Postcards from Abroad: Beijing


Despite the fact that I was working in China for the summer it still just felt like a glorified holiday. Unfortunately, that holiday is now over. I started Chinese classes two weeks ago and it’s pretty much the same as college in Ireland. The main difference is that classes in China start at eight in the morning. Despite the fact I’ve been starting this early since I arrived in China, it was still a shock to the system when it came to starting college. Those of you complaining about a week of nine o’clock starts should take some solace in my much less forgiving timetable. You have it easy my friends.

Not only do they expect you up at the crack of dawn, but classes in Renmin University has definitely marked a step up from what I was used to. The teachers here only use Chinese. In many ways I suppose this is a good thing in the long run, but it still takes some getting used to. For many, it has been a bit unnerving though. The fact that the pass rate over here is 60% doesn’t help either, nor does the fact that every day we’re given at least two hours worth of homework.

We finish very early each day so in theory there is plenty of time to do it, but at the moment I am working until five every day after class. I have to commute an hour on the subway so I don’t usually get home until six. I’m kept busy anyway, that’s for sure. The subway ride isn’t too bad though. It only costs two yuan which is the equivalent of about twenty-five cents in Ireland. They arrive every two minutes and you can travel any distance for the same price Well, unless you take the airport shuttle; that will set you back a whopping three euro. It puts Irish Rail to shame. I’m not going to be able to cope with public transport in Ireland when I get back. Everything about it is going to offend me. The price, the efficiency, the reliability; all of which leave much to be desired as I’m sure any other college commuter will tell you.

Teaching in the Kindergarten is possibly the easiest job I’ve ever done. This is kind of ironic because it’s also the highest paid job I’ve ever had. The demand for English teachers in Beijing is something else. If you put up an ad online it becomes a case of job filtering, not job hunting. You’ll get at least ten responses in twenty-four hours. Learn from my mistakes, however. Never give your mobile number, you’ll be plagued by phone calls and will likely quickly feel like throwing your phone down a well once you get over feeling like you’re the best thing since sliced bread.

I got at least eight phone calls in one day back when I was in Tianjin. You don’t even need to have proper qualifications. There’s such a shortage of native English speakers here that they can’t afford to be picky. And obviously, as a student, I don’t even have a working visa but do you think they care? Not in the slightest. Not in China. One of the first things you’ll learn here is that they do nothing by the book. What they take seriously, they take very seriously, but there’s just one big grey area when it comes to the rest..

A fine example of such blurred lines is with copyright. China is notorious for producing counterfeit goods. It’s completely illegal and indiscreet and yet there’s still dozens of market in Beijing that sell high-end brands for a fraction of their standard price. ‘The Silk Market’ is a famous example: a place where you can buy almost any expensive brand you know of for less than €5, though you will have to bargain to get a good price. The place is full of westerners that the vendors are eager to rip-off, knowing full well we’re used to paying ten times more for the same things in our home countries.

The prevalence of counterfeit goods across Beijing even extends to alcohol. Yes, they have fake alcohol. What is fake alcohol you might ask? It’s cheap for a start, something that most Irish students would appreciate. That’s about the height of the pros though. It might taste the exact same but believe me, you will know the next day if you’ve been drinking industrial alcohol the night before or not. You will know. It gives you hangovers from hell and induces memory loss that will frighten the life out of you. My last experience with these drinks ended with me losing my wallet that had my Irish and Chinese bank cards and my credit card. Believe me, the Bank of China beside Renmin is not the place you want to be queuing the morning after the night before. The minimum length of time I’ve heard of anyone spending there was one hour, and that was on a good day. A lesson learned the hard way: it’s best not to risk permanent brain damage for the sake of a 50 cent saving on a bottle of beer.

Fortunately for me, my friend is arriving in Beijing shortly. She’s bringing my re-issued Irish bank cards with her so I won’t be stranded without cash for too long. Looks like I’ve dodged a bullet this time, though perhaps I’ll be a little more careful with what I’m purchasing from now on.

Read: Denis Vaughan’s first Postcard from Abroad