After studying Mandarin at SOAS University in London (a hilarious but unfortunate name as SOAS means STD in Dutch…) I decided to further develop my language skills in Beijing and my institute of choice was The Hutong School.
The Hutong School not only offer language classes (from beginners to advanced) but also help with accommodation, visa (which is a little more complicated when not visiting for tourism), finding cheap tickets, convincing your parents you should be studying in China and anything you could possibly need help with. They also organise social events, which is nice when living somewhere you don’t actually know anyone. Now for those of you who know me, you know that I am not a huge fan of having someone else sort out my living/travel arrangements as I feel I can do this myself just fine and is a part of the experience but, in this case, I thought it would make for a more comfortable, hassle-free, and better social situation.
So, after a 10+ hour flight with a short stopover in Helsinki, I arrived early in the morning. I picked up my suitcase, made my way to the exit and looked for The Hutong School representative. The representative in question was no less than Bruce Lee himself. No, I’m serious, 1.71 m, black hair, died 41 years ago… Well, I guess the name was just a mere coincidence. Anyways, Bruce Lee was just lovely and I would meet him quite a few times during my stay in Beijing. He took me to my apartment and on top of being picked up by China’s most famous actor, Bruce informed me that my neighbour was none other than Jackie Chan! I staked out but never even caught a glimpse…
My apartment was located in Dongzhimen a really nice and central location only 4 bus stops from my school, 2 tube stops to Tian’anmen square and 2 tube stops from Dongsi and Dengshikou where I usually stay when in Beijing.
The apartment was, as I guess could have been expected, not quite as “nice” as was presented on the website. There were cockroaches (we notified The Hutong School and they called an exterminator to come and sort it out), it was dirty and located in a building that was generally pretty run down. However, this too had its charm and as the location was great and a proper clean improved the place a lot, I called it home.
I had 4 roommates; a Dutch guy who arrived the same day I did and would be there for 4 months doing an internship at the Dutch embassy while learning Chinese, two Columbian brothers who had been in Beijing for 7 months, and an American guy who had lived in China for two years already and worked for The Hutong School at the time. So, no girls but the universe compensated me by giving me a gay guy. Amen.
After settling in, Bruce took me to register with the local police, as a “resident” you need to register and always carry documentation of registry with you. He quickly showed me where the supermarket was and took me to The Hutong School to get a level assessment, arrange my schedule and to meet my teachers. The school is, well, on the contrary of what one would expect and is implied by the name, not actually located in the Hutongs (Traditional Chinese style courtyards & houses), but located on Sanlitun Bar Street -probably the most popular tourist street in Beijing – think Kao San Road in Bangkok. Not to mention the school, quite opposite of a house in the Hutongs, is a massive skyscraper with the Hutong School located on the 15th floor. Obviously less charming but it did make for great views! I had 2 hours of private class every day and my teachers were just lovely (as were the rest of The Hutong School staff I may add). Being in China and constantly being immersed in Chinese was amazing and improved my Mandarin so much.
As this was my 4th time in Beijing I had already done the majority of the touristy stuff, so aside from the occasional temple/museum and rather than going out to the popular places, I got to know the people who worked in the local supermarket, had my regular eating spots (recipes I brought over from Beijing like mama’s Gong Bao Chicken can be found HERE) and felt what it was like to “live” in China, even just for a little while. I did attend some of the events organised by the Hutong school like a Tai Chi course (harder than it looks), a tea course – everything there is to know about tea (I have a slight obsession with Chinese tea), a hike through Wu Ling Mountain just outside Beijing and a trip to the Beijing Opera (a must when in China! – read more about the Beijing Opera and tea ceremonies HERE) and I really enjoyed these.
Time flew by and before I knew it was the last weekend before my departure back to London. My roommates and I went for a last night out in Sanlitun where we visited the famous Mojito man before heading off to a club called Mix. Man, do the Chinese know how to party; I had such a great time! I laughed (a lot), I drank (you guessed it, a lot), I danced, my god did I dance.
I think back to my time in Beijing on a daily basis and I think I had such an amazing time because of the people I met. My Chinese improved tremendously and roommates turned into friends, great friends. We only lived together for a short period of time but we got to know each other so well and really experienced “(expat) life” in Beijing together. I love these guys.
Whether it’s for travel or for study, I can only recommend packing your bags and leaving for China as soon as possible. China is vibrant, quirky, mesmerising, beautiful, fascinating, frustrating and intriguing. The vibe is palpable and I long for it every day.
Want to study at the Hutong School in Beijing or Shanghai? Click HERE!