7 Months Living in China: A Retrospective

Great Wall – Badaling – China

Martin and I have been living in China for almost seven months. When I first arrived, I was terrified about falling into a ho-hum routine (check out my first post from China). While I have fallen into a routine, I don’t think it is ho-hum. My life here is pretty good. But living in China is not easy. I didn’t expect it to be, but I also didn’t expect it to be this hard.

Working takes up the majority of my time, not surprisingly. Chinese people work incredibly long hours with very few days off. Many only have one day off each week, if that. Most people only have a few days off in addition to the two weeks of national holidays every year.

798 Arts District – Beijing – China

A typical Hutong – Beijing – China
Hutongs are narrow roads that often have hidden restaurants and bars. They are an essential part of the Beijing culture.

I teach 30 hours a week and have 5 hours paid prep time every week. This proportion is ridiculous, and I’m often planning classes during lunch and outside of my work hours. On a typical day, I prep for one hour and then teach six different one hour classes with a five minute break in between each class. Being on a schedule like this is one of the things I hated when I was a high school teacher.

The Summer Palace – Beijing – China

The Summer Palace – Beijing – China

One thing I do love about my job is that it has a plethora of other opportunities. I’ve been able to write some curricula for extra pay. I’ve been trained to teach the IELTS test prep course, which helps to break up the monotony of teaching the same classes every day. Because my company has many locations – nine in Shenzhen alone! – I also “substitute” teach at other locations several times a month. I like this because I get to work with other teachers and meet different students.

At the beginning of November, I went to Beijing to substitute teach. Words cannot express how much fun I had. Instead of teaching at a training center location, I taught students wherever they wanted to meet me, usually at their home or work. Because I was traveling to meet students, I only taught two classes a day. Even though the classes were two hours each and one-on-one, I found this schedule much more manageable and the classes more fun. I was teaching 20 hours a week and could prep whenever and wherever I wanted. I loved the freedom this allowed me. I hope to do more of this kind of teaching in the future.

The Summer Palace – Beijing – China
A man painting Chinese calligraphy with water on the sidewalk in the hopes of some monetary donations.

The Summer Palace – Beijing – China

The Summer Palace – Beijing – China
I love being able to see the skyline of Beijing on the horizon.

Besides having a great time working in Beijing, I also had a great time exploring the ancient city. Compare any two cities in the same country and you are bound to find a plethora of differences. I haven’t visited many cities in China. So, not knowing what was inherently a Chinese thing and what was inherently a Shenzhen thing, I was struck by how remarkably different these two cities are.

People in Beijing are much more polite and friendly than in Shenzhen. Many people talked to me on the street and on the train. They invited me to coffee, to lunch. No one talks to me in Shenzhen. Not once. Shenzhen is filled with 20-somethings fresh out of college desperate to make some fast cash, to find a spouse, and to start a family. Beijing is filled with people of all ages who are comfortable living in Beijing and take the time to find ways to enrich their lives.

The Great Wall – Badaling – China

The Great Wall – Badaling – China

However, the air pollution in Beijing is terrible. I could see the pollution hanging in the air. I could feel my chest ache. I sneezed more. It’s no wonder Beijingers are known for their perpetual spitting. And it was cold! Well… I was used to the temperature being 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). So when I was thrust into 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), I was cold. The weather in Beijing is a lot like New York City, whereas the weather in Shenzhen is a lot like Miami, Florida.

Beijing is still China, and there are some similarities with Shenzhen. Children are still allowed to pee and poop wherever they feel the urge, including inside train stations just outside of the bathrooms. Gross. Children are also allowed to randomly run into strangers without saying “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”. My personal space bubble is still too small. Please, don’t touch me.

The Forbidden City – Beijing – China
Notice how these four are walking through the doorway at exactly the same time and are super close to each other. I’m not sure they knew each other. This is totally normal in China.

The Forbidden City – Beijing – China
The more of these ornaments, the higher rank the building has. This building has the highest rank in all of China. It was used as the Emperor’s office for hundreds of years.

Cars and people still randomly stop whenever they want to, so walking around the city requires perpetual maneuvering around people, bikes, and cars. Today, I saw a car stop just past the middle of an intersection and back up into a line of cars in order to make the turn. Honking ensued. This may have happened today, but it could have been any day.

Even though strangers in Shenzhen are not friendly, Martin and I have made quite a few friends here. The Shenzhen Couchsurfing group is large and active. Through that we’ve found people to play badminton with, to eat dinner with, to see movies with, to have drinks with. Since Martin’s schedule is more fluid than mine, he has been able to do more things with people. Making time to spend with friends is critically important to both of us and one of the things we weren’t able to do when we were constantly on the road. Finally, we are able to develop deeper relationships with other people.

The Lama Temple – Beijing – China

Learning Chinese takes an absurd amount of patience and diligence. When traveling around Beijing I needed to use Chinese more than I do when I’m in Shenzhen. Only a few weeks ago did I learn how to ask “Where is the bathroom?” I’m picking up a few phrases and words here and there, but I’m not taking the time to study it as diligently as it requires. I prefer to hang out with my friends during the little free time I have rather than study a text book.

The Forbidden City – Beijing – China

People often ask me what I plan to do next. I really have no idea. We will be here until May. After that, anything can happen. I like not knowing and I like having all of our options still available to us. So, for now I’m content to dream about the future and enjoy the time I do have in Shenzhen, China.

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2 Responses

  1. Mimi says:

    Enjoy your stories!

  2. Molly B says:

    So interesting to learn of all of your experiences!