Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A thousand points of light…but where’s the course?

Well, it’s been almost a month and a half since I’ve had a chance to sit down and share what’s been going on. My only excuses are that I’ve been super busy, and that my daily life in Beijing has not made quite as interesting of a story as the time when I was traveling around Southeast Asia. But it hasn’t been boring either: in fact, my life nearly six months after graduating is anything but stable and routine. So here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to.

Apart from my full time job/ internship at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which I’ll detail in my next post), my spare time has been consumed by mainly by three things: Looking for an apartment, looking for an part time English teaching job, and going to lots of social/ networking events.

The first is not as straightforward as it might sound. Rather than just bunking up with some other expats, which would have been the easy thing to do, I’ve been looking for a Chinese roommate that would be willing to speak mostly Chinese with me. Many people have told me this is by far the best way to immerse yourself in Chinese language, but its also pretty hard to connect with Chinese people in Beijing who don’t speak much English. As a result, I’ve continued to “couchsurf” around Beijing, staying mostly with my Tufts classmates and sometimes with people from couchsurfing.com.

My first stab at looking for a Chinese roommate involved going on the Beijing Craigslist and a website called the Beijinger, which also allows people to post classified ads. But most of the people posting these spoke English, or were just real estate agents advertising apartments that were not guaranteed to also have Chinese people living in them. The few that were posted by Chinese people were often located in horribly inconvenient locations far away from the city center (in Beijing, that can mean over an hour to get to work on the subway, not to mention an expensive cab ride home after a late night out). I then tried a few of the all Chinese classified websites, but after I finally deciphered the specific terms describing the conditions of the apartments that were being offered, I realized almost all of these were being advertised by real estate agents as well. I finally found one category called “he zu,” which literally translates to “cooperative renting.” This seemed like a good shot, since it implied other Chinese people would be living in the apartment I would be renting. After looking at a few of these places however, I realized this wasn’t what I was looking for either. These apartments were designed for people who wanted to isolate themselves: they usually didn’t include a common room of any type, but instead had three or four bedrooms that might as well have been separate apartments. So that on to plan C…

I decided I might have to relax my standards a bit, and start looking for Chinese people who also spoke English. Just as I was starting to do this, I came across a classified written by a 23 year old Chinese guy who was looking for a roommate, and from the looks of the ad didn’t speak very good English. I gave him a call and the next day we met over dinner to discuss the potential for us to room together. His English name was Allen and he worked for a German NGO doing Corporate Social Responsibility work. Even better, we spent the entire dinner speaking Chinese. I thought I’d found my roommate at last…

But then he sent me an email a few days later saying his landlord wouldn’t let him out of his current apartment for another two months (or else he would lose the two months rent that he had already put down in advance, a common requirement in Beijing). With winter setting in the number of new places to couchsurf dwindling, this wasn’t an option for me. So I went back to Craigslist and almost immediately found an apartment being advertised by two young Chinese girls. They can both speak English, but at this point it’s probably the best I’m going to find. I’ll be moving in there in a few days, but I may still search for an apartment to live in with Allen after his two months rent is up.

About three weeks ago, I decided in order to make some extra cash, I should start doing some English tutoring on the side. There are tons of schools in Beijing looking for part time teachers to do one-on-one tutoring, and they pay pretty handsome hourly wages: about the equivalent of $30 per hour. After a quick search on the Beijinger, I found a few schools looking for part time English teachers. I sent my resume to one, and got a positive response in less than 24 hours. “All right,” I thought, “I’m on my way to some relatively easy extra income!”

Not exactly… after going into the school’s corporate-looking office for an “interview,” I was “hired” under the condition that the school would pair me with potential students, and I would do a free, 20 minute “demo” for each student before starting to teach them. Over the last three weeks I’ve done about seven demos, some of them taking nearly two hours because the students showed up late and demanded longer demos, and so far I don’t have a single student. What they didn’t tell me is that I would be competing with several other potential teachers for each student, and that even if the student liked me the best, there was no guarantee that they would even start taking lessons. Some had problems with the price – another wanted two demos and a week worth of free lessons before starting to pay. A few days ago I finally decided I’d had enough. I’m not looking for a school that will either pay me for the demos, or guarantee that I will have a certain number of students (other foreigners have told me these schools exist).

And finally, the more fun – although just as unfruitful – way I’ve spent my free time: going to Beijing social events. From bar trivia nights, to energy & environmental networking events, to Tufts alumni events, to Ultimate Frisbee pick-up, to concerts, to house parties – Beijing is full of opportunities to meet foreigners and Chinese alike. I’ve met a lot of cool people, but more of them seem to be in the same situation as me (either unemployed or unhappy with their current job) than have been able to offer me any leads.

And this is where I find myself at the moment: with less than two months until the official end of my internship (not to mention when my student loan payments kick in), I’m starting to wonder what my next move should be. I recently received some advice from a friend that I should consider looking for a job in one of China’s “second-tier” cities (i.e. not Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong). This is not the first time I’ve been given this advice by a wise person who I look up to. It’s true that these three cities are becoming saturated with foreigners and repatriated Chinese students who have the advantage of being bilingual, and it would be a more unique/ immersive experience to go somewhere like Hangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu or Wuhan. But the main problems are 1) How do I find a job in one of these cities without going there first and 2) Is my Chinese good enough to get by in a work setting where almost no one speaks English? The answer to these two questions is still unclear, but I’m going to have to figure it out in the next month or so, or settle for what I can find in Beijing...

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