Saturday, June 05, 2010

List of the Month - Beijing types

A week ago over on companion blog Barstool Blues, I put up a post I originally titled Constituencies, attempting to categorize the main types of people we find in Beijing - at least amongst the English-speaking expat population here.

I realised that I had omitted a few rather significant sub-groups, so added some afterthoughts in the comments. Here's a slightly expanded version for this month's 'List of the Month'.


Reflecting further on the bizarre choices among the winners and nominees in this month's The Beijinger Bar and Club Awards, I realise that as the expat population has grown larger in the years I've been here, so too it has become more differentiated, more fragmented.

Back at the dawn of the Noughties, the number of laowai in Beijing was probably only in the few tens of thousands (well, at least if you exclude the very large - uncountable - numbers of Koreans, Japanese, and Asiatic Russians, many of whom seem to have become permanent residents, and who 'blend in' to the local population much better than other varieties of foreigner), and the number of anglophones perhaps only in the few thousands. And because of that compact size, we had a shared sense of identity, of common purpose - perhaps a slight feeling of being beleaguered in the midst of a very strange and occasionally hostile city, and needing to club together for support. Of course, the city itself was far smaller then (with the 5th Ringroad just beginning construction, and very little development out beyond the 4th). And the 'bar scene' was tiny. Well, there were the old stagers: The Den, The Goose & Duck, Frank's Place, the John Bull Pub, The Mexican Wave, Maggie's. There was Poacher's and Jazz Ya just off Sanlitun. And there was the good old Sanlitun South bar street. And that was about it. Houhai didn't start to take off as a bar area until 2003; Nanluoguxiang not until 2007. Even the student enclave around Wudaokou was pretty rudimentary in those days (when did Lush open? '03??). Ditto Shunyi: it was already being promoted as a 'luxury villa' community removed from the hubbub of the city, but all those fancy malls and restaurants and coffee shops that make it such a comfortable home-away-from-home for expat families have sprung up just within the last half dozen years or so.

In those days (7 or 8 or 9 years ago), everyone hung out on Sanlitun South - regardless of disparities in age or income, regardless of place of residence. 'Year abroad' students from Wudaokou would rub shoulders with big-hitting executives from Shunyi in places like Nashville and Jam House and Tanewha and Hidden Tree. Even lowly language teachers would be welcomed to the party, so long as they didn't talk shop (although they might prefer to hang with the teenage expat brats in ultra-cheap dives like Black Sun or Pure Girl). Oh yes, the old 'Bar Street' was a great leveller. But then it got levelled.

I think it would have lost that unique 'melting pot' character anyway by now, even if it had somehow survived Beijing's merciless obsession with 'progress'. I'd guess that the expat population is now 10 times what it was back then (certainly the number of language students has gone up by rather more than that); average levels of affluence are rather higher (even poor old English teachers are getting paid ever so slightly more these days); and the number and diversity of bar and restaurant offerings has seen a corresponding boom.

It's hardly surprising, then, that there should be less coherence in the community now, and less coincidence of tastes on the nightlife scene. The people who voted for Xiu in those recent awards are unlikely to have much if any overlap with the people who voted for Paddy O'Shea's. And the people who would have voted for Salud (if it had been nominated) would not have overlapped very much with either grouping.

I'd say the main 'constituencies' these days (among Beijing's native English-speaker population) are as follows:

The Embassy Crowd
These are the 'aristocracy' of the expat community, too high and mighty to socialise much with us ordinary mortals. The nature of their job generates a sense of superiority, or at any rate of 'separateness' - and they seem to do 90% of their socializing with staff from other Embassies. (It was different in the olden times, when they might have only a few hundreds or a few dozens of their citizens residing here, and so felt at liberty to invite them all to the Embassy bar for a social evening once a month. [The New Zealand Embassy still used to do this until about 5 years ago, but I don't think the tradition continues today.] Now, with thousands of us here - constantly getting into 'trouble' with lost passports, traffic accidents, violent altercations with landlords or employers, etc. - they have to set up professional barriers to discourage us from bothering them. And that on-the-job aloofness too often carries over into their private lives as well.)

