Work, WeChat and the Wall

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!Pictures will follow as soon as the WiFi let’s me upload them!

It’s been 6 weeks now since I have set foot onto Chinese soil. In the meantime a lot of water has come down the Jangtsekiang and even more smog particles have found their way into my lungs. But dear friend, this is it: The first China-Blog is here! But let’s start at the beginning…

The big adventure has begun on August 13th with a direct flight from Warsaw to Beijing. Already at the airport I had my first minor culture shock since obiously 95% of the people on my flight were Chinese. You could already barely hear a spoken word of Polish, not even to mention English. Announcements already in Chinese and the queue to the check-in rather resembled a mosh-pit. A good 8.5h later (in which I thankfully spent 6 hours in snoozeland) I arrived at the airport in Beijing. Monday, 7am local time. My first meeting should be two hours later and a battle against time had begun. One hour at border control, picking up my 3 huge pieces of luggage and a search mission for the previously organised driver. Just with the help of my human resources manager I was able to find the driver since he had expected to pick up two people and wasn’t able to identify me as his passenger. Now add some „taking the wrong way twice“ and perfect was the late arrival. After finally arriving and my future workplace, the British School of Beijing in Shunyi, the speech of our principal had already started and nobody had a clue where „Mr. Illek“ got lost. By just stowing all my luggage at the reception and straight going from the airport to work, I had already earned some respect by my colleagues. Most of them said they would have definitely gone home and at least taken a shower and a nap. Due to my Jetlag and a severe case of sleep deprivation that actually wouldn’t have been the worst of ideas.

After a day filled with meetings, getting to know my colleagues at the German Primary School – which is the subdivision I am officially working for – and approximately 4 cups of disgusting, chinese coffee I was finally able to move into my new home at around 4pm. My new flat had been organised by the school and it is situated in the popular Chaoyang district just next to the huge park it shares a name with. I was picked up by my housing agent Rita who had a driver take my to the new appartment in which two more housing agents had already been weaiting with a care package and a really nice, modern looking flat. HBO was already running on the TV and the beer was chilling in the fridge. Reall couldn’t complain at that point. The apartment itself is part of the so called East Wind Garden living compound, about 40 minutes by car (depending on traffic) away from the school. Apparently this compound is mostly inhabitated by elderly mid-class Chinese and a colorful mix of internationals. Some of you might ask why I would want to live so far away from my workplace. Well the reason has five letters and is from Poland 😉 For Kasia it would have been 2.5h every day to commute from her University to Shunyi and so the school offered to live in a more central location. How Jamie Lannister would put it: „The things you do for love..“

Even on the first two days the way to work was an adventure. I had the plan to drive to the second BSB campus, where the schoolbus would have picked me up. The British School of Beijing has a second campus in Sanlitun (very central and approximately 15min by car from our place) and a company bus leaves from there every morning at 7:20 that takes me to school in half an hour. Well… easier planned than done. After being declined by the first cab driver on Tuesday morning with a little wave of his hand, I got ripped off by one of the unofficial “black cab” drtivers. After being in a little rush I naively accepted his proposal of 5 fingers (which admittedly is way too cheap), believing he wanted 5 Yuan (or ‚Kuai‘ like they say colloquially) and got in his car. Of course he wanted 50 Kuai instead (which is the equivalent of roughly 7€ so still very cheap for a 20min cab ride). Hey, at least it got me to the bus on time. They next day I didn’t feel like getting ripped off and left early to flag down a taxi drom the street, like it is customary in China. Unfortunately nobody had told me at this point, that most Chinese Taxi drivers do whatever the hell they want. If your destination is too far away or there is simply too much traffic on your route, they just kick your sorry as back out of the Taxi and you have to look for a new one. Being the lucky dude I am, it happened to me 8 times in a row and I successfully missed the bus on my second day at work. Consequently I had to look for a Taxi to get me straight to school, which wasn’t any easier because most drivers do not want to leave the city center. With a little delay of 20min I eventually made it to work. Of course the Photographer was at school that day but I look best completely sweaty and with huge dark circles around my eyes anyway…

