In my first post on Beijing, I talked about how my initial encounter with Beijing was pretty shocking but I ended it by saying that it only got better from there. Even though the first week was challenging, I had a ball of a time for the rest of my stay there. There were lots of reasons for this, but I think a lot of it had to do with my mindset. Here are some of the key reasons I had a great time:
Just do it!
I doubt any of my friends or family (and certainly not my hubby) would describe me as adventurous. But knowing that I was only in Beijing for three months, I wanted to make the most of it. So I tried my best and threw myself into it despite the language and cultural barriers. I signed up for kung fu lessons which was great fun. I got to know a local university student who became my language partner and also gave me an insight into a local student’s lifestyle and view of the world. I also got used to life in Beijing such that I had my favourite cafés and restaurants and a daily routine that I was comfortable with. I lowered my expectations and tolerated the smelly traditional squat toilets, barely noticed the pollution and became very fit from all the walking required in Beijing.
Even though I’m usually risk averse, I tried different things which I normally would not do. This included going to dodgy looking bars and clubs that had open bar for ridiculously cheap prices like RMB30 (US$4), going to local dives and consuming food without knowing what I was eating, shouting at people to get served, riding at the back of my language partner’s bicycle on a three lane congested road, etc. Another simple example is navigating the traffic in Beijing – it’s very congested and there is very little respect for pedestrians. When I first arrived, it took me ages just to cross the road outside my school. By the time my hubby visited me after a couple of months, I was walking on the road instead of the pedestrian sidewalk without even realizing it. When he asked me to walk on the sidewalk instead, I pointed out that cars and motorcycles went on the sidewalk anyway so it didn’t make any difference. We might or just as well walk on the road and trust that they won’t run us over!
I met lots of interesting people in Beijing and ended up with two groups of friends. One group was my classmates – there were about 20 of us in the class from all over the world, including Korea, Japan, Italy, UK and US. Not surprisingly, most of them were much younger than me, in their early 20s. Luckily, I wasn’t the oldest in the class, as there was an Italian woman in her 50s. Conversing with some of them was a challenge in itself, as quite a few of my classmates from Korea, Japan and Italy were not fluent in English and our Mandarin vocabulary was still pretty limited. Despite the language barrier, we ended up with a core group of people who hung out together during and after class.
I met my second group of friends when we were queuing to sign up for internet connection in our rooms. We had to queue for two hours, so we had plenty of time to strike up a conversation. We were all in different classes but could speak fluent English, so we kept in touch and met up for dinner or outings during the weekends. These two groups of friends were very different – my classmates were a bit crazy so we just had fun partying (that’s probably why the language barrier didn’t matter), while my second group of friends enjoyed having meaningful conversations about our different backgrounds and experiences in China. I’m glad to say that I still keep in touch with a few of my friends from this trip.
Travel, travel, travel
I took the opportunity to check out the sights in Beijing, either during weekends or when I had visitors. Beijing is great for tourists, with lots to see and do. The lesser known sights such as the art district are worth checking out too. On top of that, I travelled to other places in China, covering Shanghai, Suzhou, Xian and the Sichuan province. China is a huge country and it was a great opportunity to observe and experience firsthand the differences in various parts of the country. Each travel experience was unique not only because of the different destinations but also because I travelled alone to Shanghai and Suzhou, with classmates to Xian and with hubby to Sichuan.
I definitely recommend living in another country, especially one as different and interesting as China.