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  Expatriate Writing Contest  Finalist
Expatriate Writing Contest Finalist

Living in Beijing

"One World, One Dream"

Street scene in busy Beijing.

It's been five months since we moved to Beijing, and we’re still discovering ways to adjust and integrate into the cultural mores. Guan xi, the relationships between people, is a driving force in China precisely because it is the most populated place on earth. I am discovering that this feeling of interconnectedness can exist between foreigners and the Chinese people, even if you know very few words of Chinese.

The uniformed man who flags down the buses at the bus stop always greets me with a huge smile and an energetic wave. He still compliments me on the first four words of Chinese I spoke to him: "Is this bus 628?" Yesterday, he told me that he does not know any English aside from "very good". I taught him how to say "bus," "taxi," "car," and "truck." He said something in Chinese I could not quite understand. Then he switched to English, and said, "One world, one dream." This is the Olympic slogan seen on many billboards around Beijing. Although he said that he did know how to speak English, he knew how to utter this phrase. He taught me how to say it in Chinese and his English was so much better than my paltry Chinese attempt. The line of people behind us craned their necks in interest. We both uttered the phrase together in the other's language until my bus came. I jumped on, waving him goodbye as he smiled waving his red flag.

These types of exchanges often happen with street vendors, cab drivers, and waitresses. They are welcome additions to daily life that likely would not occur back home in the states. As a pair of 26 and 22 year old girls with lofty ideas and passionate natures, my sister Caitlin and I spent the last 21 years living with our parents tucked away in the tiny, woodsy New Hampshire town of Sharon (population 351). We moved to Beijing with neither jobs lined up nor a place to live. We used Marriott hotel points from my previous job to provide a roof over our heads for our first week in the city. My sister managed to network her way with an American contact into reporting for Sports Illustrated China. Upon our arrival, I secured an interview to teach English at a bilingual international kindergarten. Not only are my students amazingly lovable, but they are also incredibly bright. At three years old, my class already knows how to sing the national anthem and converses in two or three languages.

I am just one of countless foreigners at the moment teaching English in China. In fact, when meeting a fellow Western expatriate, I will often be asked: "What are you doing in China, teaching English?" Those who are native English speakers with a college degree are almost guaranteed work as the demand for learning English is very high. The Chinese government is encouraging everyone to learn English, including mandatory lessons for taxi cab drivers in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

Olympic countdown clocks adorn restaurants, shops, and classrooms. Nationalistic energy electrifies Beijing as it anticipates being in the world's spotlight. Buildings rise and expectations soar. Construction sites litter the landscape. My sister and I marvel at the progress we've seen since arriving here. I love experiencing everyday life in Beijing: The elderly performing tai chi together with swords (early in the morning, even when it's freezing); the blinking bike symbols on traffic lights; the old men who walk their birds; the smells which waft throughout the city of warmed yams and grilled, steamed corn sold by street vendors.

Food in Beijing

As a foodie, you don't need a lot of money to enjoy the panoply of foods Beijing offers. I consider myself a street food connoisseur. Peppered throughout the city, you can buy everything from baozi (a round dumping where the dough is thick, fluffy, almost bread-like) to jian bing, delicious crepes made for you on the spot which I eat almost daily. An egg is broken over the crepe, and as it cooks thin, fried, crispy squares are placed in the middle. Sauce, spices, chives, and onions are added and then the crepe is folded around the square.

Soon my sister and I expanded our food interest to restaurants, and we learned that waiters and waitresses are not tipped (tipping generally doesn't happen here) and tea is often free. When you find a good restaurant, you can eat well without spending much.

You can also experience what Westerners deem exotic cuisine. There's a famous snack street in Wangfujing illuminated at night by strings of red lanterns. The street is almost as alluring as the wild and wonderful food the vendors wave in front of you, even as they yell out their exotic names. Almost everything is speared on sticks, from fruit and dumplings to seahorses and starfish. On another occasion, we ate dog. It's the sweetest tasting, most guilt-provoking meat I have tried. It does not taste at all like chicken. I am always grateful for any opportunity to experience Chinese cuisine.

