A winter working holiday in Beijing

by Matthew Brooks

Are you fed up of being a tourist and simply passing through destinations? Then journey to Beijing this winter and take up the challenge of teaching English as a foreign language

China can often seem impenetrable to the visitor. But there are ways of getting under the skin of the dragon. With its burgeoning economy and delight in western culture, qualified Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) are in high demand. With jobs aplenty, a low cost of living and a dazzling culture to match, China is an enticing playground for a native English speaker. If you fancy a holiday with a difference then teaching English could be for you.

Teacher training

It’s not uncommon for travellers to turn up and find teaching work on the strength of their nationality alone. But, to ensure a top-dollar salary and a post in a decent school you’re best to acquire an internationally recognised Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). Most schools also want proof of graduate status or evidence of significant work experience.

Currently Language Link (www.languagelink.com.cn) is the sole provider of CELTA training in Beijing. Housed in a marbled office block in Deng Shi Kou Street, the school offers a friendly and supportive environment in which to learn. The course costs £850 and lasts for a month, with 120 intensive hours of tuition and teaching practice. You could always do a CELTA in the UK, but there’s nothing like being on the ground ready to snaffle up potential job offers.

To be fair, wherever you study, it’s going to be hard work. Sadly this is no gap year jolly. Long days are often followed by exhausting nights of frantic lesson planning, and weekends vanish under the weight of coursework assignments. But with a positive attitude and a bit of resilience most candidates pass. It’s worth mugging up on some grammar and teaching etiquette before you go.

If you’re balking at the prospect of a return to academic grind, let me assure you it’s not all hard work. Part of the fun is making friends among the staff, students and international brigade of trainee teachers. By nature Beijingers are a hospitable bunch who love to socialise. Play your cards right and you’ll be welcomed into people’s lives and homes. Not to mention the partying until dawn and cultural excursions you’ll be invited on. Being treated as a friend rather than a tourist certainly leaves a warm glow inside.

Winter fun

I took my CELTA in January 2009. It was bitterly cold in Beijing, with temperatures plummeting to -12C. Understandably frozen extremities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but wintertime does have its charms. In the frigid air, the city transforms. Lakes become ice-rinks and wind-swept monuments seem to swell in size. The crisp light is ideal for photographers, while restaurants and cafés offer cosy sanctuaries in which to unwind. With Chinese New Year on the horizon, red lanterns decorate the streets and firecrackers boom across town. It’s impossible to avoid the goodwill and seasonal cheer. Here are a few tips for enjoying the festive period.

On New Year’s Eve head to a friend’s high-rise apartment and watch the midnight fireworks in style. The volume of rockets thumping into the night is simply awe-inspiring. Have a merry time feasting on Jiaozi dumplings and Tsingtao beer. Take some sweet delicacies to thank your host. Don’t expect an early night: Beijing will be exploding until dawn!

The following morning push aside any hangover blues and venture to a New Year fair. You’ll whoop with amazement at the mystifying contortionists and be sent into a giddy-spin by the dancing dragon troupes. There are plenty of delicious snacks on offer too, with grilled meat and syrupy doughnuts being the order of the day. Check out www.thebeijinger.com for seasonal listings.

If you’re feeling energetic and fancy a bit of a giggle then take the metro to frozen Houhai Lake for some ice-skating antics. Hire an ice-tricycle and have a gay old time pedalling furiously around the pond. Avoid a collision and take a break with a sickly-sweet treat of toffee-glazed fruits on a stick. Should the crowds get too much then plod over to Nanluogu Xiang Street. Warm up in one of the many bars with a hot chocolate or a little hair of the dog.

For a more sober experience take a trip to Tiananmen Square, to visit the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. During the holiday period thousands of Chinese tourists pay their respects to Mao’s mummified remains and visit the Forbidden City. The lengthy queue of muffled figures reverently inching closer to the mausoleum is a sight in itself. This is also the place to bag a kitschy Mao wristwatch.

To escape the rigours of city life take a taxi to the Summer Palace. Be sure to wrap up warm to fully enjoy wandering through the wind-swept landscape of temples and gardens. Walk out onto frozen Kunming Lake to enjoy a memorable shoreline view of forests and Qing architecture set against an azure sky.

Where to stay

The Beijing Saga International Youth Hostel is an affordable, clean and convenient lodging for CELTA students. It’s a brisk ten-minute walk through the Shijia Hutong to Dengshikou metro, and a further five to Language Link.

A double room, with a TV, desk and en suite bathroom costs around £15 per night. Reductions are available for long-term guests. It can be a little noisy, so pack some earplugs. There is a washing machine on site, but if you hanker after steam-pressed cotton the laundry-shop across the road does a fine job. Just mind the yappy dog.

Sadly the hotel restaurant isn’t up to much. I found the food rather westernised and a little bland for my palette. Fortunately, next door, a homely eatery serves local fare at a fraction of the cost. Nearby Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie road has plenty of restaurants, bakeries and mini-markets. The baozi and wind-dried meat kiosks are superb. Finally, a word of warning: over New Year smaller shops and cheaper restaurants close, so be sure to stock pile any essentials beforehand.