The next logical step for me was to find an alternative for my way to school. Ros, an English teacher who sits on the bus with me, thankfully recommended me a Bike shop close to our bus stop downtown and so I spontaneously purchased a stylish, red Giant bike to take me through the streets of Beijing. The bike bell was a complimentary gift and a bike bell is a definite must-have in the street traffic of Beijing. As a Graz-native and a street chameleon (that means being on two wheels and – depending on the situation – a cyclist, a pedestrian or a car driver, © by Christoph Suppan) I would like to claim I am usually doing quite fine and can quickly get from A to B on a bike, even in heavy traffic. But traffic in Beijing is at least 3 levels higher. The city center (from East to West that’s about 40km) is split by 4 so-called ring roads. These ring roads are huge motorways with 8 lanes, most of which have sidestreets with 3 more lanes and one side-side street for two-wheeled traffic which you usually have to share with turning cars. I am saying two-wheeled on purpose because besides normal bikes you can find electric Scooters, Mopeds, Tuk-Tuks, rickshaws and several other compact vehicles that you have to share the road with. To put it short, traffic is absolutely insane. Traffic laws and rules might exist but are anything but followed. Car drivers usually follow the rule “who honks the loudest, gets to go first”. The two-wheeled vehicles cross even the largest roads as soon as they find an opportunity. The lights being red or green doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Already the first ride home from the bike shop was crazy. Finding your way through and passing all the other people in traffic and waiting on three red lights because there are so many people can actually be fun. By now I would say that I have been able to optimize my style of driving and am quite fast. Only stopping at red lights at the biggest streets and for emergencies. On of these emergencies happened 3 weeks ago.

On my way home there might have happened a tiny crash with an elderly Chinese man who was also going on his bike. If I cut the guy or he swerved into me not even the surveillance cameras were able to tell. I just dropped my satchel off my luggage rack, the gentleman unfortunately fell. Of course I stopped, like any decent human being would and called the ambulance with the help of a few pedestrians. His nose was bleeding and he was holding his arm. After the ambulance arrived after what seemed like half an hour, dependants of the gentleman had already arrived at the scene and asked me to wait for police to make a statement. Of course I didn’t expect the police to take 2 freaking hours to arrive at the scene. Because of language barriers and one hysterical wife I had to come with them to the police station (at least I had help from my lovely girlfriend and my HR manager Jenny as a translator). The police station was only 30min by car away and afterwards we even had to go to the hospital to check up on the gentleman and to find out what had happened to him. A Chinese public hospital is its own adventure and funnily enough Kasia had been to this exact hospital as a patient before. The reason for this is that apparently it happens quite frequently that unknowing foreigners get exploited and have to pay shittons of money because Chinese citizens fake injuries and get all sorts of medical examinations done to have the foreigners pay for it. Horror videos of accidents and people lying on the streets for hours without anybody stopping are not surprising because simply nobody wants to take the blame. Our gentleman had just sprained his arm and hopefully the bills shouldn’t be too high.

In the second week the school year 2017/2018 finally started at the German Primary School at the British School of Beijing, Shunyi. The whole school has more than 900 students, starting with the 2-year old Teddies all the way up to the 18-year old IB sstudents. The school is perfectly equipped as every classroom has an interactive Smartboard, several Computers for the students and every teacher gets their own iPad. There is a thearer, an amphitheater, a 6-lane swimming pool, a huge sports field, an indoor dome for the winter and two playgrounds for the breaks. In my German Klasse 4 (that’s the equivalent of Year 5 in the UK) I have 9 very lovely kids and the smallest class in the school (#coolface). The workday starts at 8am and the kids start getting to school at 8.15 (most of them on time as they get to school by school buses that pick them up from their compounds). The first lesson starts at 8:40 and primary school teachers eat with their class and are also teaching in the afternoon until the school day finishes at 3.30pm. For the students as well as for the teachers (or at least me as an Austrian teacher who is used to being home at 1pm) it isn’t always easy to have such a long school day. The level of concentration, particularly in the afternoon, is sometimes very low. Some good ol‘ games like Bear hunt, Ninja or other re-activating tasks have to help to motivate the kids. Additionally my classes time table this year is sh****, that most Math and German periods are in the afternoon which clearly doesn’t make it easier.

