I meant to do a “Yippee we’ve lived in Beijing for a year post”, but I didn’t really have a chance and the moment passed (6th August was our one year in the ‘Jing anniversary and that was forever ago now!). So instead, here is a different post I’ve been meaning to write for a while: my list of the best and worst things about expat life in Beijing.
The Best Things About Living in Beijing
It’s Beijing, Baby!
Ok, this first one is a bit of a cop out. But surely the best part of living in Beijing is LIVING in Beijing! Experiencing something new every day, having endless places to visit, a constant sense of wonder and excitement! It’s amazing!
In Beijing, you can have it all. I have all the Chinese food I could want to eat and all the international food I could want to eat. And I want to eat a lot! Beijing has something for all food tastes. There are plenty of vegetarian restaurants too! Check here for a few of my favourite Chinese foods.
In case you didn’t know, there are rather a lot of people in this town! There are plenty of opportunities to make friends with Chinese people and other expats. There’s a rather large expat community so you can find people from your home country to hang out with! Many young Chinese people can speak some English and, if you can speak Mandarin you have even more friends to make!
There’s So Much Available For Expats
Unlike some other places I’ve lived, there are expats in Beijing doing almost every job you can think of. Bankers, fashion designers, international school teachers, writers, bar tenders, students, ESL teachers, businessmen and women- they are all here and it makes for a really varied expat community with people at all different stages of life and career. Because of this, there are so any resources and facilities available to English speakers- exercise classes, sports clubs, English magazines (e.g Time Out, City Weekend, The Beijiinger, and That’s Beijing), dining events, book talks by visiting authors, craft beer. So much to do!
This is China. It’s huge. There are endless places to go! We’ve already spent a lot of holidays travelling this country and have barely seen a slither of it! You’ve got the big cities like err Beijing and Shanghai, the Tibetan areas, countryside, rivers, mountains, historical sites. And if you hop on an international flight you can be in Seoul in under 2 hours, Tokyo in 3 and Bangkok in around 4. Myanmar and Vietnam are also really easy to get to.
Ok, so really this should be in the worst section. Squat toilets can be gross and I honestly do not believe squatting is more hygienic- judging by the amount of pee splashes I see all over the bathrooms here! But, once you have completely mastered them and are no longer even afraid to use the open ones with no door or partitions, you do feel like you’ve accomplished something! Although, since I started putting together this post I’ve had a terrible experience with a woman trying to look at me in the bathroom so errr, there’s that.
Learning the Language
This is under best and worst! But for the best- the first time you realise you understand something in Mandarin, can recognise/read a character, get your point of view across or even order food on the phone- then you feel like you’ve made it in Beijing!
Finding your place
I never disliked Beijing and I fortunately never experienced any kind of culture shock (living in Asia before must have helped) but it took me a while to really LOVE this place. Now I feel like I found my love for Beijing and it’s amazing!
The Old and the New
Beijing is such a mix of old and new. You have the old hutong alleyways where barbers still cut hair on the sidewalk and the sky high towers in the CBD. The tiny hole in the wall restaurants and the fancy places in Sanlitun. I love them all!
The Famous Sites
Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple, The Great Wall. Yep, we have all that here and more!
Cafes, Shops and Bars
I love me a cute cafe, trinket shop or a funky cocktail bar. Beijing has all that too! Don’t forget all the craft beer. Mmmmmm.
The Hutong Areas
I might have to ban myself from proclaiming my love for the hutong areas (the small alleyways of traditional style buildings and houses). I love wandering them- from the most traditional style ones full of old family homes, to the ones overtaken by cafes and shops like Wudaoying- it’s my favourite way to spend time in Beijing. And now we even live in our very own (ok, rented) Hutong Courtyard home!
The Worst Things About Living in Beijing
It’s gross, it’s bad for you, it makes you feel guilty if you don’t spend every moment outside when you finally get a perfectly clear day. It doesn’t really need any more explanation. Just yuck.
Beijing is crowded- fact. I have pretty much gotten used to the lack of personal space and the huge crowds of people. But I can imagine it could be overwhelming for some visitors (you’ll survive though!). And there are always quiet places to discover somewhere in Beijing.
