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Migration as a Hobby

Beijing, China
 by Lara Callaway

            The scene is simple, but interesting. I’m staying in a city suburb of Beijing, China close to Peking University, and I stroll out one evening into the small downtown area to see what kind of life there is to be observed. Of course, the usual street squatters spread their watches, wallets, hair bows, and other wares out on a blanket in front of them, peddling to the few Thursday evening passers by.

        Amidst all this, there rises a huge arc bearing the legend in blue lettering, “International Beer Market.” Intrigued, I pass underneath the arc into the outdoor-pub area and walk past several counters advertising and serving up brews from all over the globe. Off in a corner an Indian man is skewering tandoori chicken, and across from him in another booth, sashimi is being sold. The area is strewn with plastic tables and chairs, bustling with typical pub activity and boasting and array of predominantly white faces. I’m confused, wondering if this is simply a foreign attraction in the downtown area. A familiar scene designed to attract tourists, like the ungodly amounts of Irish pubs that I’ve seen scattered in distinctly non-Irish countries. I buy a Tsingtao beer and approach a table, relieved to have found English speakers and hoping someone can shed some light on the situation for me. Upon closer inspection however, I realize that everyone is speaking Chinese. I turn and listen to the table of presumably British girls behind me, and they’re chatting away in Mandarin. Across, the table is full of boys wearing jerseys that say “Greece,” but I can hear distinctly Chinese words drifting across the table.

            “Uh… does anyone speak English…?” I try feebly. All six heads at the table I was timidly hovering behind turn to look at me.

            “Aaaaaaaay!” They all give me a welcome shout and one kid pulls me into the seat next to him. “We’ve got a newbie, boys! First night in town? Lemme guess-- America? What school do they have you at? Why are you here so late? You can’t be starting until the Spring…” His name was Bryan and he was originally from Atlanta, Georgia. He, like everyone else at the table (an array of twenty-something year old Canadians, Americans, Grecians, Australians, Brits, and  Scotts) had moved here within the past two years to teach English at an elementary and high school level. The International Beer Market, he explained, is a favorite hangout for him and all of these local “migrant workers,” as he jokingly called himself.

ber market

Hearing his explanation and peering around, I was strongly reminded in a distorted way of Nicole Constable’s description in her article Made to Order in Hong Kong of Filipina migrant workers spending their Sundays together in the parks, bonding and allowing themselves to be immersed in their own culture for some time, before returning back to the daily struggles of being a working-class minority in Hong Kong. Of course, Bryan and his friends’ situation are vastly different and in no way the plight these Filipina workers fight through. None of them could understand what I’d be doing in a suburb of Beijing if it wasn’t what they were doing, and I couldn’t understand how so many people were drawn in to teach in China. Surely not the wages, or the quality of life, or even for the humanitarian benefit of less fortunate children world-wide—most of them taught in higher-end schooling systems. Their goal in coming to teach in China, contrary to a usual migrant worker’s necessities, is simply to have something exciting to do. Migration as a hobby.

“I’m also learning Vietnamese. Maybe once I get sick of China, I’ll head over there and see what kind of job I can pick up,” Bryan remarked casually.

“That’s it?” I asked. “So you came to China... just so you could come to China, because it’s different?”

“Of course. I graduated from UGA with a degree in English like thousands of others do semester after semester. Who wants to stay and teach English to unappreciative American kids?”

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