April 2014. The sleepy, unremarkable little Beijing neighbourhood of Shangdi stands as the dictionary definition of a non-place. There is very little to see and even less to do, save for a sizeable collection of restaurants and local stores, a lone bakery and a big ass supermarket. And yet somehow this is where I lived for two years teaching English at a small language school. Despite its many frustrations, I have great memories from my time at EE. This shot was taken during a Saturday afternoon drama class, the kids and I rehearsing a short Harry Potter themed play. Matteo (left) was a boy genius with a Michael Jackson fetish. Gawain meanwhile (middle) struggled with the language and refused to accept that his name should in fact be Gavin, while Jerry (right) was one of the nicest boys I’ve ever taught, his heavy Beijing farmer’s accent bringing a smile to my face as he shrarred and arred his way through the script.
June 2014. The school was located on this large residential complex called MOMA, a short walk from my apartment. The families that lived there were very wealthy and I saw some amazing apartments within those identical cookie cutter tower blocks. This shot was taken on a depressingly polluted afternoon. I had to cycle down to EE’s school with Annie, one of my teaching assistants. Armed with a pair of rickety bicycles and my trusty facemask, I half wondered if the smog would swallow us up along the way.
August 2014. Shangdi’s massive local hypermarket was always an interesting affair. Chicken feet and duck tongues in the snack section, staff following you around and watching your every move for reasons unknown. This massive open-air aquarium in the middle of the shop floor never failed to make me giggle, especially people’s attempts to scoop up their chosen fish with the provided nets.
September 2014. My American buddy Anthony worked with me at EE and lived one floor up from my studio in the same high rise. To keep ourselves entertained we carried out a forensic investigation of the local restaurant scene. With no idea what each place was actually called, we devised a numerical system based on the order each joint was discovered. “You wanna grab lunch at 2?” he’d ask me, or I might suggest we do some dishes at “3”. There was also a barbecue joint we called Muslim and a pricier place down by the subway station christened fancy. We referred to the little street side restaurant in this photo as “Zero”, as it was actually closer to our building than both “1” and “2”. The food was always deliciously greasetastic, Mama Zero welcomed us with a wide smile and we did our best to ignore the suspicious chemical smell that lingered by the front door. The ghostly spectre of the Lenovo factory in the background only added to the street’s pervading feel of hopelessness.
January 2015. I couldn’t wait to get out of Shangdi in the end. My boss was a nightmare, Anthony was moving on and I’d saved up enough money to embark on an extended travel route through Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. But it was tough leaving some of my students behind. Take Clare, Snow and Sofia for example, three ridiculously cute little girls who’d stamped their feet, cried and hissed at me during our first lesson together. It had taken months for them to trust me, almost a year before they’d come sprinting into school with aggressive full-force hugs: “Leeeeeeeeeeighton!!!!” Sometimes I think about what went down the day they came to school and discovered I’d gone. One day I’ll return to Shangdi and they’ll have changed beyond recognition.
This article takes in my year living in Shangdi between December 2013 and April 2015. Nearly three and a half years later I went back with my old friend Anthony for an evening checking out our old haunts. To find out how we got on, take a look at my article: Shangdi Revisited.
For more on my time in the Chinese capital check out my other reports on Beijing.
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For a deeper insight into my time teaching in Shangdi, take a look at my short story collection Challenged in China.
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