PART ONE

Working in Beijing: The reality of life away from home

By Natalie Pang, Mar 14, 2019

A born and bred Singaporean, Natalie has spent the last four years working abroad in Beijing and Hong Kong. She’s funny, opinionated, and doesn’t hold back on calling out some serious cultural differences. Working abroad is so much more than just holding down your job - it’s about house hunting, surviving some lonely nights and battling the occasional cockroach. 

* * * *

Let’s get down and dirty with the realities of moving overseas. And I mean like, dirty. Yes, there’s some mess and tears involved.  

I moved away because I was bored of living with my parents and I really liked the idea of being by myself overseas and living a different life. So I happened to find a job in China, working with a national news broadcaster. (Yes…. I worked in the Underpants in Beijing lol)

That’s my office building on the right! It’s nicknamed 大裤衩 (Big Underpants) because well….. just look at it.

That’s my office building on the right! It’s nicknamed 大裤衩 (Big Underpants) because well….. just look at it.

It’s my fourth year working out of Singapore now, and I’ve moved a couple of times (and by a couple, actually it’s just two lah). From Singapore to Beijing, and then from Beijing to Hong Kong. It gets easier with each move, but frankly, it’s still stressful and always difficult as HELL.  

Perhaps my experience is grosser and harder than usual because I made the deep dive into Beijing (fake food, anyone?). But here’s what I really had to come to terms with when I first made the move to China:

#1: The horrors of house hunting

Unless you spent some time (and some money) finding your accommodation before making the big move, chances are you’re going to have to move a couple of times before you truly find someplace you can call home.

Good sun on the last days of packing up and leaving Beijing, but note the crude air-conditioner wiring situation on the wall. That’s a sign of things to come in this city.

Good sun on the last days of packing up and leaving Beijing, but note the crude air-conditioner wiring situation on the wall. That’s a sign of things to come in this city.

The best case scenario is if your company gives you a month’s accommodation while you sort your housing shit out. Otherwise, good luck finding a nice, affordable AirBnb that lives up to their pictures (in China, at least lol).  

The thing about finding housing in China is that you can’t trust pictures. You just can’t. Agents put up pictures of it BEFORE it was being lived in. So don’t be surprised when you walk into an apartment to find peeling paint on the walls, rusty door grilles, a dank smell and just truly gross looking toilets. IT’S A HUGE DAMN WASTE OF MY TIME OK. And FYI, you don’t get a cleaned up flat when you rent – what you see is WHAT YOU GET!!!! And issa no for ME!!!!

Somewhere in a private condo that I was viewing. Yes, instils a lot of confidence in me.

Somewhere in a private condo that I was viewing. Yes, instils a lot of confidence in me.

I had to pick up a lot of this house viewing etiquette along the way. It’s common sense most of the time, you just be polite, firm and DON’T SIGN ANYTHING TILL YOU’RE SUPER SUPER SUPER SURE.

But how do I tell them enough is enough, stop showing me homes out of my budget, and not have them walk away? And when do I say seriously stop showing me ugly houses??? And sometimes you just want to cut short a viewing because yea chief this ain’t it — but you just can’t ’cause the tenant’s there, the landlord’s there and you’ve got an enthusiastic agent trying to make her commission. YAY.  

And MY GOD you know you’re having a GREAT DAY sometimes you just walk into a filthy sty of an apartment. I’m talking about leftovers (think mala xiang guo) openly strewn all over the common area, or like guazi (winter melon seeds) husks on the floor. And the agent had the audacity to demand I wear a shoe cover so I “don’t dirty” the place? GIRLRLRLRLRL PLS HOR. (I wish I had pictures of these apartments, but I was seriously afraid the women living in that place were gonna yell at me.)  

Plus, it’s rental’s hell in Beijing. Good apartments get snapped up so quickly you don’t get to think about it or calculate your finances. Sometimes I’d go see a house in the afternoon, and by the evening I’d get a text message saying “Sorry to all who visited and were making a decision – the house is off the market.” WAHLAOEH, I haven’t even had time to even go home and eat my dinner ok.

A month after I moved in, they decided to do some serious repaving work. THX.

A month after I moved in, they decided to do some serious repaving work. THX.

And also, what people don’t tell you is a how nerve-wracking house hunting as a woman is. I’M A SUSPICIOUS PERSON BY NATURE OK. So having to suss out an empty apartment with a male agent by yourself is just… I’M PARANOID! There’s no telling if they’ll try to kill or assault me or something.

And the couple of times I didn’t have an agent, I went by myself to view the apartment with the current tenant and it’s just… you just take a deep breath before you knock and hope it’s not a pee-hoarding weirdo (male OR female) that opens the door. I think it was extra scary because I didn’t know any locals there (yet), I don’t really know their laws (ok obviously murder and sexual assault is illegal in most places but like YA NEVER KNOW) and how seriously they’ll take me. And legit, it’s like my fifth day in the country.