The Shunyi-ites
"The rich are different." (Fitzgerald) "Yes, they have more money than us." (Hemingway) "And they live in Shunyi." (Froog)
I have nothing much against Shunyi, really (nothing that a small thermonuclear warhead wouldn't put right, anyway). Nothing, that is, except its isolation and its unreality. It is not Beijing. It is nearly 20 miles outside of Beijing, and it is a completely different world.

The Hipster Rich
Some of the mega-wealthy entrepreneurs and senior executives choose to live within the city proper, rather than Shunyi - largely to prove that they can afford to do so (in huge, renovated siheyuan properties, or luxury serviced apartments). Also, they tend to be without children, and are thus unconcerned about the supposedly fresher air (ha!) and proximity to the major international schools which Shunyi boasts.

People With 'Real' Jobs
The average Shunyi-ite or Hipster Rich type tends to be rather off-putting. They're not necessarily arrogant, but they often are, a bit. And you do get fed up of the smug/cagey way that people won't tell you any more than that they're "involved in import-export". And there just isn't anything very interesting to say about being a manager in an engineering company. However, once in a while you'll meet a TV producer for CNN, or an architect, or a CleanTech consultant, or a lawyer, or an airline pilot - and they are often fascinating, and very nice (if usually hellishly overworked) people.

Visting Businesspeople
There's a group who are not actual Beijing residents, but are here often enough and for long enough to require inclusion in this roundup. They're almost all in "import-export", though a few are in "education" of some form (which is, after all, just the import-export of people). They're akin to the Hipster Rich, but mostly not quite as rich. Occasionally interesting people.... but obviously not the sort you can base your social life around.

The Expat Brats
The children of long-term, well-to-do foreign residents mostly have far too much pocket money and parents with a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to letting them go out on the town. There are parts of Sanlitun on a Friday or a Saturday (or a Wednesday or a Thursday?!) night where the average age seems to be below 16.

International School Teachers
A privileged niche class - much better paid than those of us on 'local salaries', but paupers compared to most of the MNC execs. They usually qualify as honorary Shunyi-ites. I fell in love with one a little while back, but it was obviously a doomed prospect; she only came into the city three or four times a year.

EFL Teachers
A derided underclass. Probably the most numerous single category in this analysis, but lacking any sense of group solidarity; indeed, usually lacking even the pride to identify themselves. Most of them hang out in Paddy's or The Den, pretending to have more money than they do; or in the Wudaokou student bars, pretending to be younger than they are. Sad.

The Missionaries
They're mostly from North America. And they're mostly here as EFL teachers. But they seem not to have to worry too much about earning money, because they have some kind of private income (in some cases, I think, they're being sponsored by churches back home). Their ulterior motive for being over here is to set up little clandestine prayer groups and Bible study classes and spread the word of Jesus. They are widely reviled - even by non-atheists - because their willingness to work for little or no money tends to depress the rates of pay offered to everyone else.

IELTS Examiners
The old joke says, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." The China expansion on that wisdom is, "Those who can't even teach, teach EFL; those who can't even teach EFL, examine for IELTS." IELTS is the main English-language testing programme for people wanting to go to an English-speaking country (other than America, where they prefer their own TOEFL system) for work or study, and it's administered in China by the British Council. There's such a huge demand for this exam amongst the Chinese that there are testing sessions in dozens of cities across China almost every weekend, and hence regular work for some hundreds of examiners. It pays much better than regular EFL teaching, so many of them subsist solely on this work and abandon their teaching jobs. It's a rather odd lifestyle, though, to be on the road so much, to be working on the weekends but not during the week. There's something rather disturbing about the psychological profile of the typical career EFL teacher - a sort of perpetual adolescent, flight-from-reality syndrome. And it's ten times worse with the IELTS Examiners: they are, for the most part, an unlovely assortment of freaks and loons.

