fucked up on cheap shooters in sleazy student nightclubs, while neglecting my imminently due literature essay and now suddenly, as if almost night, I was on my way to a new career in the Middle Kingdom. Time moves so fast in those in between spaces. The transitory down time between a change in careers, a break in study, or the period between one relationship and the next. The ephemeral and undefined nature of such periods of time seems to make them difficult to categorise and shelve within the library of our memories.

It was real now. Nobody was waiting for me here, no one who could take me home. I was past the point of no return, the only way was forward. I wiped the tear from my eye, messaged my parents to tell them I was safe and excited to reach my final destination and went to queue at the departure gate. An aussie man, perhaps sensing the unease of my disposition, struck up polite conversation and asked if this was to be my first time in Beijing and what brought me. It was I replied and I was travelling to start a new job as a foreign English teacher. He enquired what company I was to be working for, before adding as an afterthought that he hoped it wasn’t […], for he had heard bad things about them. Indeed that was the very same company I was to be working for. Not the best sign I thought, but no need to put to much stock into his warning now, the call had came and we were to board the plane. Next stop, Beijing.

Initial impressions upon landing were positive. The airport was eerily quiet, there were no signs of the congested masses of warm bodies I had envisioned from the tales of Beijing’s overpopulation issues, it was serene. I moved unencumbered through the long and vast open spaces towards arrivals, each step of the way was signposted with clear and concise English subtitles. Of the three airports I had traversed over the past 24 hours, this was by far the most straightforward and pleasant. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps I’ve been worrying about nothing, I’ve only just landed in this strange new land and already I’m taking it in my stride. Perhaps this isn’t so different from home? Don’t worry, I was very soon alleviated of any such illusions by the taxi ride to my hotel.

Coming from a very rural town in Northern England the first thing that really hit me was the sheer size of the place. Even on the outskirts of the city where the Beijing international airport resides, the high rises reach like concrete fingers into the clouds and out of sight. I was flanked on all sides by nondescript concrete towers, partially obscured by the infamous Beijing ‘smog’ and with every mile we sped by the buildings only got taller and more impressive, this was nothing compared to what would later await me in the heart of the city. I tried to take in the incredible scale of this landscape as much as I could, unfortunately this was made difficult by the distractions that were going on at ground level.

A typical image of Beijing smog and congestion

For anyone who has never experienced Chinese roads, it is truly a terrifying and incredible sight to behold. To the untrained eye there is only chaos. The air is thick with the blaring of horns and the screeching of brakes. It is the wild wild west, lawless and dangerous, where the strong thrive and the meek come to die. Cars swerve in and out of lanes with abandon, there is a seeming wilful disregard of any and all other road users, all that matters is that number one gets from A to B as quickly as possible. White knuckled I clutched with one hand the overhead handle and checked the tension of my seat-belt with the other. In the moment I was terrified. But the more time I spent here the more I saw the beauty of it. There is a method buried deep within the madness. There is an organic quality to the traffic in Beijing. When its working Beijing traffic never stops, only slows. Like blood cells in a clogged artery each car finds a way forward, they negotiate, compromise and bully there way onward, finding space where you would not believe possible. Beijing traffic at its best flows, there is no better word, unencumbered by rules, traffic lights and traffic cops, the veins and arteries of the city beat and flow relentlessly. At its worst, its a nightmare, as I would soon discover. But more on that later. I arrived to the hotel exhausted and starving. I quickly located the nearest corner shop, purchased a pack of Oreo cookies (a rarely familiar and soon to be staple component of my diet) and dragged myself to my rather luxurious for an embarrassingly early night.

I met my fellow freshly blooded expats the following morning. We were an eclectic bunch, two Americans and two Englishmen, but from wildly different social and cultural backgrounds. We were of different ages, different temperaments and clashing personalities, but we clung onto one another from the word go. Lost souls in an overwhelmingly strong current, we formed a raft of safety and tenuous commonality so as to better weather the unknowable storm. We relied heavily on each other in those early days. The reality of our superficial bonds would be tested in broken later in the year, though I’m pleased to say one man (my future roommate) would soon become one of my closest confidants and lifelong friends. Though none of us would openly admit it, we were all scared. We doubted our decisions and questioned our reasons for doing what we had done. But despite this underlying fear, there was excitement in the air. We had done it. Despite all the obstacles in our path, all the naysayers, we were here in China, a full year of adventure, obstacles and new experiences ahead of us. We could do anything.

Rickshaw’s are a popular method of cheap transportation in Beijing

Our early achievements were small, but adorned with the vigour and vitality they deserved. The first time we managed to eat alone in a restaurant was cause for celebration (even if we had only pointed at pictures of the food we wanted). The first time we successfully ordered a taxi was a mountain climbed. The first pint was drank with an air of success. One night we took a rickshaw back to the hotel. Over encumbered by our portly western frames our driver inexplicably dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and left us to fend for ourselves. Miraculously we managed to navigate our way through the strange and daunting streets back to our beds unscathed. We celebrated each small achievement in the same way, by drinking copious amounts of baijiu (a popular Chinese rice liquor) and drunkenly patting each other on the back for our resilience. Like babies learning to speak we soon learned how to say our first words in Chinese, xiexie for ‘thank you’, Píjiǔ for ‘beer’ and tīng bù dǒng for ‘I don’t understand’ (I’m ashamed to admit my Chinese vocabulary did not expand much further beyond this point). It was a beautiful experience. Everything seemed to matter, every new word learned, every experience mastered, everything challenge overcome, was a fresh step forward. We were all reminded of why we had made this crazy leap in the first place. The future was suddenly brighter.

Well done for getting this far. If you enjoyed my ramblings please remember to like this post and follow my blog in order to be one of the first to read the second part of my tale. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

5 thoughts on “Living in Beijing – Finding My Feet

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