"I used to live in a sleepy small town in southern England and Beijing was a parallel world, exciting, chaotic and unpredictable - where anything was possible..
People either love China or hate it. Few, quite rightly, have no opinion of it. It can be maddening, unreasonable and confusing. The constantly weird food, uninteligable beliefs, customes and habits, the sudden new rules; it can be exhausting. Why do I stay?
It is hard to imagine how much a country can change in 15 years. In the early days, Beijing felt like the wild west. Foreigners were a novelty and it was common to be pointed and stared at. People would shout out ‘hello’ ask questions and ask for photographs. Bar street those days was along an unpaved road lined with food stalls and DVD shops. The bars themselves were filled with unmarried women looking for visas and wealthy husbands, and bar flies who’d entertain you for free drinks. Clubs were usually free for foreigners with special seating areas; you felt like a rock star.
Prostitution was rife, you would see rows of young girls waiting in hairdressers, or standing outside venues popular with westerners. Even hotel staff would try and push girls on you if you were in the bar late. Everywhere there was construction and all-night commerce; the city never stopped. I used to live in a sleepy small town in southern England and Beijing was a parallel world, exciting, chaotic and unpredictable – where anything was possible.
When I moved here in 2011, China had already begun to change. Beijing had been tidied up for the Olympics. With the influx of foreigners and a growing expat community the free perks disappeared, and our mystique had diminished. But being a westerner still opened doors. My white face, blue eyes, big nose and English accent still sparked curiosity and brought opportunities to star in films and adverts, judge talent and fashion shows, to experience and be shown a disappearing culture.
Xi Jing Ping came to power in late 2012. His drive against corruption accelerated the changes. The hairdresser’s and dodgy massage shops that were commonplace gradually disappeared, so did the lines of sexily dressed girls at entrances to KTVs, the fake designer goods and the CD sets of western TV shows. Incomes rose dramatically and helped drive a modernising and gentryfing of the city’s streets with brave new architecture, shopping malls filled with genuine luxury brands and swathes of quality apartment blocks. Tighter and better enforced regulation has resulted in street food and night markets, once a characteristic of Chinese life, closing and ended an emerging Bohemian scene in the Hutongs. Bar street is now part of a paved precinct of expensive cocktail, craft beer and whiskey lounges connected to a large retail zone. The result is a much tamer city. Today you can find yourself in a bar or restaurant with few Chinese faces. On the surface it can feel like any city in the world.
China is not the wild west it was years ago, but many of the qualities that made it attractive still exist. The foreigner is rarely asked for a photograph today, but they still incite curiosity. There are still invites to peoples villages and hometowns, encouragement to experience Chinese culture. We are still considered as ‘Foreign experts.’ and because Chinese people respect age and experience, the older expat can enjoy a working life feeling valued and appreciated. There are opportunities to write, for voice work and as an extra. The English language and accent is still prized enough that jobs for native speakers are plentiful, It’s not uncommon to be offered cash for teaching work, or to have children pushed, by their parents, to practice English with you.
Salaries are good, and day to day living costs are incredibly low. The growing expat community has led to a growth in international cuisine, creating more restaurants and import shops. Together with on-line shopping its now easy to find ingredients that make a break from Chinese food. Expat events like the British Ball, wine tasting and whiskey nights are frequent and while expensive would, in the UK, be unaffordable. It’s a safe country, there is no fear of crime or threat of violence. Even foreigners are friendlier and more approachable than back home. Chinese people are not vindictive nor argumentative, they wouldn’t understand running a key down a car, wearing a traffic cone or smashing up a phone box. They wouldn’t pick a fight, or shout abuse, most wouldn’t even rip you off. In short its a good quality of life.
Of course, there are things I miss; family, some British food and real ale, sensible clothing sizes, the Latin alphabet and casual conversation. And there are things I hate such as the censorship and double think. But I can save enough to travel regularly, either home to visit and to shop, or anywhere else for a rest. And as long as the VPN is working, I can choose between being virtually in England, or see and experience more of this massive, often crazy country and the exotic lands around it.