The Chancers
The sad flotsam & jetsam types who are supposedly here "doing business", but appear in fact to be mostly surviving on their savings and "past glories".... while hunting for a Chinese wife. The ones who've achieved some kind of success here have usually done so by marrying a Chinese wife smarter than them to "take care of business". The majority seem to be perpetually searching for "the right opportunity" but never finding it - and having to supplement their dwindling cash reserves by taking little bits and pieces of part-time work. If you're a "businessman", you really shouldn't have to be working as a university teacher or an IELTS examiner on the side.

The Mandarin Students
There are at least three sub-varieties: the fairly 'serious' ones who are attending a full-year programme as part of their undergraduate language degree; the mostly rather less serious ones who are on a 'study trip' here (usually of considerably less than one year; many of them seem to realise quite early on that this isn't really going to get them anywhere, and just give up on their studies and party); and the mid-life crisis types - on the run from debts, failed marriages, derailed careers - who have convinced themselves that learning Mandarin may be a panacea for all their ills (in this stressful modern world, it seems, such crises can hit any time from the mid-twenties onwards). I despise all three types more or less equally. They tend to be very loud and very brash. And very tiresome in constantly trying to show off the tiny amounts of Mandarin they've managed to learn.

The Planet-Savers
In recent years, more and more of the Mandarin Students have stayed on to find work with worthy NGOs, bijou environmental consultancies, and so on. Indeed, some come here pursuing such opportunities without wasting the time on a Mandarin course first. There are now large numbers of young professionals here in such interesting and laudable (but mostly not very well-paid) jobs. Most of them are in their mid to late twenties or early thirties, and many of them are women. This ought to be my prime girlfriend-hunting milieu. Unfortunately, the aura of worthiness surrounding them can be quite suffocating.

Local Hires
Most Mandarin Students, however, don't get interesting and worthy jobs for NGOs and the like; they just find regular entry-level positions in Western companies (or sometimes, god help them, in Chinese companies). Many young people today - driven by curiosity about the largest, oldest, blah-blah-blah nation on earth, or by naive idealism about China being the 'new economic frontier', or simply by the dearth of job prospects back home - come out here without even much, or anything, in the way of Mandarin skills, and hope to find a job anyway. Most of these people - however good, bad, or non-existent their Mandarin - eventually find something, because there are so many jobs around in Beijing. And most of them are happy to have taken that first step on a career path, to have found a way to stay here. They try not to be too resentful of the fact that 'local hires' only get paid, at best, 20% or 30% of what they'd make for a comparable job in their own country (and this despite the fact that some international 'cost of living' indices rate Beijing alongside New York as one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live!).

An unfortunate sub-set of the Local Hires (well, many of them, I think, are not hired locally, but their pay is usually similarly miserly, unless they do really well for themselves on commissions): people with foreigner-targeted sales jobs - in things like real estate, relocation services, healthcare, and, oh god, "financial advice". It is a potentially lucrative (though, mostly, probably not) but somewhat stigmatized line of work.

The Frat Boys
A mysterious and very annoying sub-set. I don't know where the fuck these people come from. They could, I suppose, be part of any one of the groups above - although I would guess that the majority of them are Mandarin Students, or young professionals who've only recently finished their spell of being a Mandarin Student and are still behaving in much the same way on their nights off. They are mostly male, nearly all American (they are The Borg: they will occasionally 'assimilate' innocent bystanders into their 'culture'), and fall within the 18-30 age bracket, probably mostly in the mid-twenties. They are very raucous. They drink shooters. They are very raucous. They like hip-hop music. They are very raucous. The word 'like' accounts for almost 30% of their discourse. And they are very, very, VERY raucous. They are the reason why I found The Rickshaw (now mercifully demised) intolerable in the past, and why I continue to avoid most of the places around Sanlitun.

The Small-Time Entrepreneurs
More and more people in the last few years seem to have been bravely taking the plunge in trying to set up a small business of their own. You don't even need to have a Chinese wife in order to do this any more (although I think it still helps). I admit I am envious of these folks. (I just don't have quite enough money to strike out on my own; and the search for a trustworthy partner seems neverending....) However, for every bar or restaurant or t-shirt shop that makes a reasonable return for its owners, there must be 10 that are ignominious failures. And the few that succeed usually get torpedoed within a few years by rent-gouging landlords or treacherous business partners or the dreaded redevelopment notice ('chai'). Oh gosh, yes, it takes a lot of bravery to undertake something like this. Bravery, and a kind of optimism that borders on delusional religious fervour. I don't think I have it.