There’s no escaping it- Chinese and British culture are very, very different. I have gotten used to most things here and I also don’t believe in degrading someone else’s culture. But it would be silly to ignore the fact that, yes sometimes things here are going to be done in a Chinese way that really annoys you. I’m sure Chinese people think the same the other way about British or American society or Culture (In fact my Chinese Teaching Assistants love pointing out the differences between our cultures!).
If You’re Injured, No One Will Help You!
To avoid going into a huge panic, I try to avoid thinking of this subject. But sadly in China people don’t always want to help those who have been hurt or injured. Recently there was a case where a western man fainted on the subway (this was in Shanghai but it could be the same in Beijing) and all the passengers RAN off the subway to avoid helping him! Supposedly people are scared they’ll be the ones to get sued if they try to help. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would always, always help someone first if they were ill or hurt.
You Have No Rights
At times it can feel like you have no rights in Beijing. There are multiple random reasons they can find to deport you here. When you move to Beijing with a work or spouse visa you have to undergo a lengthy health and body check, including chest x-rays, urine and blood tests. You will never be given the results of these tests. You will never know who has seen them or how private they are kept. And anyway, my health is definitely worse now after a year + living in China- are they going to test when I leave and then apologise? Nope! And don’t forget, you can get kicked out of your apartment any time!
Animals don’t have a lot of rights here either. From being eaten in all kinds of ways, to pets being mistreated, to animals in zoos and aquariums being kept in completely inappropriate cages/tanks (and visitors thinking it’s fine to taunt the animals and bang on the glass) to wildlife and sea life being disrespected. And don’t even get me started on the place in Harbin where you can hold a live chicken over a tiger’s cage and watch as the tiger rips it to shreds. So yeah, China is not a great place for animal lovers.
There are a lot of bright lights and big skyscrapers in Beijing. But there is still a lot of severe poverty in Beijing. The difference between the “new rich” and the poor here makes me sick. Of course we have poverty in England too but the difference is not so great and there are support systems in place (they don’t always work but that’s another story). There are also supposedly gangs that force disabled people to beg and then give the gang all the money, so I never, ever give money to beggars here.
Traffic and Public Transport
There are too many cars in Beijing. Not only that, but there are too many terrible and scary drivers. I love taking the super cheap subway instead of a taxi, but it’s not always convenient (there is no stop anywhere near my work!) and it’s not that well designed. Some of the line changes have you walking for what feels like miles.
Will they ever finish building Beijing? Nope! There is construction everywhere, all the time! Buildings go up, buildings get ripped down. Sometimes parts of town just feel like one big construction site.
Unmentionable Moments of History and Blocked Internet (Censorship)
The lack of freedom of speech and the internet censorship are two of the absolute worst things here for me. Don’t mention Tiananmen square on 4th June, say bad things about Mao or try to get on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, The New York Times or even WordPress. Luckily for us we know how to get a VPN so we can still use all those websites. Unlucky for me, having to bite my tongue on these political issues does not come so easily.
Learning Mandarin Is Really Hard
I found Mandarin really hard to learn. So I quit (ok that was more to do with having a bad teacher and being too tired after work but I’m going to start again, I swear!). It feels like learning three languages instead of just one. You need to learn to speak and use the correct tones, you need to learn to read and write the character and you need to learn what the words actually mean (for example Ni Hao doesn’t mean hello, it literally means “you good”. The word for exit means something like “out the mouth”). If you want to be really good at Mandarin you need to learn those different components and yeah, I probably don’t have time to do that.
One final bad point- the constant contamination scares. There’s always something- poisoned baby powder, toxic toothpaste, hormones in the milk and excess antibiotics in the water. There’s also gutter oil to worry about (oil that is dredged up from the sewers, amongst other places, and repackaged and resold!). I only use imported toothpaste and milk and would never drink the water (it’s full of heavy metals from the crappy old pipes). But I have a choice. What about all the lower income Chinese people who don’t even have clean water (or air) as a basic right?
So there you have it- the best and worst parts of being an expat in Beijing! I do love living here and I love learning about a new culture. But I have tried to be honest about what difficulties are faced here. I think the good things outweigh the bad though (for now) and I’m really happy I get to live here! I just hope that (more for Chinese peoples sake as they have to live here forever) some things, like the pollution and censorship, get stopped soon!
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What do you think-any surprises here? What would you love or hate about Beijing? What are the best and worst parts about where you live?
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