If I disappear in China, who the heck’s gonna notice.

Check out the weird things that get dumped right outside my apartment.

Check out the weird things that get dumped right outside my apartment.

Anyway, I ended up picking an old apartment in an old neighbourhood in China. It was a four-floor walkup with the smallest toilet and kitchen. And it would continue to be an integral part of my life and adulting lessons lol. It was actually one of the first apartments I looked at. After viewing about five or six others after, I couldn’t stop thinking about this one.

Reasons: my would-be housemate was a gem (in fact he asked me more questions than I had — questions like “do you party do you take drugs are you ok with a gay housemate do you have a job,” he was THOROUGH), the rent was cheaper than usual, there was a McDonald’s three minutes away, it was near my workplace and it was in an old neighbourhood full of cutie old people! SCORE TBH.

My quiet neighbourhood in autumn.

My quiet neighbourhood in autumn.

#2: The clueless attempts at fixing things

The best part about living with your parents is that they’ll do EVERYTHING for you. I mean seriously, they’ll do everything from fixing your blown light to killing the cockroach.  

So of course, those are the two things I had to do. And more.

I was very lucky actually – I had a housemate who really did everything for me, like sort out the bills, set up our Internet, buy drinking water, tell me when maintenance fees were due, fix a clogged toilet, BUY ME A HEATER WHEN I WAS SICK DURING WINTER AND BEFORE OUR HEATING CAME ON T____T, tell me who to watch out for in the neighbourhood etc. Long story short, he was my everything.  

But good things come to an end and he moved back to Poland (after living with him for two years sob) and of course the month after he moved back, I had to deal with a light that’s not working, a cockroach situation, and some other nonsense that I can’t even remember.

Changing a light bulb shouldn’t be that tough, but it was such a askjfaldkjlgak chore for me. First of all, I stood on my chair to try and reach my light and I couldn’t even reach it. I had to go to my neighbour’s and explain to them I’d like to borrow a chair – no, a very high chair – so I can step on it, and try to take out my light bulb.

In the end, my neighbour offered to unscrew it for me. But I was thinking like, when I want to screw in my new light bulb leh? THEN HOW??? Never mind, one thing at a time lol.  

In Singapore, you probably could bring your bulb to a store and they’ll help you pick a new one out. But in Beijing, all I got was a “不知道” (I don’t know) or “自己找” (you ownself find). THANKS LAH. And FYI, I only knew where this hardware store was ’cause it was right outside my area. If not forget it, I wouldn’t even know where to start to find one.  

So how did I screw it back on again? LMFAO I went back to another neighbour to ask to borrow a chair because I was too paiseh to ask the same neighbour for help. And he was so puzzled with my request – and asked if I wanted to borrow a ladder instead. OK GOOD POINT. He asked why I didn’t have a ladder. UNCLE, NOT EVERYONE NEEDS TO OWN A LADDER LAH. I don’t even own a kettle thanks.

(Note: I lived VERY minimally because I didn’t want to move appliances and shit around if I had to. I only had one bowl, one plate and a pair of chopsticks. Pots and pans were my housemate’s. And if you’re asking how do I eat cup noodles - the answer is, I don’t. :( SAD!)

A picture of a part of my apartment the day I moved out. Next to my luggage is my dear ol’ washing machine, which I had to DRAG to the front of the toilet so I could stick the pipe in the tap for water. That’s how old my apartment is -- the washing machine doesn’t have a fixed connected pipe.

A picture of a part of my apartment the day I moved out. Next to my luggage is my dear ol’ washing machine, which I had to DRAG to the front of the toilet so I could stick the pipe in the tap for water. That’s how old my apartment is -- the washing machine doesn’t have a fixed connected pipe.

The cockroach situation was easier but more stressful to deal with. I came out of my room at 11pm to see a cockroach in the kitchen, suppressed a scream, willed for blood to go back to my legs, turned around to go back into my room so I can find SOMETHING to whack it with, found literally NOTHING in my room that I can use that I can burn it after, decided that my HR handbook would be that thing, went back out to the kitchen, FOUND THE COCKROACH NOT THERE ANYMORE.

WOW WORST DAY OF MY LIFE. Straight up stress cried that night lol.  

I saw another cockroach the next day after work, but I don’t know if it was the same one, or one of its relatives doing a recce in my home. It scuttled back to the dark depths of the kitchen when I went to go grab my HR handbook again.

And from that day on, whenever I came home, I decided to make a lot of noise and say very loudly “I’M HOME!!!!!!” so that it’d know of my existence and we can co-exist peacefully together without us having to see each other.

Sometimes a view like that is worth it.

Sometimes a view like that is worth it.

#3: The difficult art of making friends

Some say, working overseas is like studying overseas what. Making friends won’t be that hard right?  