Even outside of the academic life there is a lot going on at our school. The parents association is very active and organizes many different events for the whole “BSB family”. This isn’t so surprising when you think about the fact that many parents (and specifically moms) are, very frankly put, just “expat add-ons” who come to Beijing with their spouses and sometimes don’t even know what to do with all their free time. Many spend their time at the “Chatterbox”, the school’s café which is also organized and run by the parents association. Moms can come here after school, chat and socialize with each other. In order to keep the parents entertained on the weekends and so that they know what exactly is going on in school during the week, every class has their own class blog. It is written by the class teacher and shows what has been worked on in different subjects and is supported by preferably very demonstrative pictures of life in the classroom, which the teachers take with their iPads during the week. Malicious tongues claim that this blog is kind of unnecessary work since most parents don’t even read it anyways. But a teacher does, what a teacher must do. That’s generally a motto that I have been living after. The work day significantly longer than the one of a primary school teacher in Austria. The kids are in school until 3.30pm but by contract we are still obliged to stay until 4.30 and my first bus back to downtown goes at 5.10. I’m not really every able to catch that bus though because I have too much stuff to correct, plan, meetings, answer e-mails, write reports and prepare for parents meetings etc. etc. At least everything seems worth it wheen you get a small letter on your desk at the end of the month. Somehow it has to pay off, right?

Paying something off is a good transition. China is very advanced when it comes to paying any sorts of bills. Almost everything can be paid by scanning a QR code on the app WeChat. WeChat is the Chinese version of WhatsApp and the center of post-communist, Chinese society. Of course Uncle Sam, or actually Uncle Mao is loving this since only last week it was confirmed that the Chinese government is officially allowed to use ALL private data on WeChat. As a foreigner you are kind of a glass person in China anyway but it is still a disturbing thought. It is definitely practical to use WeChat, as long as you have a Chinese bank account. I had to wait for about a month to set mine up because Chinese mills grind slowly and it takes a while to sort out all the documents. Thank God BSB has a human resources team for these matters that take care of visa, medicinal checks, accounts and so on. Being on your own you would probably be screwed hard and could return back home like a crying baby.

It might sound weird but I feel like I have only started proper life in China last week when I had my account set up and when I finally had money on my account and was able to start using all functions of WeChat. And witch that I mean everything. With only one touch on your smartphone you can pay your electricity and water bills, at the shop, in the restaurant, in taxis, rickshaws and even the public bikes that you can find literally everywhere and of which there must exist at least 10 Million in Beijing. Katie Melua wasn’t lying after all. In some institutions, such as KFC, cash isn’t even accepted anymore or they give you really nasty looks if you try to pay with dirty money. Of course you begin to forget that the government can follow every transaction and knows exactly how many cold milk teas I buy a week (it’s way to many but they are just too delicious..) Even most of the social life takes place on WeChat. You can fnd groups for everything: garage sales, job offers, organised walks, hikes and visits to the club, teachers have their own chat and teachers that live downtown have their own chat. It’s really amazing but also a little bit scary how powerful one mobile application can become.

In the meantime we have settled in well in Beijing. We in this case meaning Kasia and I. Kasia arrived in Beijing 2 weeks after me and is going to do an intensive Chinese language course at Beijing Institute of Technology over the following year. Our apartment is very cozy and homy after three adventurous visits to Ikea (yes, even the Swedes have made it to China). Adventurous because especially on weekends many Chinese families do trips to the arguably most famous furniture stores in the world to lie in the comfy beds, try out the couches in the show-rroms and simply just feel like a European for once. It’s very fun to observe but can get very tedious and exhausting when you have to squeeze through huge crowds for 5 hours and wait in line for half an our at the cashier.

If you want to afford it, you can definitely live a Western lifestyle. There is everything that one could wish for and even more. Our Chinese adventure has definitely been a success so far. It is stressful and there hasn’t been a lot of time for sightseeing yet. One trip to the Great Wall which has been organised by the school but was definitely worth it and a little walk around Olympic Park with Kasia and her sister Ola, who has been visiting us for the first three weeks in China. Nevertheless it has been a lot of fun and I think it ’s best to just let the pictures speak.

We’ve finished 6 weeks of school now and have reached the first half of our first term. It is definitely time for vacation. And that’s exactly what started yesterday. Every year at the end of September/beginning of October the moon festival or mid-autumn festival is celebrated in China. The school also closes down for one week and the whole country travels somehwere. Kasia and I have decided to go on a bus tour to western China for the next week. I’ll tell you more about our adventures on the Silk road next time.

Stayed tuned and kisses on the tum-tum!

Peace out, your friendly neihborhood bear <3

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