Steve: You Are Not From Around Here, Are You?
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Beijing, etc.
I’m Stephen, originally from London. I left work in 2006 to travel around the world. In 2009 I moved to Beijing to attempt to learn Mandarin, and as a base for more travels around Asia.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started blogging in 2006, to keep a record of driving overland from Beijing to Istanbul. The early blogs were very typical, mostly just showing what I was doing for friends and family. Hopefully the more recent posts are of wider interest.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
A couple of personal ones:
And a couple of useful ones for visitors to China:
Tell us about the ways your new life in Beijing differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Having travelled a lot, I was reasonably comfortable moving into a new culture. I had far more reverse culture shock when I went back to London after a year and realised how much I had changed.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Beijing? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I first came to Beijing as a tourist in 2006 – the largest surprise moving here in 2009 was how quickly the city had changed. Skyscrapers had appeared on the skyline and many hutongs had been gentrified into boutique shopping areas. Property prices had increased three- or fourfold, but beyond that the cost of living was still very cheap.
The only thing I would change is where we live – I would like to be more central as the transport times in Beijing can be very high. At the same time, I think we’ve had a wider experience by not living inside the ‘expat bubble’ of parts of central Beijing (See question 8 for more details).
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
The silliest one is the elevator buttons. In the UK, we have ground floor [G] then 1,2,3 etc. In China it starts at 1. Back in the UK after a couple of years in China I would press  to start going down, only to get off at the first floor then have to double take and get back in the lift.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Beijing?
- Learn the language – life becomes so much easier – far more so than in many countries. You can muddle your way round most European or Latin American destinations without any language skills, but in East Asia its far harder to communicate using only hand gestures. Language classes work well, but only up to a point – get out there and practice with real conversations. I spend too much time working in English and German, so my Mandarin skills have plateaued in recent months.
- Practice with chopsticks. The Chinese food in Europe or the US is usually Cantonese style, so diced into small pieces. Other Chinese cuisines feature larger and heavier dishes, so are much more strain on the hand muscles. That said, it’s also the most diverse food culture in the world, and Beijing has excellent examples of food from many provinces of China. Look up the Provincial Government offices as they often ship in fresh ingredients from their home provinces on a daily basis.
- Learn to cook at home. Unfortunately, whilst the food here is delicious, it’s also getting increasingly unsanitary. The only way to control what you’re eating is to cook it yourself. Wholesale markets, or the online retailer TaoBao, offer almost any ingredient you might want from home.
How is the expat community in Beijing? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Honestly it’s difficult. There are distinct groups in distinct areas – the university students socialise in and around the universities in Haidan/Wudaokou. The English teachers seem to spend a lot of time eating street food and socialising with Chinese friends. The expat office workers seem to spend all their time drinking in Sanlitun and the older expats stay in their American-style compounds to the north-east of town.
Being of an age between the teachers and the workers it’s very hard to meet people to just hang out beyond drinking in bars. I spend more time with Chinese friends who want to visit the countryside and go fishing or boating or hiking. It’s good for my Mandarin, but I can’t really vent with them after having a particularly frustrating day.
How would you summarize your expat life in Beijing in a single, catchy sentence?
Just living here can be draining, but the people and food can make it worthwhile.