2008 is nearly here and I’ve been in Beijing more than three months now, a quarter of a year. Another three months (or perhaps a little more) and I’ll be going again. It’s strange to think of this because it still feels like I just got here. The fact that until last week I was still sleeping on an airbed in a living room would probably seem strange to most people, but it was comfortable enough and besides, I have a king-size bed of my own until John comes back from the UK. Aside from John, who I know from Zhuhai, I’m living with Aaron, currently the school’s “head-teacher”.
Back in September, the day after I arrived was a Monday, so I went with John to the school, had an interview, a demo class, and signed a contract within around two hours, giving me a little time to explore. The school is a place called Jian Wai Soho, a futuristic collection of huge square white buildings with serious ‘levels’ developed originally as executive housing, but now co-opted into a disparate selection of businesses, apartments, cafes and restaurants. The two main upshots of this are that a large number of language schools (and therefore foreigners) have moved in and that the doors and lifts can’t take the strain. Still, the feeling of working in an almost science-fiction environment makes up for the annoyance of having to take the stairs every day.
Next-door to Soho they are putting up one of the strangest post-modernist buildings I’ve seen anywhere except perhaps Berlin. Apparently the architect wasn’t allowed to build the thing in Germany because of safety constraints, and you can really see why.
The fact that Beijing is in an earthquake zone doesn’t seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of CCTV, the state broadcasting company, who intend to move into this thing next year and make it their new headquarters. I just hope the owners of the office building underneath have comprehensive insurance.
So the “environment” is good, and the work isn’t bad either. It’s the done thing for an ESL teacher to complain about their school but on the whole I’m happy working at this particular place. The hours are minimal, the classes small, the pay very reasonable and, most importantly, the students all over 18. Adults pay for classes themselves and therefore actually want to be there. At first I was dealing with higher level classes, which more-or-less gave me scope to teach whatever I felt like. Now they’ve given me a low level class too – I can’t be so creative in that, but it’s easier. 29 hours a week is quite a lot for a teacher, but I’m saving lots of money and it isn’t too stressful. I’m even considering staying on here a little – but not too much –longer.
The nightlife in Beijing is centuries ahead of Zhuhai. Yes, there are the same seedy pop-clubs with obsequious serving staff, terrible unbearably loud Chinese pop music, expensive watery beer, prostitutes and pick-pockets. For every five of these, though, there’s at least one decent place. There’s even a reggae bar round the corner from the school where a former teacher DJs sometimes. On the whole there’s a vaguely cosmopolitan feel generally lacking in the rest of China. In Zhuhai there were things I just couldn’t get – shaving foam, decent bread, cheese, deodorant, any decent non-Chinese foodstuff… Here not only can I get all of these things, but I can find them easily and often inexpensively just a couple of minutes from where I work.
The only major thing to complain about in Beijing is the climate. According to a guidebook being outside for one day is the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes. I read that before I got here and thought they must be exaggerating. I was here in April and have no memory of it being notably bad. After three months, though, I’d say 70 cigarettes is generous. Some days you can’t even see the next half-built skyscraper for smog.
Then sometimes it rains and everything is completely clear, for a day or so. I’ve been cycling my new bike through the generally stationary traffic every day and am seriously considering wearing a face-mask.
Ok, I could complain about getting my new bike nicked too. Despite paying for it to be guarded for a month at the bike-park downstairs (cost:20p) somebody managed to get away with it one day, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Currently I’m borrowing someone else’s bike. It’s a pink one, but I’m not too bothered. The brakes are very sharp. Cycling to work is my only real exercise, but every day the cold outside gets a little less bearable.
On the whole, I love Beijing. There’s enough rubbish things around for a book (the entire transport system for example), but it’s never dull and a great place to live.