Sorry hor, workplace got no orientation camp, and you’re thrown into the deep end to figure out work politics!!!! Making friends as an adult is waaaay harder. And if you’re an introvert? Upsize THAT HARD LIFE MEAL.  

There are all these articles that list some ways to make new friends – join a sports club or interest group, go on a guided tour, go on Tinder (no thx I don’t want to be murdered), go to a friend’s party and meet new friends. But they’re all with 1. Strangers and 2. Big groups. And it’s exhausting to hang out with a large group of strangers. Argh. Call me old, but sometimes it’s like I just don’t want to try that hard? Not especially when I’m already tired from work lol.  

I don’t need A LOT of friends. I’m very content to spend my off days at home by myself and not leave the house. But it really sucks having NO friends in the beginning, especially when you want to moan about work and life struggles in real life over a drink. There are only so many WhatsApp messages you can send to get the point across.

I ended up having friends lah, I’m not THAT loser. Here’s dinner before my Mahjong session  with some of them, on top of a covered  automated (!!!) table lol.

I ended up having friends lah, I’m not THAT loser. Here’s dinner before my Mahjong session with some of them, on top of a covered automated (!!!) table lol.

But honestly, I know what it’s like and what I have to do now. It takes time to be inducted into a clique or a group. Sometimes people ask you out (out of pity maybe initially lol), but most times, you have to be brave to do the asking. So yes, me thinking I might have some friends to go out with and have HTHT over drinks after a week was truly naïve on my part.

So the lesson is to take it slow, to take it at your own pace, to try whenever you want and can, and to just bother your friends at home. Hmmpf.  

Fooling around in the newsroom. (She was inspecting my head for white hairs SOB)

Fooling around in the newsroom. (She was inspecting my head for white hairs SOB)

Friend-making is all about reciprocity. (Damn right, after picking out my white hair, I also picked out hers) And I was at a point where I was painfully shy and also very hesitant to go out of my comfort zone. Like at all. So it took a while (maybe six months or so?) for my colleagues to transform into friend status.

But I remember how things changed. I quietly gave out snacks after a holiday (to select people only because I didn’t buy enough lol) and one of them asked if I was bored and wanted to watch an Eddie Peng movie after work. Erm, hello? EDDIE PENG YES????? Hahaha — and so there we have it, a shared interest and a bonding moment.

And as I’m in Hong Kong right now, in a new city and a new workplace, I tell myself, it’s ok, it takes time. I take time. And I can always ask someone out when another Eddie Peng movie is showing in cinemas.  

But truly, the worst part of this entire struggle of having no friends in a foreign land is knowing that my own friends back in Singapore are having fun WITHOUT ME!!! Which leads me to….

#4: The curious case of FOMO

There’s no other way to put this. Sometimes you’re just going to have to deal with being damn sian that your best friends are out doing what YOU ALL used to be doing.  

You have to deal with an inside joke you don’t understand in the group chat, because they talked about it in real life and not over text.

You have to deal with missing out weddings, birthdays and spontaneous hangouts.  

The first couple of months are okay, despite me saying in the previous paragraph that I had no friends. But because I was sooooo overwhelmed by the whole moving overseas thing, I had very little emotional capacity to feel that FOMO initially. It only hits you when your friends stop really asking you how’s the move, and what sort of crazy things you’ve seen.  

And honestly, the longer you’re away from home, the worse it feels when you’re actually home. ’Cause it’s like you want to pick up from where you left off (which is months and months ago when you last came back), but your friends are at another point.  

Of course I didn’t want to complain or even actually really talk about this because it’s like I OWNSELF WANT TO MOVE OVERSEAS ONE? LOL. So like it’s kinda my own fault in a way. I’m sure a common response would have been like, DON’T LIKE THEN COME BACK LA OMG.

Me in Tibet with my friends.

Me in Tibet with my friends.

I also can ownself make other people FOMO with my travels with my other friends hmmpf lol.

I also can ownself make other people FOMO with my travels with my other friends hmmpf lol.

#5: The burden of being a heavy texter

It’s hard to leave an old life behind. That’s how I found myself on my phone A L O T – checking Instagram/Facebook (imagine that while on VPN), having multiple conversations with friends to tell them everything that happened to me and asking for their updates on things.  

I’m actually a really bad texter. Like I can’t keep up conversations for long, and I always forget to reply. I like seeing zero notifications and I don’t like “unread” messages. So even if I’m busy, or if I just woke up, I’ll “read” those messages, and then actually really forget about them. Until I want to badger a friend about a certain issue, then I’d see that I forgot to reply to a text from a day ago. Oops.  

But when they don’t reply quick me enough, I’m like, is my VPN down again…? That’s why no messages are coming in? (I KNOW I’M A TEXTING HYPOCRITE.) And then I realise – oh……. no…….. they all have their own REAL lives to lead and can’t really entertain me ………...  

HUGE reality check yikes.

To be continued.

Part two of this story can be read here.

Photos provided by Natalie Pang.

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