Living in Beijing, China – How to be a New Teacher

Accommodation and Teaching

I recently returned from 12 months of living, travelling 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.

If you haven’t done so already, you may want to check out part 1 of this tale first to hear about my first impressions of moving to China. In this the 2nd part of my story, I talk about finding a place to live, as well as the unexpected difficulties of an English teaching job.


April

This was my second month living in Beijing and by far the toughest. Starting on a positive, a lot of things were going well for me towards the end of March and beginning of April. During my two weeks induction training for my new job I had found a great prospective flatmate to live with. We both worked in a similar area to the east end of Beijing and although a little stifled at first, it was clear that we were compatible as roommates, relaxed, easy to talk to and fun to hang out with, that was more than I could have hoped for from my first few weeks. It’s just as well I found a fellow expat to room with too because as I would later discover, there are a multitude of challenges facing virgin Chinese foreigners which I was woefully unprepared for. We found a rather sizeable two bedroom apartment in the heart of the Dongzhimen area, equidistant from our two future language schools.

The bustling nightlife of Dongzhimen’s main restaurant strip.

Dongzhimen is one of the most sought after areas in Beijing for Western expatriates and with good reason, it is a perfect mix of Eastern craziness and Western comforts. Immediately after exiting the dedicated subway station you will find yourself flanked on either side by sizeable shopping malls, each on packed to the rafters with an eclectic mix of restaurants from around the world (where else can you find traditional Chinese hotpot, Korean BBQ restaurants and Pizza hut bumping shoulders with one another), various clothing outlets such as Uniqlo and Zara which are strangely popular in China, a sizeable supermarket catering to both locals and foreigners, and even a cinema playing both Chinese hits and English blockbusters. Walking down the main street you are confronted with an array of Chinese restaurants with enough variety to easily last you a full year (including one of the most renowned Peking Duck restaurants in the whole of the city), inter-dispersed with handy corner shops and 7/11’s for your everyday needs. Dining in restaurants and eateries is a staple of Chinese culture and its clear to see what a crazy competitive market this is walking down the main street. Beautiful Chinese architecture is juxtaposed against garish, glaring fluorescent signs trying to entice you in, the most popular restaurants swarm with huge queues of waiting and hungry patrons, many of whom sit at tables spewing into the street, appeasing their hunger with complimentary sides, meanwhile the quieter ones have a team of promoters standing out front trying to drag every passerby, whether you’re out for the night or returning bleary eyed from work, inside. On the busiest weekend days it is absolute pandemonium, in the best possible way. Listen closely over the roar of the restaurants and you will hear the ear-bleeding sounds of Karaoke fanatics singing their lungs out at the nearby KTV (another of the locals most popular social scenes) or the drunken revellers having the time of their lives at one of the many popular bars.

Dongzhimen is also highly considered one of the best places to live due to its proximity to some of the other most happening areas. Sanlitun, the most affluent and Westernised area in Beijing is only a 10 minute taxi journey away. There you can find the largest concentration of bars, clubs and Western restaurants as well as the best shopping scene in the city. Meanwhile Beixinqiao, an upscale mix of trendy hutongs and an incredible indie music scene is only a short walk away. From here you can walk roughly another ten minutes towards the iconic drum and bell tower, as well as Houhai lake, the most beautiful scenery in the city in my opinion and the perfect place for a long romantic walk or getting lost in your own thoughts. In short Dongzhimen rocks!

At this point I think I should say a few words about finding accommodation in Beijing, something that was definitely one of my most anxiety inducing concerns before arriving. All I can say is, do not worry! Finding a place to live is incredibly easy. Beijing is known as a very transitory city, many people come with the intention of only staying short term, usually a year or so. As search the market is always saturated with tons of suitable places to hang your hat. Due to various circumstances, which I will discuss in more depth at a later stage, I ended up moving three times during my brief stint in Beijing and each time was seamlessly easy. Firstly as foreigners moving to China to teach we are a uniquely privileged and sought after commodity which allows us a basic salary far beyond the average income of other Beijingers. Me and my flatmate were able to find a very spacious two bedroom apartment for 4000 yen each (roughly £450 or $600) less than 1/3 of my total salary on a comparatively very modest teaching salary. Secondly, if your situation is anything like mine you will find signing a contract for a new place insurmountably easier than in your home country. Beijing operates on a beautifully streamlined trust system, there is no need for references or proof of income or anything like that, no jumping through hoops, no proven your trust-ability, you simply have to agree to pay your rent and the place is yours. Many places also come with complimentary WIFI and with state sponsored and regulate heating during the winter, the only extra utility bill you’re likely to pay is electricity which is extremely modest, roughly 10 yuan a week (£1/$1.50). The modest cost of living is a big draw to China, allowing you to utilise the majority of your pay packet for the things you really enjoy, like travelling, boozing and eating.

