My husband, Justin, and I moved to Beijing just over a year ago. We had lived in Asia years before (I’m British and he’s a Californian and we actually met in South Korea!) and we were ready to come back! We picked Beijing because it seemed like a really exciting place to be – luckily that has proven true.
A typical workday for me in Beijing begins at 6am, when I am rudely awakened by my phone alarm. In our old apartment the first thing I would do would be to check the AQI app on my phone. This tells me what the pollution level is like. Under 50 is perfect 200+ is disgusting (it got up to over 500 last winter and I was ready to leave. Then it rained and everything was fine again!). In our new apartment I usually don’t bother checking the app. The huge 26th floor windows are all the pollution indicator we need. If we can’t see the large skyscrapers across the road, we know it’s a bad day. On a clear day the view is amazing and I often let out a “wow!” even after a few months of living here!
My husband works from home but he often gets up to make me a coffee for the journey to work (thanks!). I start drinking it as I wait for the elevator to come up to the top floor. Sometimes I can see the mountains in the distance as I wait.
I’m outside by 6.55am to get my ride to work. In Beijing you have to enter a lottery to get a number plate in order to get a car. Therefore many foreigners don’t drive as it can take years to win the lottery (and you have to take the bizarre Chinese driving test first). There’s no public transport near my work so we have a driver booked for the early morning commute everyday.
Traffic is notoriously bad and the driving absolutely crazy. Although our driver is great, the same can’t be said for everyone! Many times I have been riding in the back of a taxi with my hands half covering my eyes. I’ve been taken the wrong way around roundabouts and been in several near crashes.
As we pull away from my apartment complex I see old ladies practising Tai Chi in the outdoor exercise park by my building. They often have lovely Chinese music playing. In the evenings they do some kind of group dance exercise routines to music. It’s fun to watch and join in.
We usually get to work at about 7.30am (depending on traffic). I’m a primary school teacher back in the UK and, in Beijing, I teach at a large International School. I teach the same curriculum as I did in the UK and have children from a range of countries in my class. The day is quite similar to teaching back home apart from we eat Chinese food for lunch.
The temperatures are really extreme here so outdoor play can be quite the challenge. We might be sweating it out in 40c heat in June or freezing well below minus in January. The pollution also means we often have to cut playtimes short or skip them all together. My school has really strict policies on not letting the children play outside once the pollution reaches a certain level, so we have to monitor it throughout the day as it can change so quickly.
I leave school at around 5pm and then all manner of fun could be happening. The expat community is huge in Beijing and there are many facilities catering towards English speakers. For example, there are loads of exercise classes available in English. I attend yoga classes a couple of times a week and, in the warmer months, there are fun aerobics sessions that take place on the rooftop of a building downtown. I like to take the subway home from my yoga class. It’s so cheap at only 2 RMB (20 pence or $0.16).
I used to attend Mandarin lessons once a week after work but, although I loved learning Chinese, I wasn’t enjoying the way it was taught. I’m currently looking for a new teacher as I think it’s important to at least try to learn. Just knowing a little bit of Mandarin really helps with getting around the city.
Wandering the Hutong
If I’m not going to an exercise class I might head straight home, stopping to buy fruit at one of the many small fruit shops and stands by my apartment. Or I might meet my husband and friends for dinner or an event. There’s always something going on in Beijing. There are tons of amazing restaurants here- Chinese food (of course) as well as almost any cuisine you could want. We used to cook at home a lot but, now we are living down town in such a great location, we prefer to just eat out. Some of my favorite local foods are dumplings, hot pot and Beijing yoghurt. The yoghurt comes in little glass jars. You sip it through a straw at a street stand and then give them back the jar to be used again.
One way that my life is much easier in Beijing is that we have an Ayi. An Ayi is a woman who comes and does all your cleaning for you (some Ayis cook and others look after your children for you, if you have them). I could never afford a cleaner back home but it’s so nice knowing I don’t have to worry about laundry or mopping the floor!
Although we’ve seen most of the big tourist sites by now, we still like to regularly revisit the temples, especially on beautiful blue sky days. Wandering the hutong (alleyways or lanes) is a great way to still catch a glimpse of traditional Beijing life: men squat around tables playing cards, there are elderly couples playing ping pong in the communal gardens and make sure you don’t miss pigeon hour (when all the pet pigeons are let out to fly, before they return home to their aviaries). It still feels very much like there’s a local community.
The downsides of living in Beijing are the pollution (which is the worst thing for me), the lack of health and safety rules being enforced, food contamination and the risk of eating gutter oil (google it….or maybe not yuck!).
Something that is a lot more difficult than back home is accessing the Internet. Lots of websites (such as Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Google and Youtube) are all blocked in China. But many people use a VPN to bypass this. Most big Chinese companies still have Facebook pages so VPNs are no secret. I also use Wechat a lot. It’s a Chinese messaging app but it also has some features similar to Twitter and Instagram. I use it to chat with my Chinese and Expat friends- everyone is on it in Beijing.
Despite the downsides I am still so happy we moved here. Beijing has grown and grown on me and I absolutely love it (most of the time) now.
This city has something for everyone. The crazy old and the super new, the local beers and teas and the expensive imported wine and cocktails. It’s an exciting place to live!