Is Beijing the Next Great Expat City?China, City Travel, Featured, Food & Wine — By Meghann F on July 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm
The time is 10:15 p.m. and I am hurtling through the city of Beijing in a cab after just having landed from a 12-hour-flight Air China flight from New York. As my friend Jennifer negotiates the directions with our taxi driver in Mandarin, I try to take everything in all at once: the balmy air coming in from the window, the smoke from the cabbie’s cigarette, the many half-erected buildings in the distance that make it seem like the whole city is under construction and the blur of neon from the family-style Chinese restaurants lining both sides of wide boulevards like a more sprawling, grander-scale version of Grand Street and Allen in New York’s Chinatown.
Jennifer finishes giving the cabbie directions and turns to me. “It feels totally normal that you’re here, going out with me in Beijing on a Friday night. It’s like you already live here or something,” she says as we drive further away from the city center toward the university district in the north of the city.
We’re heading to D-22, one of Beijing’s most popular rock clubs, so she can check out a new band for her section as Time Out Beijing‘s music editor—she’s been living in Beijing for the past few years after quitting her own magazine job in New York.
“I know,” I reply simply, feeling both an eery and calm sensation. “It doesn’t feel that strange.”
I’d been thinking a lot about my life in New York City right before my trip to China—a press trip organized through the Chinese Tourism Office that had come up out of the blue through fellow LG Amanda P.. Maybe it was because I’d just quit my job as Deputy Editor at Seventeen Magazine in March for life as a freelance writer (thank-you LGs for the inspiration) and now had a lot of time on my hands to ruminate, but the topic kept blazing through my mind: Was New York the best place for me to live right now?
In my young twenties, New York was a vibrant, exciting place to explore. Each week brought a new place for happy hour, brunch, or city block to wander. Now, from my studio-apartment perch on the Upper West Side, the dazzling shine was wearing into an all-too-comfortable patina as life was affected by the economy. Many of my friends had gotten laid off in the past two years; others were quitting their jobs for whirlwind trips, moving in with boyfriends or having kids and decamping elsewhere. My other friends who were still working at their corporate jobs seemed to be going through the motions, just trying pay the rent and get home before 9 p.m. every night, instead of taking advantage of the New York nightlife that used to fill us with expectant excitement.
“We’re here,” says Jen breezily as we pop out of the cab onto a wide street filled with students making plans for the night. “Wanna grab a bite before we go to the show?”
“Sure,” I say, salivating as I gaze at the dozens of restaurants to the right and left of us, each with colorful lit-up signs filled with visuals of all the glistening stir-fries on offer.
We choose a restaurant, and in a few minutes, we’ve placed our order. For less than $7 total per person we are eating hungrily: a filling spread of sesame-oil laced pork and veggies with rubbery tofu squares for wrapping and Sichuan-style fried potato sticks flecked with red chili peppers. Despite a minor lost-in-translation moment about asking for a refrigerated bottled water, the transaction with the waitress seems simple, low-fuss and easy.
Bellies full, we walk over to the club, a smoke-filled dive bar straight out of the East Village. As Chinese rockers perform fast, loud guitar and drum rhythms from the stage up front, we take in the half-filled space from our seats at the bar: It’s a young crowd of both Chinese hipsters in their 20s wearing skinny jeans and nerdy black rimmed glasses and foreigners—Australians and Brits—sipping drinks and talking casually with friends. The scene is so different from what I’ve come to expect in New York’s East Village, where nervous energy is always simmering as too many people vie for body-width-only spots in always-packed bars. Here, there’s room to breathe.
Could living in Beijing be an option? How would I do with this? I wonder, taking a sip of my vodka and Monster-energy drink ($4), with a half-cocked smile on my face.
As someone with constant wanderlust, being an expat in a foreign city has always appealed to me. My favorite period of history is Paris in the 1920s, when the Lost Generation of writers such as Hemingway and Gertrude Stein wrote about their daily lives as expats from the sidewalk tables of Cafe de Flore. I’d gotten to live out my fantasies with a six-month stint living and working in Paris after college in 2000, when life away from the states, just as the start of the Internet boom, still felt a world away. But now, with technology connecting everyone, everywhere, all time (Jen frequently comments on my FB status updates), that blood-tingling feeling of being lost and disconnected seems impossible, outdated. I wasn’t sure if it still existed.
“That blood-tingling feeling of being lost and disconnected seems impossible, outdated. I wasn’t sure if it still existed.”
Now, while trying to hand-motion my drink request at smiling bartenders in their early 20s with David Beckham haircuts, maybe China, with its character-based language, totally foreign culture and quirky and contradictory communist government, I think, just might present such a challenge.
The next night I am still foggy with jet lag and with the England/USA World Cup match starting at 2:30 a.m., it’s a perfect timing to go out. Jennifer picks me up at my hotel, and through a light drizzle of rain, we are whisking off in a cab to Gui Jie, or “Ghost Street,” an orange-lantern filled block known for its many restaurants serving cheap, spicy Mongolian hot-pot, a dish of boiling-hot soup laced with peppercorns in which you cook any mix you want of beef, lamb or seafood and lotus root, enoki mushroom and other fresh veggies yourself in a bubbling cauldron in the middle of the table. (Total bill for both of us including two liter-bottles of Tsingtao beer: $15)
“Are you happy you moved here?” I ask Jen, pulling out a sliver of cooked lamb, silky red with juices from the soup. It turns out the answer is tricky for her to answer. “Yes,” she tells me, but there’s some hesitance.
Professionally, there are way more opportunities, she says. While in Beijing, Jen has landed writing assignments for Newsweek’s blog, reoccurring PR work and now this Time Out editor gig—positions that would have been way harder to come by in New York with our level of skill and experience. Opportunity to report for US news outlets are plentiful if you’ve got New York cred and can speak basic Mandarin.
