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Beijing is all its panned out to be: big, scary, gray, confusing and hard to live in as a newcomer. This all is true and making sure you are not duped on your house rent or having all your "alien housing" papers in order can be an ordeal; Sometimes even just trying to get with the crazy lifestyle can make or break you in the first week or so, but that is the China way, so much so, foreigners usually sigh and just babble "TCI (this is China)", shrug and continue.
In spite of all complications, Beijing can also make or break you for life, relationship-wise. Some get married, others get longtime friends, and how wouldn't you when your countrymen are the closest thing to home that you have around you? "Homesickers" can drown their sorrows in the many bars, American food restaurants (from all the fast food joints to real restaurants, with real American food, opened up by long time American expats) or shopping in all the many markets, street stalls and mall-like-markets and please, don't forget to haggle your way through your purchases!
People say that China is the best place to reinvent yourself and this is true. Beijing doesn't really have a definite working "culture" yet, and even inside western companies, expats are perceived as free willed, upfront, quirky and all those adjectives that at home can get you fired, so if a little of your personality shows, you'll be fine. Here you can teach with pink hair, volunteer on the coolest projects and make your entrance in an industry that is hard for a newbie to get into at home (i.e the fashion and media industries are starting to boom in China and intern opportunities are everywhere, if you know where to look). Read below to find the best program for your lifestyle!
While this might be the last thing you will want to hear about, enrolling in a language course is the easiest way to do this "Beijing thing". The school will send you all the information needed after you pay the initial fee (if they ask for the full fee upfront be weary and Google to see if it is a normal practice for that school) and will give you most of the security you need to start you off, including your visa documents. Studying also allows you to go to the college hospital (if you decide to stay in one), live on campus (much cheaper and convenient) and have discounts on monuments and Beijing sights, provided you show the student card at the cashier. If all this wasn't enough, please remember that Chinese is a hard language and the more help you can get, the better.
While work can be hard to come by (with all the perks included like visas, housing and so on) you can always intern, and for this you can apply right from your couch. Check companies that interest you and if you don't see an intern ad, drop them a line and say you would be happy to relocate at your own costs and only need an invitation letter to get your visa. You will probably get a monthly stipend and great networking opportunities. If you do a great job, maybe you can even ask for "intern business cards" to hand out when you meet someone.
If you are an American or British national, teaching can bring you everything; Visa, housing, paid trips, monthly stipends besides your monthly earnings, health insurance and sometimes even free Chinese lessons. But be sure what you are signing up for. Make sure your contract has the amount of hours you are working and be advised that once you get there, they will try to make you work some more. Be sure to check out how many students you have and how much you are making per class. Keep your own records, how many hours you teach per day, how much per class and your final earnings for that day and make sure everything adds up at the end. Not that the Chinese are not to be trusted, but your employer will always try to get something more out of you, no matter what your contract says. They shouldn't keep your passport for longer than two-three weeks, the amount of time that is usually necessary for a Visa application to come to an end. If it goes past a month, start asking questions.
To be hired while not in Chinese territory is hard. The many Working Visa bureaucracies and the high rotating positions in any company make hiring international a bit of a shot in the dark. If you want to work from the get-go, the best is to look for international companies with whom you can interview in your home country and then ask for a Skype interview with the Beijing branch. If you are already in China with a valid visa you can pretty much do it all. Changing visa types is much easier and from teaching English to applying for that dream job that you can only pant for at home, everything is possible.
From teaching, saving wildlife to even translating content for websites and flyers or helping to organize benefit parties, there are lots of NGO's in Beijing waiting for you and a simple internet search will unveil whatever suits your fancy but beware: most of these positions come only with a small stipend and at times not even the Visa is included so maybe, just maybe, consider volunteering while working and/or studying? I know it seems too many hours to dedicate to others but trust me, China forces you to make the time you never thought you had!
Sleeping arrangements will be costly, especially if you look 100% foreign, since you will be perceived as being rich or at least, be well of. The usual is 3 month's rent in advance, plus one month's rent as a deposit and another month's rent for the agent that got you the house (so in total it's five month's rent, cash, right then and there). A studio will be no less than RMB 5,000 and prices change according to location so expect places like student and "hip" areas to be more expensive.
