I remember the first time I came to Beijing. I got put up in a cheap hotel on the third ring road. It was on the outskirts of a hutong cluster near the Lama Temple. At least, I think it was there. Everything was so confusing then. I was afraid to leave my hotel room.
I remember the first breakfast. I went downstairs and saw a bunch of people with the fear in their eyes. I scarfed down food, equally famished and jet lagged from the journey. We were all American. Most of us had never been in Asia, let alone China, before.
A handful of the group did have China experience. They could order food, say thank you, and even explain what country they were from in Mandarin. They were like gods.
My roommate, a fellow English teacher at our company, EF, was like that. His name was Steve and he was from San Francisco. Well, not really. He was actually from a small town two hours north. But he liked to say San Francisco the same way that I liked to say Boston.
Steve had a prior year in Beijing before being asked to leave due to some visa complications. He told me that he came back because he thought the city was fun and he could have a good standard of living. He liked to keep his hair short and gel it up in the center to make a mohawk. His father was Swiss and his mother was Mexican. He liked to hang out with Brits and talk about his ideas for new businesses.
Much to Steve’s chagrin we were assigned to an apartment in the Fengtai district. It was in the west of the city. Steve told me that Fengtai was where foreign dreams went to die a Chinese death. I didn’t understand him. Later I found out that all the good restaurants, coffee shops, and clubs were on the east side.
He was a particular fan of the restaurant, Kro’s Nest.
For all the things that pissed me off about Steve, he was a good guy to have around. Now that I have a few summer’s under my belt I can understand just how disappointing it must have been to be placed with a green China hand such as myself.
He showed me around town. Told me how to get into clubs for free. Got me a room in the same apartment that he moved to after leaving our place in Fengtai. He even brought me to Kro’s Nest.
“When you’re homesick man, nothing like a little Kro’s.” I remember him saying fondly, as he picked up a slice of greasy cheese pizza and took a bite.
In those early days everything was lonely and new and horrible. I got yelled at by my center boss a lot for my attitude. One time I threw a stack of scrap paper in the trash and proclaimed to everyone that they were my students’ tests. While the joke was very obvious to me, my center boss didn’t see the humor.
Looking back at it now, it’s all still very hard to understand. Maybe I just had to reach an equilibrium. I didn’t know how to interact with the Chinese and they didn’t know how to interact with me.
My sarcasm was like a scarlet letter in those days. What’s worse is that it’s true what people say about first impressions. I could never shake it off. To this day I don’t know if I was really such a bad teacher or if it was just the fact that I made a bad impression.
Despite myself my life gradually improved. I learned more Mandarin which increased my independence. I saved up some money. I even got laid.
That’s how it was in the beginning. I was 23 and didn’t have a fucking clue about what I was doing. Looking back at it now, those were some of my best days in Beijing. Back when everything was a surprise and anything was up for grabs.