Zeba Saudagar is one of our adventurous primary school teachers. After completing Teach First in the UK she was brave enough to take on an international post, and has been teaching in China, at Dulwich College since 2017. In this blog she explains how she found the role, and what her life has been like so far in the bustling city of Beijing.
Where are you teaching and what’s your school like?
I teach at Dulwich College, Beijing in Junior School as a year 3 teacher. I choose the school because they are extremely supportive of my career and personal life. There is lots of professional development available for example being able to attend a first aid course, attend an EAL course, observe other teachers to get ideas to improve my teaching practice and the school is extremely supportive for career development and progression.
From a personal aspect, Dulwich are very friendly, they asked me to attend a welcome session in the UK, helped me with all my relocation queries and assisted me whenever I needed any help or support. When I arrived in Beijing my boss picked me up, showed me around my apartment and ensured I felt settled. they had lots of activities arranged for new staff and made me feel extremely welcome. All staff at Dulwich are really friendly.
How did you get your job? What was the process like?
I got my job with Teacherhorizons. I filled out all the information about myself, attended an interview with one of the recruiters (Anisha) and next had an interview with the school. Within 24 hours I had managed to secure a job!After the offer letter, I had to complete the usual forms such as medical checks, police checks, obtain a visa and legalise all my certificate. This process can be hard because the Chinese laws always change, but my school was extremely helpful and helped me through the whole process.
What is the city like? Is there an active expat scene? What do you do in your free time?
Beijing is a fantastic city and I love it! There are a lot of expats in Beijing. My school has lots of activities to get involved in such as netball competitions, hikes and weekend trips away! I attend lots of events through a group called Girl Gone International (GGI) from exercise classes to cooking classes. It’s a great way to meet expat women from all around the world and has a real community feel. In my free time, I like to cook, go to the cinema (Cinker cinema in Beijing is great!), enjoy going out for drinks, reading (Bookworm in Beijing is great!) and eating at fab restaurants.
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Which tourist sites or must-visit places are nearby?
In Beijing you must see: The Great Wall of China, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Hutong area, Lama Temple and Temple of Heaven.
If you like shopping there are great places such as Indigo Mall, Wanjing area, Sanlitun (Expat hub) and cheap bargain places such as the Pearl Market. But also go to the local markets such as Bairong World Trade Centre where you can buy everything from clothes, electronics to toys and it is very cheap!
Beijing has many beautiful parks such as Chaoyang park, hikes on the great wall, Follow the Beijinger, it shows you all the events that happen in Beijing each month. One of my favourite places to visit is Niu Jie snack street. This street is the muslim quarter of Beijing and its where the culture of the old silk road becomes alive. You can get great Chinese food infused with middle eastern influence and it is amazing.
What is the climate like? Is there any extreme weather? If so, how do you deal with it?
Beijing has two distinct seasons: Summer and Winter. Summer is lovely but very hot. Winter is lovely as well but very cold and you need to make sure you have lots of warm layers. If you like winter sports, Beijing is a great place for you. You can go ice skating and skiing. Autumn and Spring last for about 2 weeks, the weather then is mild and warm. The air quality is amazing and you can enjoy great days out.
Beijing has a very dry climate. I would recommend topping up on your moisturiser and staying hydrated. The air pollution in Beijing can be bad but there have been lots of sunny days which go unreported. I have an air mask (Cambridge mask), and an air purifier for bad pollution days. If I am honest this winter in Beijing has been great, I haven’t had to use my mask or my purifier because the air quality has been great.
What’s the cost of living like? Are you able to save money?
Beijing can be cheap and expensive! Rent is expensive especially in areas such as Sanlitun and Shunyi (Main expat areas). But if you live in Wangjing and Lidu area it is slightly cheaper and you can get a decent flat. Food can be very cheap especially if you go to the local supermarket and food markets. If you want expat food obviously it is slightly expensive. Petrol, gas and public transport are very cheap.
I am able to save quite a bit of my money, however, my work pay for my rent and I receive fapiaos to claim back money on my food and dry cleaning.
What is the food like? Is international food available? Have you tried any unusual local dishes?
The food is great! Chinese cuisine is amazing especially Peking Duck. My favourite cuisine has to be a hot pot; its healthy, cheap and extremely tasty! The Rosewood for a great hotpot. If you like unusual dishes please go to Wangfujing snack street, it is fantastic and they sell everything!
You can buy lots of international, organic food in Beijing. The expat restaurants are great you can get food from all over the world. I usually go out for a curry, and have Korean and Mexican food regularly.
I have an Indian background and I could not have survived without my spices but markets such as Sanyuanli in the Chaoyang area sell everything from turmeric to garam masala. I can also buy my halal meat there and organic vegetables. Supermarkets such as Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet sell lots of expat food. Also get used to Tao Bao and Alibaba you can lots of great things online and it won’t cost too much!
How is the culture different from your home culture? Have you experienced any culture shock?
I live in an expat community and generally, I almost feel like I am living at home. China is not a third world country and is extremely developed, particularly in Beijing. It is the capital and it has many events happening within the city on a regular basis.
The shocks I have discovered are not always being able to communicate with people because of language barriers but apps such as Baidu are great. Everything is open till late usually until 9-10 pm so there is no urgency to rush! Chinese people are extremely helpful and are very relaxed. However, driving in Beijing is scary and people do spit on the floor. Also China is a communist country and there are restrictions on the internet, the films that are released in the cinema so please get a VPN before you decide to move here. Also sometimes the pollution can be bad so stock up on films and tv programmes for days when the weather is bad and the internet doesn’t work (this is rare!)
Have a read of our Happy Teacher Archives, for more happy teachers in China and other locations.
What’s the best thing about living and teaching in your chosen city? What have been your highlights so far?
The best thing about living and teaching in Beijing are the kids that I teach, they are great and always eager to learn!
I also have a great social life, it is easy to make friends and there is a big expat community so you can meet lots of new people. However it is a transient community because people leave and people come, on the flip side, you get to make lots of new friends regularly. I have loved discovering cooking classes in the hutongs and learning to cook lots of different cuisines. I love the winter weather when the lake freezes over and you can ice skate in the hutong areas and at the summer palace. If you do move to Beijing please try chair skating.
One of the reasons I moved to Beijing was to travel, Beijing is connected well to many different countries, I have been to South Korea, India and Australia so far. Flying to Australia, South Asia and Japan is very cheap compared to the UK and because of the geographical distance. I can explore different parts of the world very easily.
Are there any drawbacks? What kind of person would not be suited to this location?
Mydrawbackk for Beijing is when the internet doesn’t work and I can’t watch TV, I would say invest in a good VPN and make sure your family and friends download Wechat (Chinese Whatsapp) so you can talk to them whenever. If you get homesick please bear in mind there is a big time difference between UK and China.
If you do not like hot summers (30-40 degrees) and cold winters (-12 degrees) please do not move to Beijing. If you have bad asthma then please be cautious of the air pollution. But the pollution really is improving in Beijing year on year.
What advice would you give to someone who was thinking of coming to live and work in your current location?
I would say welcome… you will have a great time and meet great people! Buy lots of moisturiser that you like and if there is something particular you like then stock up! I absolutely miss Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps and I can’t find them anywhere in Beijing. But its a great city and a great opportunity to see China. You will really enjoy it.