The author outside his Beijing suburb home
In this blog I will talk about the sheer, simple ordinariness of my life in China. If you haven’t been to China you might have all sorts of ideas about what it is like to live here, as I have done for ten years. Maybe you have some slightly negative views of a limited or restricted life here. Maybe you have romantic or exotic illusions of life in an ‘oriental’ country. The outstanding feature of my life for the last ten years has been its wonderful stability and everyday ordinariness. In the UK I live in a perfectly normal corner of Bournemouth. In China I live in a northern suburb of Beijing called Changping. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the approximate 5000 miles in between, I could walk down Bellevue Road in Southbourne and turn the corner into Beishahe Road in Changping, without batting an eyelid.
We can stroll freely around the local area, just exactly as if we were in Britain. Join me.
I live in a simple apartment in a cluster of six medium rise blocks in landscaped gardens. I’m the only foreigner here, but no-one treats me any differently. Let’s be clear that there are many reasons why the Chinese should be suspicious of or even hostile towards me. In the past, particularly during the nineteenth ‘century of humiliation’, the British behaved appallingly towards China. With my students I once visited the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing which in 1860 and then again in 1900 was pillaged and burned down by French and British armies. My students shook their heads and reflected sadly on the events, but there was no anger towards me and no anger from the curious Chinese gathering around to listen to our conversations.
In my employment here I could be seen as an economic migrant, you could even accuse me of taking a headmaster’s job that should by rights be for a Chinese. You could further accuse me of representing colonial and elitist foreign education in China. You could say all these things and more, but the Chinese never have. They smile at me shyly and prompt their children to try out whatever English they can with me and respond warmly when I manage a few phrases of broken Chinese.
I live opposite two perfectly ordinary Chinese schools, one middle and one primary. The children have a uniform of a simple blue tracksuit and a yellow cap. As I leave to go to school in the morning, children are streaming to school with parents or grandparents, some excited and happy, others as Shakespeare wrote ‘toward school with heavy looks’.
I meet families with students sometimes in the lift on my way home and when I ask about ‘作业’ ‘zuoye’ or ‘homework’ I get the same resentful looks I got working in London schools for 20 years. So much for the stereotype of the Chinese nerd. In the evenings streams of bikes race excitedly around the landscaped gardens and from the basketball courts come the same cries of victory and defeat that would decorate the evening twilight in Britain.
Next to the two schools is a park. Sit on a park bench with me and look around. You could be anywhere in the UK. Everyone’s dressed in exactly the same high street purchased clothes. The range of colours and styles is exactly the same. The passion of young people for trendy sports gear is precisely the same. It’s only the details that suggest difference. For a start over there is an ever open and always clean public toilet. Not many of those left in our parks in the UK are there? There are public toilets throughout Beijing, all of them with attendants who keep them meticulously clean.
And in the evenings the ‘dancing queens’ take over their corner of the park. The evenings in England always seem to me to belong to the young and the wealthy, flitting from pubs to clubs to restaurants and cinemas. In my local park, and indeed in public spaces across China, older citizens, especially middle aged and elders, gather to spend an hour or two dancing the evening away together, exercising to a heady mix of music, traditional Chinese, Chinese electronic dance music and a few treasured western disco tunes. The phenomenon is called 广场舞, guang chang wu – which can be translated as ‘square dancing’.
Let’s go for a stroll through the local streets. The streets are tree lined, just now they are in golden autumnal glory, like those in the UK. The climate in Beijing is very similar to that in Britain, except that the extremes of chill factor in January/ February and heat in July are greater than south-east England. And forget all of those stories about Beijing smog. Resolute policy enactment and shrewd investment in sustainability by the government has put an end to pollution entirely and reduced the days effected by dust and sand storms to a few per year. More cars on the road are electric powered than on the roads of Bournemouth. There is a well developed infrastructure of charging stations everywhere. The buses are all either electric or hydrogen powered.
Just round the corner from my apartment is a small parade of shops, exactly as you might find in Bournemouth, even including a McDonalds and a KFC. Coffee is just as big business in China as England. Costa and Starbucks are everywhere, although Chinese chains are hard on their heels. In fact just this year the Chinese brand, Luckin Coffee, opened their 10,000th cafe and finally overtook Starbucks. Fast food, convenience and snack stores are ubiquitous. Instead of fish and chips you might pick up a portion of 包子, bāozi, the steamed stuffed buns beloved of Beijingers. Instead of a curry, you might choose a take away 兰州拉面 – Lanzhou beef noodles, fragrant and spicy, a favourite comfort food.
One thing you will not see on the streets anywhere in China are homeless people or beggars. In fact I’m quite certain that compared to the UK, you will probably see much less of the extremes of inequality that are unfortunately a feature of British high streets currently. I have travelled all over China, and purposefully visited some of the still developing areas in the rural west of the country. While I have seen people living without the material comforts of Beijing or Shanghai, nowhere have I seen people marginalised or left behind.
China prides itself on the fact that in 2021 it was able to state that all absolute economic and social disadvantage had been eliminated and that 98.99 million people had been lifted out of poverty. China has a word for this – 小康, ‘xiaokang’ or ‘relative prosperity’. We might call it ‘levelling up’ or even ‘socialism’.
Let’s finish with a visit to the school where I’ve worked for ten perfectly ordinary years. The primary and middle school deliver the Chinese national curriculum but with a license to adopt more experimental teaching and learning strategies than public schools. This means an eclectic range of teaching strategies as diverse as Project based learning and traditional Chinese memorisation techniques based on recitation. You will feel perfectly at home in the High School section where I am based because we teach international versions of the GCSE and A Level courses students follow in the UK, except that our teaching is bilingual.
The wonder of schools worldwide is that they are perfectly ordinary places where the most extraordinary things happen – the development of young characters and the cognitive growth of young minds. If you take a walk with me past the classrooms you’ll see the rich range of teenage characters you’d meet in any English school. There’s Lu You, the rebel with streaks of red dye in her hair who set up a debating club to enjoy the controversies. There’s Yu Yanrui, the insidiously intelligent outsider, who dreams of being an indie rock poet. There’s Cui Hanhaoyu with his love of American fashion and all things NBA ( national basketball association). There’s Xu Xinran who adores The Great British bake-off and Gordon Ramsey and who runs a student cooking club every Friday afternoon.
They all cultivate their Chinese root and talk excitedly of the future contributions they’ll make to the ‘中国梦’, the ‘China dream’ of a harmonious and shared future. And just as excitedly they talk of their passion to live and study in Britain, even if only for three years of undergraduate education. They see Britain as I see China, a place at once familiar but with much to see, admire and learn from. They believe the United Kingdom is somewhere they can fit in, be comfortable and safe and learn from some of the world’s best teachers. They all want in their own ways to be small ambassadors for China, to share whatever they can of China’s culture, science and technology with the British. So far none of them have been disappointed with their experiences.
Just as China has made an ordinary, extraordinary home for me in Beijing, I hope that Britain, that you, will make a home for my students in the ordinary, extraordinary common sense of our island’s international heart.