The Bohemians
A strange and nebulous class. Most, but not all, are still relatively young. Most, but not all, have acquired extremely good Mandarin (not by taking courses in it, but by having Chinese friends or Chinese lovers, and by taking jobs that required them to use Mandarin on a daily basis). Most - well, just about all - live in the city centre, mainly within the 2nd Ringroad (though some have moved out to the distant suburbs in search of more affordable housing). Very nearly all of them are involved in one of the more creative professions: art, music, photography, journalism, translation, graphic design, fashion, writing, academic research. The majority, I think, regard themselves as 'lifers', people who are settling down here for the long-haul, probably for most or all of their working life - and perhaps even beyond.

The Old Timers
They could fall into any of the other descriptions - they're mostly Small-Time (or not so small-time!) Entrepreneurs; many of them, perhaps, started out as Chancers, but got lucky in their marriage. After a certain length of time, though, origins, however lacking in lustre, cease to be of any importance. Once you've been here 15 years or so, you enter a distinct category all of its own.

And where do I fit into all of this? Well, I don't. I am UNIQUE, unclassifiable. I used to be an EFL Teacher, but I have escaped from that miserable life. I've been a Local Hire a few times, and would not like to go back there either. I aspire to be a Small-Time Entrepreneur, but haven't made it yet. Most of my friends are Bohemians, but I fear I don't quite qualify myself. Well, no analysis of this sort can expect to be comprehensive....


stuart said...

I've decided I fit into at least five categories and aspire to another half dozen. Just as well I'm not over 'there' right now to feel the revulsion.

Ah well, at least I'll never be a missionary.

Froog said...

Gosh, five??!! That's going a bit strong! I hope you've never been a Frat Boy, Stuart. I think our age and nationality saves us from that one, whatever bar-based rowdiness we might occasionally manifest.

I suppose I've definitely been in two of these categories in the past, am close to being two more now, and have only narrowly avoided - by the grace of god - full-time Mandarin studies and IELTS examining. The international schools occasionally tempt me....

JES said...

Holy cow. Maybe "no analysis of this sort can be comprehensive," but some analyses come pretty darn close!

As I was reading, I kept trying to picture you in one category or another. I decided -- before reading your terminal paragraph -- if you were anything, you must be a Bohemian. In which respect(s) do you feel you don't qualify as one?

I keep meaning to tell you I had a dream a couple-three weeks ago in which you played the part of protagonist. You'd developed an arty enterprise of your own: a form of calligraphy in which you distorted Chinese characters in such a way that they both (a) still "said" what they normally say, and (b) spelled out, in distorted Roman-alphabet characters, the name of an individual. For instance... hmm... Say Moonrat came to you and asked you to make up a t-shirt or banner or whatever for her. You might take a phrase like "charming editorial rodent," write it out in Chinese, and then streeeeeeetch out the individual ideograms (or whatever they're called) so that if a reader squinted, they'd see the Roman letters M, O, O, N, R, A, and T.

It was all very interesting. I think it was triggered by a catalogue I'd seen for some housewares company, featuring a clever doormat. In flowing, somewhat distorted script, the doormat said "welcome"... as long as you were entering. But upside-down -- as you exited -- you could see in equally distorted script the phrase "go away."

Froog said...


There is someone who's done this, actually: taking Roman script and distorting it into the semblance of Chinese characters. I suppose it must be a Chinese artist, but I don't recall the name - I saw it in a magazine 4 or 5 years ago.

Froog said...

I don't qualify as Bohemian because I'm not earning money through creative endeavours (business training and editing don't really count, I fear), and I'm not quite enough of a 'China-lover' (I disdain to learn the language, or to take up with a Chinese girlfriend - both of which are pretty de rigueur for this category).

Swordsman said...

Out of interest, where does the Press Corps fall?

Froog said...

Journalism counts as a 'real job', Swordsman. Unless you're a freelancer, in which case it may shade over into Bohemianism.