Fresh strawberries coated in caramelised sugar, a popular treat available in the Hutongs of Beijing.

Outside of work we both continued to thrive. We had found an amazing place, learned to pay our bills independently, we were making new friends both in the local and expat community and we were experiencing incredible and totally new food on a daily basis. I must emphasise at this point that the general China experience was mine, indeed most expats, main draw for up heaving our lives to move here and boy it was not disappointing. However, you don’t move to China without a means of supporting yourself, and the overwhelming majority of us do this through teaching English as a foreign language, a serious growth area in the Chinese expat economy which seems to know no bounds. Like many before me I was guilty of one fatal and arrogant flaw. The thought takes hold of many prospective foreign language teachers in various iterations, but usually goes a little something like this: ‘I speak English, I’ve spoke English my entire life, how hard can it be to teach it?’ Well it turns out, pretty fucking hard. At least initially. Firstly teaching English to anybody as a second language is immensely difficult. You have to think about language in a way you never have before, how can you make yourself understood to a child with less than 100 words in their vocabulary? Grading your language rapidly becomes an essential skill, taking what you want to convey and reducing it to its most basic components is a must. Most the time even that isn’t enough, you have to think consciously about all the other ways you make yourself understood, they say 93% of communication is non verbal and you will be focusing on this percentage in a way you never have before. Your facial expressions, hand movements, visual cues all become essential components of your teaching technique. You’d better get used to exaggerating your physical response to extreme lengths if you hope to make yourself understood. Secondly, Chinese children in particular are placed under an immense amount of stress. It is not unusual for your one hour language class to be sandwiched between 10 hours of schooling and a further practice session in piano or sports. If you’re every feeling fatigued after a long day teaching, just remind yourself your day has probably been nowhere near as long as these poor kids. Motivating is key, you have to make lessons fun and engaging, learning a new language should be something the children enjoy and look forward to, if not they will quickly shut off to your incoherent foreign rambling. Finally, children the world over, whether from America, Britain, or China, are just children. If they sense weakness, disinterest, or an unprepared teacher, they will pounce. Like a pack of hungry wolves, controlling a class of 15+ children requires discipline and a firm inner confidence.

I was prepared for none of this when I was flung starry eyed into my first class. Needless to say they ate me alive. Within seconds they sensed me nervous naivety and chaos ensued, spitballs, torn worksheets and Chinese profanities, I was a mouse in the lion’s den. That first week of teaching was one of the toughest of my life. I remember walking out of one of my first full shifts and walking aimlessly down a random street close to my centre for what felt like hours, before plonking myself down in the middle of nowhere and calling my girlfriend at the time on the verge of tears. What had I done? I asked her. I’d travelled half way across the world just to find that I couldn’t teach, when I could’ve just done that at home. I’d made a mistake and I was resolved that after my probation I would be swiftly returning home a defeated and humbled man. But the next day, after confiding my fears to my flatmate who I found was facing a similar sobering experience, I returned to work determined to give it my best shot. I leaned heavily on my peers during those early days, I observed everybody who would allow my presence in their classroom, I asked questions and engaged in all the additional training I could find. I saw the incredible bonds others had formed with their students, I listened to the laughter emanating from their classrooms and I saw the smile on the children’s faces as they saw their favourite teachers on the way into the centre. I saw that while most of us had came for the general China experience, many had stayed for the unexpected joy of teaching.

I’m not going to lie, it was a long and difficult road before I considered myself a competent teacher, one which extended well beyond my first month of teaching. Teaching is a marathon not a sprint, and whether you have 1 month of experience or 10 years, you always have more you can learn, there will always be an experience which will catch you off guard, days where you wish you’d done things differently. But I remember clearly the first time, after long hours of working on lesson plans and pestering my compatriots for advice, that a young child declared to my teaching assistant in Chinese, (who then gracefully translated it back into English for me) that I was their favourite teacher. After that I knew I was hooked. I’d moved for China, I’d live for the teaching.


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 third part of my tale. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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