Plus, says Jen, the city of Beijing itself is very livable on not a lot of money. When Jen first arrived she was paying the equivalent of only $110 US for her shared three-bedroom in a non-descript, but relatively central, section of the city, and with local Chinese restaurants being so cheap, she could afford to save her paychecks for going out…a lot.
She also mentions the resourcefulness she’s gained by being a foreigner in a country whose language is not easy to pick up and whose culture can be so perplexing. “I now eat and drink whatever comes my way. I ate birds’ heads once because I was doing an interview and that’s what the interviewee ordered!”
We talk about how she’s been able to see so many different things, from staying with a Tibetan family (and learning so much about Chinese rural life in one night) to backpacking around Xinjiang (near Central Asia), and all of the people she’s met while living as a foreigner. “I have friends here from a lot of different places and backgrounds. Not to sound trite, but it really makes you understand the ways in which we’re all the same and the ways in which we’re different.”
We joke about cultural differences she’s witnessed in her two years of Beijing life. “The one thing I’ll never get used to is spitting on the ground anywhere—on the street, in buses, in art galleries. And my coworker and I will tell our newer colleagues that rather than trying to speak a sentence of perfect Mandarin, they should bark what they want as quickly as possible: ‘One subway card. 100 kuai (the nickname for currency). Thanks.’ It makes people respect you more, we say.”
Jen also loves the casualness that you don’t find in other international cities. “I take out the trash in my pajamas.” (I’ve noticed it too: no one batted an eye at my flip-flops and jersey-cotton dress at the trendiest club-lounge Punk in boutique hotel Opposite House the night before, a Friday night at midnight.)
When we get to to the topic of guys, Jen drops her shoulders. When it comes to finding a boyfriend it’s been harder, she admits. “There are two types of expat guys in Beijing. There are the nerdy, nice types who maybe didn’t have a lot of girlfriends in the States. Then, they meet a Chinese girl here, who they’re happy with and sort of settle down with. These guys I tend to think are sweet and don’t have a problem with. Then there are guys who are out to get whatever they can—who hook up with a lot of girls because they can. Some of them just hook up with Chinese girls,” she says with an eye-roll. “Guys who would be average, normal, whatever, talk to you like their peer, all of a sudden, are hot shit here.”
I remind her that New York is really no different right now, where the ratio of single professional women to men is 3-1 and it seems like every bar or restaurant is packed with pretty, well-dressed, smart successful single girls vying for a lackluster selection of guys too.
“True,” Jen tells me, “But in New York, there’s more of a level playing field—even compared to other places in the world. Guys are used to women with jobs and something to bring to the table.” What about Chinese guys, I ask, taking a sip of my beer. “Some of them aren’t interested in meeting foreign girls,” says Jen, who tells me she’s found interactions to be kind of awkward. “I went to hug a Chinese guy friend or just, like, touch him on the arm in an affectionate, friendly way, and he kind of froze.” We talk a little further, coming to realize that yes, these are all generalizations; anything is possible, you never know…
As we end our night at 1st Floor, an Irish-type pub in the expat-hangout district Sanlitun, nothing has to be said as we notice a group of thirty-something American and Canadian guys overlooking us to chat up twentysomething, very pretty Chinese girls.
Lacking romantic options aside, in the past few years since the Olympics, flush with cash from a booming economy, Beijing nightlife has grown at a hyperfast rate, making it an exciting place to be right now. Trendy cocktail bars, wine bars and casual western-style restaurants are opening up left and right, as entrepreneurs try to discover what concepts will stick. Jen shows me Apothecary, which opened in late 2009 in Nali Patio, a sort of mall in the heart of Sanlitun, and even at 11 p.m. we can get in for a drink, but I can tell the vibe is as cool as any place in New York. As a total foodie, easy access to bars like this seems like a worthy reason in and of itself to move to Beijing. It’s a different feeling from New York, where it seems like only industry insiders can get reservations at the latest Tom Colicchio or David Chang restaurant.
Mitch Moxley, a 30-year-old Canadian freelance journalist who’s been living in Beijing for the past three years, tells me that living in Beijing has been life-changing; it’s allowed him to crack the American news market, take impromptu trips, meet a diverse mix of intelligent, exciting, sometimes insane people, but like anyone would, he’s gone through the typical frustrations. “It’s a big Chinese city with all the accompanying problems: Traffic, pollution, chaos. Little things can be annoying. Where do you buy batteries? How do I fix my Internet (which seems to stop working every second day)? Why to people keep stealing my bike? As a journalist, too, it’s difficult to find a niche here b/c it’s very well covered. Luckily everybody wants to know more about China right now, and it still amazes me how little people (myself included) know about it.”
Like Jen, Leon Lee, one of Apothecary’s owners, also admits that the dating pool can be small in Beijing, but otherwise, life is pretty good: “While China has few of the creature comforts that one might be used to coming from the states, the trade off is that you can live a lifestyle way beyond your means in comparison. For example: I can take cabs, eat out three meals a day, live in a three-bedroom apartment, go away to Thailand, Taiwan, Japan for a mini-vacation or weekend without hesitation and still save more every month than I ever did in the states. Most people get used to it and can’t or won’t go back.”
For now, the jury’s out. I have a lot on my plate in 2010: training for the New York marathon, working on a book deal on my first manuscript, more travel writing and major trips to other Asian countries, but still, as I look through my own China pictures on Facebook, I think Beijing seems to have a lot of what made moving to New York so exciting in the first place—the feeling that anything is possible. Maybe in 2011, the year of the rabbit, with help of some magic, I may just decide to pull a trick out of my hat with my own move to Beijing.
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