I moved from New York to Beijing five weeks ago, scared to meet the obligations of a year-long contract to teach English at a bilingual preschool and kindergarten. I haven’t been in one place, doing one thing, for such a long time in years. College doesn’t count, since I was always going somewhere or doing something I wasn’t theoretically supposed to be doing–I haven’t been much of a “student” since middle school, despite the modicum of academic success I’ve still managed to achieve. The prescribed life of a high school student or undergrad never really engaged me like that of an adventurer, whether that adventure is inside myself or across the globe, assisted, accompanied, or alone.
So now I’m here, for no reason other than that I wanted to let adventures happen to me and this is the one that found me first. Since arriving, I’ve shadowed more experienced teachers in classes of toddlers and teenagers, designed a summer camp for sixteen preteen boys (and one seven year-old girl) in which we shot and edited two short films, sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” more times than I’d like to recall, and learned that Brits sing their ABCs differently (they break up LMNOP, repeat XYZ, and end with “Now you see, I can say my ABCs”). I’ve also interviewed for three other jobs, and have a meeting over coffee coming up in two days to discuss another opportunity. It’s not that what I’m doing doesn’t pay well or isn’t interesting enough–it’s tolerable on both counts–but teaching is not at all what I want to do with my life, in any formal sense at least, and these other jobs all offer the opportunity to write, something much more in line with my visions of the future (and hopefully the present).
I also decided to pass on the apartment an acquaintance had offered me before my arrival. J.H. had been teaching at the same school for the past year, and living in this run-down two-bedroom apartment with a Chinese roommate for the past five months. The roommate, C., was great, despite the inevitable cultural conflicts I faced when I lived there for my first two weeks in Beijing. C. was a great cook, her egg and scallion jiaozi (my favorite kind of dumplings) were divine, and most of what she made appealed to foreign tastes, or at least to my palate, more than the chicken feet she made to suck on herself.
The bathroom, however, had no shower, just a spigot above the toilet; the kitchen was a dirty, box-like room that made me want to eat out every meal; the hallways of the building were fall of garbage and eerily shadowy. The clincher, though, was the elevator. It seemed mechanically sound–it even had the requisite elevator inspection certificate, which wasn’t past the expiration date, unlike every one I’ve ever seen in Boston, where I went to school–and it even came complete with two thirtysomething women who took turns sitting inside it on a stool and reaching up to press 19 for me whenever I came home and 1 whenever I wanted to leave. These women, captives inside their own “iron rice bowls” (the sinecure-like term the Chinese use for jobs guaranteed by the government for life regardless of their continued necessity), went off-duty each night at midnight, even on weekends, and there would be no one there to press 19–just me, left to hike drunkenly up the unlit stairwells all on my own.
So I went looking for a new place, one I could decorate on my own with plants and saucepans from Ikea, at one-fifth the price the items with the same ridiculous Swedish names would cost in the U.S. Three weeks ago I found it, an unclutteredly spare but mod aerie on the 22nd floor of a brand-new building, where the elevator runs at least as late as I can stay out partying. So far, I haven’t tested it past 3:30am, but I’m certain it zooms up and down with its ads for Audi A6s and Blackberry-like devices long after I’ve passed out in my king-size bed. What follows are some photos I took to give you a sense of what my retreat from the noise, chaos, and dirt of Beijing is like.