Living in Beijing: An Expat Guide
Fed up with disappointing elections in the West? Consider a move to the capital of the People’s Republic of China, where trivial matters like democracy won’t get in the way of you ganbei-ing your baijiu with newfound friends
Chaos co-existing with ancient history on the home turf of one of the world’s most domineering governments characterises Beijing. Full of speakeasies, constantly being demolished and rebuilt and essentially unsearchable on western social media, getting in the know can be a challenge. But once you’ve figured out your way in, it becomes hard to ever leave.
Where to live
Welcome to Beijing. It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold. The food is weird. You can’t read any of the signs – GCSE French won’t help you now, Toto. Where to set up digs? Prepare to meet your first, and soon-to-be favourite, Chinese word: mafan (roughly translates as hassle). House hunting in the incredibly overpopulated capital is downright unpleasant. Expect to be asked for an upfront payment of three months rent, agency fee, deposit and your first-born.
As a foreign twenty-something you’ve basically got two choices – Dongcheng District or Chaoyang District. Some people are attracted to Dongcheng’s ancient, winding hutong alleys, which have existed in Beijing since the 13th century’s Yuan dynasty, and sometimes show it, with private toilet facilities not to be assumed. If you like tasting (fermented, occasionally sewage scented) history in the air, seeing Chinese grandpas play mahjong on the street corner and cycling between tiny dive bars, this is the spot for you. If locking eyes with a grandma doing her daily ablutions when you nip out for a wee mid-drinking session bothers you, then it probably isn’t. Chaoyang’s Sanlitun might be more your style, with its flash malls, cocktail bars, imported wine and trashy nightclubs.
A two-wheeled steed is indispensible in Beijing’s traffic-clogged streets, and as home to the 'Uber of bicycles,' Mobike, cycling in the capital couldn’t be easier. Simply locate a bike, scan the QR code and be on your way for the princely sum of 10 pence. Once you’ve arrived you can ditch the bike wherever you like, avoiding the docking station malarkey of Western bike share schemes and expediting your entry to the pub. If you want to buy your own little piece of history, head to the Beixinqiao stolen bike market for a Flying Pigeon, the mass-produced bike synonymous with communism. And don’t worry about handling stolen goods – it’ll probably be nicked off you in a few months, relax; it’s the circle of bikes.
Mo mo money
The economy is booming, and lucky for you, being a laowai (foreigner) is pretty much the equivalent of an MBA in Beijing – with the unpleasant truth that special honors are awarded if you’re white. Use what your momma gave you and pick up a job as an English teacher for minimal hours and the kind of paycheck that only Canary Wharf suits can command in London.
If teaching isn’t your cup of cha jobs in media, marketing and business can all benefit from your native-level command of the Queen’s English. Then there’s the leftfield side of employment as a foreigner: appear in a dentistry commercial, play saxophone at a mall opening, pretend to be a French classical music expert and show up to a symphony – seriously, all actual jobs actual friends of mine have been paid actual renminbi for.
The capital's expat population hits that sweet spot where there’s enough laowai to warrant Foreigner Friendly bars, events and communities, but not so many that people lose the friendly desperation of newbies. Beijing is transient, and the constant cycle of goodbye parties means almost everyone’s open to meeting new friends.
KTV (karaoke) is pretty much a national sport and a great way to make some local mates so dust off your vocal chords and practise some Chinese ballads. And if singing isn’t your jam then you better like post-rock bands, because Beijing is crawling with them. The scene leans towards the DIY, with local live music, craft beer and bar-crawling the nightlife mainstays – although swanky cocktail bars are multiplying in well-heeled Sanlitun.
Dirty bar street manages to creak on, slicked in its own sticky mess of tequila shots and pop hits from the noughties, while the Gongti clubs are there for when you need a night out full of free 'vodka', memory loss and the taste of regret. Electronic artists of note occasionally pass through Dada, Lantern and Modernsky, but the real joy of Beijing’s nightlife is being able to have a few too many beers at dinner, cycle around some bars that will stay open until the last drinkers stumble out and spontaneously turn up at the club with no ticket, no need to queue and no obtrusive security. It’s spontaneous, it’s laid back and it’s cheap.
