Everyone has a slightly different view on life in Beijing and I can’t guarantee your experience there will be anything like mine, but I can say one thing with absolute certainty. If you spend enough time living in Beijing, you will be a different person by the time you leave. You will grow and develop. You will learn things that you can’t learn anywhere else and no matter what your experience was like, you will be thankful for it.
Here are a few of the things I learned about life in Beijing…
You get to be part of something amazing
Living in Beijing, you get to experience the feeling of being part of something bigger and greater than yourself. Everybody is like a single cell, within in a huge, living, breathing organism. Everyone has a role, everyone has a purpose.
Convenience is a way of life
In Beijing you don’t need to worry about having a car or how you’re going to get from A to B. The subway system is efficient, safe and goes everywhere. Buses run at all times and are equally safe to ride. You can order a DiDi (Chinese Uber) with the click of a button and if that all fails, taxis are just an arm wave away.
Food is never far away in Beijing. Restaurants can be found on any street or street corner. The local food is good, cheap and comes quickly. Dining out is a nightly experience for many in the city. Why make food at home when eating out is so cheap and so convenient?
Cash is not needed in Beijing. WeChat pay or Alipay is accepted anywhere and allows you to pay for your meal, groceries or whatever with the click of a button. No fumbling around for cash, no waiting for change.
Online shopping is the ultimate convenience. Anything can be bought online and delivered within the day. No need to even leave your apartment. And trust me, in the heart of Winter time, you won’t want to.
It’s this convenience that affords you the opportunity to focus your time and your energy on things that truly matter.
You always feel safe
Beijing is incredibly safe. I walked all parts of the city at all times of night and never felt in the least bit afraid. After a night out partying I would walk for one hour, home to my apartment at 3am. Why? Because I could. I loved the way it felt to be able to navigate the city streets confidently, at some ungodly time of night and feel completely safe. People didn’t understand it because they were used to it. Not me. I never had that luxury at home. Where I’m from, no one does.
You learn to embrace change
In Beijing, change is the only constant. New buildings are always being constructed or renovated, the subway network is constantly growing, cafes and bars are perpetually closing and new ones opening.
Beijing is a city of contrasting stories
Beijing features an ongoing struggle between history and modernity. Jaw dropping sky scrapers, LCD sky screens and amazing feats of modern architecture are interspersed with some of China’s most prevalent and spectacular historical and cultural relics – such as the Forbidden City, an ancient city in itself inside the heart of Beijing and the temple of heaven an ancient religious complex, standing tall in the city centre.
Speed is the name of the game and things rarely slow down
Life in Beijing is fast-paced, and you’re expected to be able to keep up. People don’t dawdle, never. People in Beijing move with purpose and they move quickly. Everyone knows where they are going, and they walk with certainty.
Walking too slow? You’re going to get shoved. Get off the subway when the door opens, or you will be pushed out. Not in an aggressive way. It’s just a reminder to keep pace.
People end work late and start again early the next morning. Walking home from the subway station to my apartment after work, the streets would be buzzing with pop-up food stalls frying noodles and grilling kebabs. And, sure enough, when I was up the next morning at 5:30am, there they were again – steaming buns and wrapping dumplings for all the people on their way to work.
Life in Beijing is the epitome of work hard, play hard
Chinese people in general work very hard and often have to work overtime during the week or on the weekend. To balance out this intense working lifestyle, everyone maximises their off time by going out with friends to eat, drink and have a good time.
There is no shortage of bars, restaurants and clubs to explore in Beijing. The electricity and dynamism of Beijing at night make it an incredible place to ‘let loose’.
You rarely need to plan a night out in Beijing. When out and about in the evening, the city tends to dictate your next move.
I remember one night in Beijing, my friends and I spotted a new bar that had just opened. Seeing as it was their opening night, they were serving free drinks. Yes, free. As in, it costed nothing to order a drink, any drink. As many drinks as you wanted. Any other plans we had that night seemed pointless.
There was another bar we frequented that served free beer. It was a micro-brewery and for the first few months they were open, they served free beers to all their customers.
Only in Beijing can you walk into a bar, drink all night with friends and leave not having paid a penny.
It’s the weird, little things that make you fall in love with Beijing
When people ask me, “so, how was it living in Beijing?”, I never know how to answer, because you can’t put it into words. Life in Beijing is best described by the feelings and emotions that take hold of you during random little experiences you have.
Here are a few examples…
- When you’re invited to eat and drink with a random group of Chinese people;
- when you cannot communicate with somebody, yet know exactly what they are saying to you;
- when you’re confused because you just ate the best burger of your life in China;
- when you lose count of the number of ‘Starbucks’ you have passed;
- when you sit outside in the hutongs drinking a beer while scooters zoom passed you and children play in front of you;
- when you walk through the park at night and see people dancing;
- when you walk to work in the morning and see old people practicing Tai Chi;
- when a mother scolds her kid for pointing at you and saying ‘外国人’;
- when you genuinely have no idea what you just ate;
- when you’re walking down the street and all of a sudden a pretty Chinese girl asks if she can take a selfie with you;
- when you try to tip someone and they reject it;
- when someone gives you a Chinese name;
- when you walk into a shop in December and are pleasantly surprised to hear Christmas music playing;
- when you walk around Hou Hai in the Winter and gaze out at the frozen lake or;
- when it’s Chinese new year and for those magical two weeks the city empties, life slows down and things are quiet and peaceful.
Beijing doesn’t need you, but you might need it
Let me tell you this now – Beijing is not a city waiting to welcome you with open arms. You have to earn the right to feel at home in Beijing.
The rite of passage in Beijing is not for the feint hearted. There are times, in the beginning, that are difficult.
You take the subway back home from downtown during rush hour and get crushed among hordes of bodies. You get scammed by market sellers because you don’t know any better. You take fake bank notes as change from the taxi driver because you can’t tell the difference. You have to put your face mask on when you leave your apartment because the air pollution is at dangerous levels. You accidently get on the wrong bus and don’t know what to do. The waiter brings you a menu with no English or pictures. You have to bare the sweltering heat in Summer. You have to endure the mind-numbing cold in Winter. You have to figure out how to read your train ticket. You are forced to use a squat toilet with no stalls.
All of this is designed to scare you off, to make you leave and not want to come back because the real treasures of Beijing are reserved for those who have endured all of this and earned the right to remain.
You will know it’s all been worth it when at some point you can smile to yourself and know that you were the one who was crazy enough to up and leave your life of comfort and come out here, to live in one of the craziest cities, in one of the craziest countries and experience a life so far removed from what you knew. It was you who had the courage and the intellect to adapt and not only survive but thrive in such an unfamiliar environment. It is that pride and self-belief which you will be able to carry with you your whole life. And it is for that reason that you should move to Beijing.