Culture Shock

Another aspect of Chinese culture is learning how to give and receive gifts. It is customary for Chinese not to accept a gift the first three times it is offered. When one of my student’s parents offered chocolates to me and a fellow Chinese teacher, I forgot this custom and immediately took hold of the ribbon-covered box. I then watched as the Chinese teacher politely refused: “No, no, no, I couldn’t, I couldn’t…” She declined again and again until she graciously accepted.

As we plunge into Chinese society, sometimes we feel like we can only dive in so far. With so many people living here and so few foreigners, not being Chinese makes you an instant point of focus. We sometimes enter a bustling restaurant and observe that people stop mid-sentence, freeze with chopsticks mid-way to their mouths, and stare at us. On other occasions people will politely ask which country we are from and why we are in China. The “stare downs,” as I used to call them, occur daily — on the subway, at the grocery store, and walking down the sidewalk. The other day I was walking along and a smiling man ran up to me, and then hovered a bit awkwardly. His friend then turned in front of us and took our picture. They took another one and then with ran away with huge smiles just as quickly as they appeared. There have been a few camera ambushes. While these types of occurrences take some getting used to, we understand that they are simply rooted in curiosity. In fact, when we first arrived, we found ourselves doing the same thing: "Look! It’s another foreigner over there!"  

Air Quality in Beijing

Regardless of foreign or native status, all are united in trying to stay positive about the air quality. Imagine needing to wear a mask every time you go outside? Many people wear masks as they walk through the streets of Beijing. Both my sister and I have battled respiratory tract infections. The sight of a black tissue after blowing my nose startled me at first. As a marathon runner, I miss running outside. My sister has read that running outside in Beijing on a very smoggy day is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes. Recently The New York Times cited research that pollution levels on a typical day in Beijing are nearly five times above World Health Organization standards for safety.

The Endless Crowds

Still this comes with being one of the most populated places on earth. The highways here have up to 15 jam-packed lanes. Uniformed subway and bus officials push people onto the trains and buses already crammed tightly with people. With hoards and hoards of people waiting to get onto buses and trains, people sometimes become impatient (I was pulled off the train once by an eager-to-board passenger). But this is almost understandable, as  2.5 million people use public transit every day. I am now accustomed to the inevitable cuddling with strangers as we stand, arms squished onto each other's chests, heads pressed on each other's backs.


Such challenges, however, are part of the adventure. As the weeks go by I notice the "stare-downs" less and recognize the songs on the radio more. I continue to make more friends with the Yam Men and The Corn Ladies — "I missed you yesterday!" I no longer miss those material things which are hard to come by here: clothe dryers, dishwashers, paper towels, or even ice. Seeing other foreigners doesn't elicit as much of a reaction anymore. My immunity is now stronger as we acclimate to the air. Though my command of the Chinese language is still in its infancy, I can ask for the bill without first being shown to the bathroom or given a pile of napkins. I've found many Chinese are quick to compliment foreigners’ stammering, sputtering attempts to speak the language — often praising how wonderfully you said "hello."

Almost six months ago, we took a leap of faith and relocated to the other side of the world. And you can’t jump that far without an open mind.

For More Information on Beijing

thebeijinger is an invaluable resource for expatriates acclimating to life in Beijing. Every foreigner I know uses the website on a regular basis. From finding jobs to looking for apartments, it is like the Craigslist of Beijing. (There is, in fact, a Beijing Craigslist, but I find "The Beijinger" is more widely used and extensive). For example, when I was looking for a Chinese tutor, I posted on "The Beginner." By that evening my post was viewed by over 100 people, and my mailbox was brimming with replies.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: "You must do the things you think you cannot do." For me, that's learning Chinese. A tonal language, many characters are pronounced the same but tones differentiate meaning. Incorrect tones could result in calling your mom a horse or your dad the number eight. helps you practice your use of tones. It offers over 800 lessons and free daily podcasts, dialogues, exercises, and lesson review. Lesson levels include "Newbie," "Elementary," "Intermediate," "Upper Intermediate," and "Advanced."

Related Topics
Living in China: The Best Expatriate Resources

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