The great brickening
China moves fast. Like a steamroller through mapo dofu, when the government set their mind to something, nothing is going to get in their way. This means the infrastructure can be excellent; Beijing has built the world’s second longest metro network in a matter of decades, with more lines springing up each year. It also means you shouldn’t get too attached to your favourite haunts, as there’s a pretty high chance that next week government workers will have come along and literally bricked up the door.
The Chinese settled on walls as the solution to their problems a long time before Trump got in on the act and they’re sticking to their guns on this one, with a city wide beautification campaign that involves bricking up hundreds of undesirable businesses. Us Beijingeren are adaptable though – no door, no problem. Just throw up a ladder and climb in the window.
The Great Firewall of China
Even cyberspace isn’t safe from Party intervention, with censorship blocking all the good stuff. Download a VPN before you leave the land of the free, and prepare to spend much less time aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed. While total Insta-addicts might find The Great Firewall a struggle, being forcibly liberated from Lisa and Tom’s daily baby updates is a different kind of freedom, and at first you will feel giddy with the possibilities of so much free time.
That is until you figure out the ins and outs of WeChat. WeChat is like social media, texting, banking and work all rolled into one. You can buy dinner, pay your phone bill, negotiate a new job, maintain your stock portfolio, count your steps, post self-satisfied photos of your trip to Thailand, sell a couch, read the news – the list goes on. WeChat isn’t an app, it’s a way of life, and it will come to dominate yours in a way that makes Western social media look unobtrusively benign.
One thing WeChat can’t replace, though, is Google. You don’t appreciate just how good Google’s algorithms are until you Bing 'Fat Girl Noodles Beijing' (a popular – and excellent – spicy noodle joint) and get offered 'Fat Jew in a Hot Tub Full of Ramen NSFW.' Don’t forget that VPN.
I hope you’re hungry because eating in China is far more than a method of refueling your fleshy form; it’s a transcendental experience. The Chinese love food so much that instead of our ubiquitous “you alright?” rhetorical greeting, they will hail you with the phrase “Ni chi la ma” (have you eaten?) A typical night on the tiles in the PRC revolves around rocking up to a restaurant, ordering so much food that dishes have to be piled on top of each other and staying there the whole evening, plowing through five kuai (50 pence) beers or even a bottle of baijiu (lethally strong and cheap rice liquor). Getting invited to join a table of rowdy red-nosed men who speak no English and will communicate solely through smiles, ganbei (cheers/finish your glass) and their generous insistence on paying for your meal is a common occurrence.
The Chinese food you’ll find in Beijing bears little resemblance to your local takeaway, which is a version of Cantonese food that established itself in the 1970s and never left. Instead, expect chuan’r (anything barbequed on a stick – often eaten late at night from street side stalls), jiaozi (dumplings), donkey burgers, lamb spine hotpot and jianbing (breakfast pancakes stuffed with egg, crispy dough, salad and fermented soy bean sauce).
Being the capital, food from all over China (and the world) is ubiquitous, dead cheap and top notch. You will get fat. When you can order a feast for three of twice fried pork, sweet and spicy dumplings dripping in sesame sauce, pork minced spicy noodles and spinach swimming in garlic for under £7, the idea of salad goes out the window.
As food is the linchpin of socialising here, good eats are also available all night long. Where else in the world is there four-story cathedral of dim sum open 24/7? Forget sad chips, greasy kebabs and undercooked chicken. When you get the munchies at 5am in Beijing you get a feast fit for an Emperor.
Beijing is safe. Really safe. An authoritarian regime tends to have that effect on crime. On the flipside of being able to unthinkingly wobble home alone down unlit alleys after a night knocking back the baijiu are the biannual bar raids. A few times a year the police get a bee in their bonnet and descend unexpectedly upon laowai hotspots to check your papers and test your piss. Probably best avoiding the bar scene if there’s anything naughty in your wee.
The air. The elephant in the room that I haven’t mentioned yet because you can barely see it through the smog. If you’ve only heard one thing about Beijing, it’s probably that it’s polluted. I’m not going to lie, the smog is a drag. Buy a mask, pick up a cheap air filter and wait for the days when the wind changes, the skies finally clear and the whole city dances.