Looking back over the past year a few things stick out as being both very good and bad. Starting with the negatives, the air is certainly one of the worst things about Beijing. It is often smoggy, though the air is getting better. Still, it is never nice to have to ‘mask up’ when you go outside. When the clean air does come – and sometimes it is almost crystal clear – it is wonderful, but there aren’t enough of these days. Last year, we lost three days of school because of smog.
The other annoyance in China is the internet. If you want to access many sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, you need a VPN. This can be fine, but sometimes the internet itself, or the VPN, are temperamental and don’t connect, which can be frustrating, especially when you’re planning lessons and you can’t get what you need.
I would say a third irritation – which is also a positive – is that Beijing is not as English-friendly as other cities in Asia or indeed elsewhere in the world. This can mean that you can – and have to – use Mandarin more often, which is good if you’re trying to learn it. But still, sometimes it can be difficult to do things because of the language issues.
Now positives – and there are a few. The subway is easy to use as a foreigner, far more easy than the London Underground is if you don’t speak English. All messages on the Beijing subway are in Mandarin and English, and it is very user friendly. Plus our school is so close to it, about two minutes away, and the line the school is close to – Line 10 – connects to many other lines so it is a good line to be near.
Next, the school. Ren Da Fu Zhong (RDFZ, 人大附中) is one of the top schools in China. And whilst sometimes it feels like we are just here to make the school look good, they do treat us well, a lot better than some other places you hear about. Some teachers elsewhere don’t have as good conditions as we have. And most of the Chinese staff here are friendly and say hello.
Then there are the students. Students mostly come to RDFZ if a) they are really smart or b) their parents are rich. You get students misbehaving and discipline can be an issue, which is often an alien concept for many Chinese teachers, who don’t have a lot of classroom management skills (usually Chinese teachers spend 40 minute lessons stood at the front talking and then students listen and write notes). We have smaller classes than they do, and I’ve heard from other foreign teachers here that their classes have been bad, but I haven’t experienced anything too bad. And the students who are keen, and passionate, can make classes a lot of fun, especially when they are on topic and speaking English. I spend a lot of time on campus, either in the office or in the canteen when I’m not in class, and students usually say hello if they see you (sometimes shouting it down corridors). Teachers in China tend to be highly respected by students and parents alike.
Beijing is a capital city and as such things are more expensive here – and I’ve heard that prices are rising than even a few years ago. But still, things like food tend to be cheaper here than in the UK. My salary is less than I got when I was working in England, but I get free accommodation here and I am pretty good with saving. And I get a pay rise next year, and I already earn more than most of the Chinese English teachers.
I’d say another positive has been the other foreign teachers here. It has been an interesting year, with many of us (9 out of the 12 teachers) being new this year. Whilst there have been tensions and disagreements which you get with any group of people, we have all worked hard and worked together. It hasn’t been easy, but I think we are a better team now than we were even six months ago. And going into next year, about half the team (6 of us out of 14 teachers) are sticking around so we’ll know more about the students, and what we’re teaching, rather than being thrown in at the deep end as we were largely this year. We can also better advise the new teachers coming in.
I’ll have to have a serious think over the summer as to what to do next, post next year. There are a few options, but need to weigh up everything.