Move-ins, Malls, and Millipedes: Week One in Beijing

你好 from Beijing, and the beginning of my year as a Princeton in Asia Fellow! I’ve been here for just under one week now, and what a week it has been.

I’ll start with what brought me here: the job. After spending the weekend before in Bangkok visiting some wonderful friends, I got off the plane last Tuesday morning and headed straight to my first day of work training. Training, which ended Friday, was a whirlwind of meeting co-workers, team-building activities, and learning the ins and outs of enterprise education, the teaching practice that my organization centers itself around.

Atlas Education (which was called TSL until three days ago, when we officially renamed it during a brainstorming session at training) is the umbrella parent organization to which my project, Flourish, belongs. Atlas’s main branch is a for-profit tutorial college called The Learning Tree, which funds smaller social initiatives like Flourish. While the Tree is an after school tutoring center, Flourish is unique because it partners with the government and takes Atlas’s enterprise education curriculum into public schools, sharing it with Chinese students of all different backgrounds, means, and English levels. Starting later this week, I’ll be teaching this curriculum to entire classes in about five different Beijing public schools, which is an extraordinarily rare and special opportunity in a country like China.

I initially felt a bit awkward trying to make friends in an established organization where the majority of people already knew each other, but training did its job, and I really love the group of people I’ll be working with this coming year. My favorite thing about Atlas is how passionately everyone believes in its mission: to educate the whole student, to give them the skills they need to be adaptable and successful in anything they pursue, and to support them in all elements of their lives, not only in the classroom. I feel so lucky to be part of this, and I can’t wait to begin with my first official day of work tomorrow!

To cap off a great week of training, we all went on a retreat to what Atlas calls the Mountain House, which is exactly what it sounds like: a house in the mountains northeast of Beijing, up near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It’s extremely remote; we had no cell service for the 24 hours we spent there, and our only company was the hundreds upon hundreds of millipedes that encroached on us from the surrounding forest (I have never seen so many in my life—but they’re actually kind of cute?) (update: just found a live millipede in my duffel bag hours after returning to Beijing fml). It was so much fun, and a great way to get to know my co-workers better. Here are a few pictures from the weekend!

Aside from training, I’ve spent most of my free time this week looking for a place to live. Right now I’m in an Airbnb in Dongzhimen, an amazing neighborhood right in the center of Beijing close to the Flourish office and to the schools where I’ll eventually be teaching. In Beijing, it’s best not to try to find a permanent apartment before arriving—you’ll want to tour your options in person first to be sure you’re getting exactly what you’re looking for. In the evenings this past week I’ve visited listings on my own and with agents, and I’m happy to say that this morning I confirmed my permanent home for the year. On Sept 13th I’ll be moving into a big duplex apartment with two awesome roommates and the cutest dog (!!!), also in Dongzhimen and about a 15-minute walk from work. After four years of living in Harvard dorms, I am so excited to finally have a real apartment!

Since I’ve been so busy with work and housing, I haven’t had much time to do touristy things yet, which is a shame because the weather and air quality has been fantastic this week—some of the bluest skies Beijing has seen in a long time! I did make it up to Jingshan Park for sunset on Friday evening; it’s a hilly park in the center of Beijing that overlooks the Forbidden City, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I didn’t get to go my first time in Beijing three years ago, so I’m glad I made it there in my first week back.

I’ve had so many more observations, thoughts, and feelings since moving here that are impossible to string together in any coherent way, so here’s a general list of musings:

  • I love the Beijing subway. It is so clean, efficient, and extensive, and (knock on wood) it actually makes commuting enjoyable. Most of the time I’ll just walk to work at the Flourish office, but on Thursdays every week we go to the main Atlas office out past the 5th Ring Road for full staff meetings, so it’s nice to have a great subway system that makes it easy.
  • I basically live in Raffles City mall. It’s across the street from my Airbnb—I buy all my groceries/snacks/essentials in their market and have eaten dinner there four of the six nights I’ve been here, partly because there are so many amazing restaurant options, but maybe also because I’m too intimidated to use my limited Chinese to order in any of the small, local food shops nearby…
  • I’ve been studying the language hard this summer and I swear I know the basics like greetings/ordering food/asking for directions/etc, but I still freeze up and forget everything whenever I try to use it, then kick myself later when I remember what I was supposed to say. I’ve had some triumphs (correctly identifying the characters for different types of meat when buying breakfast in 7/11) and some hilarious failures (accidentally asking to buy just “milk” instead of “milk tea” at a tea shop, walking away when they said they didn’t have it, and being too embarrassed to return when I realized my mistake ten seconds later). Right now I’m at the point where I can recognize words here and there in passing conversations (这个 is omnipresent), but I’ve still got a looooong way to go. The goal is to get myself a Mandarin tutor to practice with a few nights a week, so here’s hoping I pick it up quickly!
  • WeChat runs life here. I have never appreciated a social media app more (but also cannot function until I have a Chinese bank account and can use WeChat wallet).
  • I’ve already got a battle scar—on Wednesday I shoved myself in a crowded bus from Sanlitun to Dongzhimen and paid for it dearly when the door sliced into my heel as it closed and left me bleeding all over my shoes for an hour or so until I could get home and clean it. It’s healing well now, though; no lasting damage!
  • I’ve started sleeping grandma hours and I strangely love it? In bed at 10pm, up at 6:30am, and I plan to keep this going as long as possible. What a change from my college sleep schedule, which was usually 3am to 11am at its most consistent…
  • The Harvard FOMO is real. Good luck to my friends moving back to school for the new year! I miss you all so much.
  • I feel more like an adult than I ever have. Apartment hunting, regular working hours, commuting, feeding myself and settling into a new city—it feels like someone suddenly flipped the “grown-up” switch and it’s equal parts scary and exhilarating.
  • I live in China. Seriously, what?!?!

  • So that’s Week One in all it’s messy, new, exciting glory. I cannot fully express how happy I am to be here—this big thing I’ve been working towards for the last few years is finally happening, and it just feels right. There’s still so much to get used to, but that little thrill I feel when I find a place I’m looking for, actually speak with someone in Chinese, or even just walk down a busy city street on my own erases every single one of my doubts: right now, this is exactly where I’m meant to be. I love Beijing, and can already feel it starting to become home. Leaving the U.S. was hard, and I wasn’t sure about it before, but now I really think PiA found the perfect place for me. I’m unbelievably excited to continue finding my footing in this incredible city over the coming year.

    One week down, ten months to go!

    2 thoughts on “Move-ins, Malls, and Millipedes: Week One in Beijing

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