If you decide to try and cut corners and deal directly with landlords, don't; Most don't speak English and, the worst part of it all, if you don't go through an agency, chances are you won't be sure if the house you are getting is legal to rent. Since Chinese nationals don't need any papers on where they are living, landlords rent houses cheaper than agencies because they didn't pay the house tax for renting. But if you rent on of those houses, chances of having a "Temporary Residence Form" which is mandatory for any foreigner living in China, outside school campus or hotels/hostels, will be slim and cause you a great headache. Light and gas are pre-paid, which means, you charge a card, get home, insert or swipe the card through a slot and "tchanan", there is light. Cards can be charged in banks or in many stores that have an agreement with the company, water is the only thing that is billed, and it's usually stuck on your door with duct tape. Your landlord or agent should give you all of this information prior to leaving you on your own. If they don't, ask! Also they should give you an English version of the house contract you are signing.
Hands are not usually shaken (except in work environment) and kisses are most definitely a big no-no. China, very much like Japan, is a no-touch culture and despite Beijing being quite hip, some traditions stay; instead raise your hand in a wave with a smile and say hello.
When it comes to food, and provided you are in school, brace yourself: Chinese eating times are early, and I mean, early. Breakfast is from 6-7.30, lunch from 11-12.30 and dinner from 5.30-6.30 and don't get there too late or you will only get scraps... Of course, in regular restaurants you can eat as late as 10 pm, sometimes 12 pm, but be prepared to be kicked out if you stay until that late. Don't stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice since it's a death omen and don't put them on your table either, instead place them horizontally on top of your bowl, so that no part of the chopstick is on the table. Eating with others? Offer to bring chopsticks for everyone, but grab them by the thickest part, the one you won't eat with... hopefully.
Haggling while purchasing in stalls and markets is expected, especially if you look like a foreigner; Brush up on your shopping Chinese and don't show your enthusiasm for anything, otherwise they will charge you, big time!
Street smarts apply, though Beijing is not a very dangerous city as long as you don't show signs of opulence. Don't get into "black cabs" (taxi's that do "private" service), I know it's tempting to do so when it's freezing cold and common taxi drivers don't stop, but stories are just too gruesome (and sometimes prices too steep). Steer clear of creepy bar streets, since alcohol and ill-light places are a good mix in China either, go through a main avenue, or get a (real) cab. Take care of your bag and pockets while on public transportation, but the more you are relaxed and comfortable in your surroundings, the less your chances are of being pick-pocketed.
Students have health insurance from their school and can go to their college hospital, regular Joes however, may need to use public Chinese hospitals or privately-expat-directed owned ones. If the necessity arises, it's always good to have a long time contact in China, to ask for their opinion, and if they speak Chinese, even better! When it comes to breathing masks, please invest in one. 3M masks are usually good, cheap and easy to get, although some other, more hardcore options exist. As a final, don't drink tap water, and if you can afford it, don't even cook with it. The Chinese government says "it's ok" if the water is boiled, but scholars have a very different opinion (a couple of water analysts from Beijing haven't used tap water for 20 years!), but of course the odd tea in the restaurant won't kill you. When it comes to showers it's ok, but buying a filter for our shower head wouldn't be a bad idea either. Just watch your feet, don't fall and fight colds with tea. There, you are set.
Taking a gap year on its own is a chance to get to know yourself, but taking one so far away from home, where you don't speak the language, where you have little to no friends or people you know really helps you grow as an individual and makes you work harder than you would have to if you could get along 100% with everyone. Places like these make you bond faster and stronger with people and you will never forget that friend of yours who helped you out on the first week with housing, or on how to get the basics at college.
Beijing is a place where you make or break relationships; life moves fast there, the huge job rotation plus the pace of life will make you feel like you are connected through a plug to the city's main power grid and you feel you can do it all. Teaching? Sure that's easy! Haggling your way on gummy bears or clothing? You can do that every day! Edit, copy and put a magazine out for print? It can't be that hard! Beijing opens up you horizons and chances lurk in every corner, you just need to keep your eyes open (and your breathing mask on!).
Joana Melo was born and bred in Lisbon, Portugal and has, ever since her graduation in English, been jumping from country to country, before the chance to see it all is missed. This DIY enthusiast loves movies, TV shows and is a bit of a geek herself when it comes to useless trivia.
Do you think there is something missing in our guide to a gap year in Beijing? Contact us and let us know! We want to make sure our information is relevant and up to date.