In his first Postcards from Abroad, Denis Vaughan talks about settling into Beijing, culture shocks and feeling like a celebrity
As a Stage Three ‘BComm with Chinese’ student, it’s mandatory for me to study in China this year. After two months of living in China, it’s fair to say that I’m well settled in at this stage. I came over two months early to teach English and give myself a head start with the language. This was my second time coming here because I went to the international summer school in Renmin University of China last year. That worked to my advantage, because I didn’t have to deal with any of the culture shocks that intrigued, or in some cases horrified me last year. These include the fact that it’s rude to give tips, toilets are holes built into the ground, and that it’s perfectly acceptable for kids who are being toilet trained to just drop their trousers and urinate on the street. Yeah, that’s right. It happens. In some cases shit happens too. Literally. On the street. It’s nasty. Beijing’s a great city but I don’t think you’ll find anyone that’ll try to argue it’s one that’s big on cleanliness.
Working for the English company that hired me has its advantages and disadvantages. On the up-side, they had schools all over the Beijing province, so I got to explore all the different parts of Beijing. That was kind of also the downside, however. At the end of every week I was moved to a different school, in another district. That’s about the same as moving counties in Ireland, so I had around an hour and half drive each time. I spent each week living out of a suitcase that was going to have to be packed again in a few days. When you have one year’s worth of luggage with you, the last thing you want is to be hauling it all around Beijing for a month. One move in particular was in the middle of the floods, so that day took us six hours altogether. Apparently it was worst rainfall they’ve had in 60 years and 77 people died. It was quite surreal being in the middle of it all.
When I arrived in the Pinggu district we weren’t able to drive up the road to my hotel because it was flooded. I had to carry my bags over my head and waddle through water that was up to my knees. To put it into perspective, I’d say it was infinitely worse than the day in Dublin last year when the Liffey burst and Dundrum flooded. At the time though, I didn’t realise how serious it was in some areas. I was just sickened that I didn’t have my camera for it more than anything else.
I think out of all of the places I went to, Datong in the Shanxi province was probably my favourite. I had to fly there from Beijing to teach for a friend of my boss who also owned English schools. Datong isn’t a well known city, so it’s difficult for them to attract foreigners there to teach. Because of this, I was treated like royalty. I was hailed as a “guest speaker” and had my name on the flashboards, with all the schools kicking up a fuss over when I’d be arriving. After I gave my presentations loads of the students asked for my autograph and everything. I think it was the closest thing to fame I’m ever going to experience in my life.
Honestly, if you’re western and lacking in self esteem you could sort all your problems out by coming to a city in China like Datong. They’ll go crazy for you here. Particularly if you have blonde hair, as my friend knows only too well. Expect the cameras to be flashing left, right and centre. Stardom aside, the main reason I loved Datong so much was because of the Yungang Grottos. It’s a massive Buddha temple built partly on a lake and it’s very famous in Asia. Out of all the sights I’ve seen in China, and I’ve seen many, it was my favourite so far. Well worth a visit for anyone who comes to China.
When I finished work with that company, I got a job working in a Kindergarten. My class are only five years old but it’s the easiest job ever. I only teach them three hours a day from two until five, Monday to Friday. Chinese classes are starting this week and they run from 8am to 12.30pm so I’ll still be able to work. You know you’ve made it when you’re getting paid more than €1,000 a month to sing the A,B,C’s and ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. Better yet, my boyfriend is over here now too, teaching English for an American company, so I’m getting half price rent. In an apartment that’s a five minute walk to the college no less. I could deal with never leaving China.