In my last week or two in Beijing, one question I heard over and over was, “What will you miss the most?”
Most my Chinese friends seemed to think it would be the food or the attention of being a foreigner. Most my foreign friends figured it would be the “culture”, whatever that means after spending most my adult life in Taiwan and then Beijing.
I had the feeling that I wouldn’t miss anything really, except for some people. That’s natural I suppose, since I had already decided to leave. I was really looking forward to a better job market (for tech, at least), cleaner air, a healthier environment in general, and most of all a big opportunity for personal growth.
Now that it’s been a month, I have a different perspective. I really don’t miss the things that made me want to leave. But I do miss some other things.
A safety net
In all fairness, there is no real safety net in Beijing. There’s no public health insurance like there is in Taiwan and worse still, there’s the possibility of actually getting ripped off for being a foreigner, even at a hospital! Similarly, if you have any major sorts of problems, you just get kicked out of the country. One of my best friends was in China for grad school back during the SARS crisis and just got booted out… and he wasn’t even sick.
There is a different sort of safety net in China for a foreigner, though. That’s the EFL industry. Even without my background teaching, managing and then owning an EFL school in Taiwan, teaching always would have been an option. Unlike Taiwan, in Beijing the demand is so great that even the normally undesirable teachers can generally all get placed. In the US, there is no Taiwanese health insurance system and there’s no auto-job. It’s sink or swim.
Nightmarkets and Hutongs
Okay, maybe I do miss some of the food. It’s not really the food, though. I’m living in Chinatown and I can get pretty much any Chinese food I want. What I miss is how I could get the food! There’s something about a Taiwanese nightmarket or a Beijing hutong that’s supremely full-filling in the way that going to a single restaurant for a whole meal isn’t. Even Chinatown doesn’t have that kind of environment, probably due to pesky enforcement of food safety laws. I suppose I could find some strip mall here in California, go to the food court and buy a drink at one store and an order of chicken at another and then ice cream at a 3rd… but it wouldn’t be the same at all.
Pragmatic Law Enforcement
In some ways living in China is freer than living in the US. With the exception of a trip to inner Mongolia, I’ve never once felt like I was in physical danger. The police do a pretty good job with the available resources to keep society in line. But day to day life is very laissez faire in China, especially compared to the US! If you want to drive home drunk and get in an accident, you’ll go to prison. But if you want to have dinner with your coworkers and drink beer as you walk back to the office or the subway, nobody cares! The US has the most extreme open container laws I’ve seen anywhere in my life! Huge amounts of effort and money are spent trying to keep anybody 20 years-old or younger from drinking. Ditto for smoking. I’m not a big smoker, but the zealousness with which anti-smoking rules have been enacted since I left a decade ago just shocks me. One would think that soft drinks and junk food placed everywhere kids spend their time are the larger health risk… not that there’s any kind of sin tax for junk food in Beijing! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Play majiang loudly at 2 in the morning! Just don’t organized against the government or hurt people and they’ll mostly leave you alone.
Having moved so many times, this is a constant. Of what I leave behind, it’s always my friends I miss the most. I wasn’t even there for two years, but I will definitely miss hanging out with Wilson, his roommates, Simon, his Dashilar crowd, Martina, all the people she introduced to me from her tour guiding job, including Paul who encouraged me to move to the bay area, and so many others… I’m going to miss my co-workers, too. I would say that both the bosses were awesome to hang with and talk to in different ways, and some how I ended up getting along with all the Singaporean interns so well that I made a trip to Singapore to visit them after leaving! One fun guy there, Jim, is from the bay area, so I’ll probably see him here in the future after he returns to continue his work of bringing the singularity near. There’s also a really cute girl I met in the elevator of my apartment building the day I was leaving to move across town and take my job at SmarTots. I miss her too.
Sounds strange, huh? SmarTots really was a cool place to be. It was the first time I was directly able to use technology to help lots of kids instead just a single class at a time. As mentioned above, it was a great crowd of people and after the first couple of months I was able to contribute and learn quite a bit. It was also likely the closest peek into Chinese corporate life I’ll have in a long time.
On the whole
When all is said and done, I don’t really miss Beijing that much. I miss it a bit, but I’m really enjoying San Francisco!