What It’s Like Living and Working in Beijing
It wasn’t just graphic designer Becky Lane’s tiny Beijing studio apartment that I found fascinating. I wanted to learn the story of how she ended up living (and starting a business) in Beijing. I had questions! Such as: Are all homes in Beijing super teeny like hers? Do neighbors hang out? How do people entertain? Becky graciously took the time to share her perspective on a number of topics.
Ask her why she made the big move to Beijing four years ago (even though she had never visited China before), and Becky will likely laugh. She never intended to move to China — she had only planned on a vacation.
“I didn’t really know anything about China before I came in the summer of 2013. I’d never lived in a foreign country, or done much traveling outside of North America. So, when the person I was dating at the time invited me to come for a trip I said, why not! What was supposed to be a trip of a few months turned into an epic break-up, being shit broke, realizing I loved learning a new language, and that I was crazy inspired and scared…and I just didn’t want to go home. Almost four years later, I feel pretty much the same.”
“Beijing life is 24 hours a day. In this respect, I think a lot of people use their homes as a ‘base,’ but life happens outside, especially in the summer.”
“If you’re used to North American-sized homes, Beijing will be a bit of a shock,” Becky admits. “When I first started looking for an apartment here I remember being pretty depressed about it. To be perfectly frank, not only were many of the apartments I was shown in disrepair, they were small, and just straight-up hideously furnished (by landlords who insisted the furniture must stay). This is a common ex-pat gripe, and I think one of the biggest culture clashes.”
(Image credit: Becky Lane)
“It took me a long time to understand why ideas about making a ‘home’ in Beijing seemed different than my beliefs. A lot of North Americans treat a home like it is the center of your life…it speaks to who you are, you invest your personality into it. In China, the topics of real-estate and rent are fraught with a long history of ownership rights, investment instability, shifting migrant populations, and low monthly wages. Eventually, I realized it makes sense that decorating isn’t a priority for everyone here. If I want an apartment that looks the way I feel comfortable with, I just have to invest some money and time, and get it done myself. Landlords here aren’t as interested in making my North American dreams of home come true.”
“Going out for meals with friends is an essential part of daily life here, much more so than in North America.”
Food is for sharing
“The food in China is incredible and affordable,” Becky reveals. “Thousands of years in evolution, combined with a myriad of regional influences, and there’s just no end to the dishes. Having meals together (literally always together… people don’t have separate dishes to themselves) is important in Chinese culture.”
“I think for foreigners this is one of the easiest of Chinese customs to adopt. Not only is it a great way to meet people, but if you’re a big foodie, you realize when you’re all sharing dishes you can eat way more of the menu than if you’re eating just your personal selection. Going out for meals with friends is an essential part of daily life here, much more so than in North America. I remember when my parents visited me here a year ago, after many amazing meals, they commented that I’d treated them ‘like kings’…and I remember thinking that I’d just tried to give them a glimpse of my normal life!”
“The most memorable was when one neighbor came into my place without knocking, smoking, and with a set of drawings she’d made, wanting to discuss the layout of my furniture.”
“In terms of interaction between neighbors, I say this one’s pretty universal! You get the nosy neighbors, the neighbors who you’ve never seen, the loud neighbors, and the nice neighbors, same as anywhere. As a foreigner, I’m definitely treated as a bit of an novelty, but once the general questions of where I’m from, why I’m not married, and how much I paid for everything in my apartment are answered (asking how much someone paid for something here is literally like asking someone how they’re feeling), it’s back to business as usual. Usually my neighbors are pretty bemused by my efforts to re-design my apartments, and often throw in their own decorating advice. The most memorable was when one neighbor came into my place without knocking, smoking, and with a set of drawings she’d made, wanting to discuss the layout of my furniture.”
“In Beijing, kitchens are tiny, big ovens are non-existent, and apartments are small, too.”
“Yes, I’ve been to many homes here. Homes here are, in general, much smaller than homes in North America. There are some mega homes for sure; China has an incredible number of wealthy citizens now. But, generally, an average home in China is significantly smaller than an average home in North America.
But entertaining at home definitely does not seem like the norm here. I moved into my current home in December and have yet to host a dinner guest! For me this is a big difference from my life in Canada. I used to host or attend home dinner parties regularly; it was the most common way to socialize. In Beijing, kitchens are tiny, big ovens are non-existent, and apartments are small, too. It’s still nice to have people over once in a while, but generally, it’s easier to go out.”
“The best things about living here for me are having friends and meeting people from all over the world…”
A big Beijing benefit
“The best things about living here for me are having friends and meeting people from all over the world, eating food from all over the world (and realizing chopsticks are truly a superior utensil), and being able to travel easily and affordably. China is also a hub for some pretty mind-blowing and rapidly implemented inventions and developments. It’s pretty amazing to live in a place that is changing and developing at a pace it seems the rest of the world doesn’t experience on this scale.”
How Becky’s business came to be:
Originally from Canada, Becky graduated with a Bachelor of Interior Design in 2007, and then earned a Master of Worldview Studies in 2008.
“After graduating I wanted to only design ‘meaningful’ things, which I equated with ‘hand-made’ and ‘necessary.’ This meant that I actually designed very little. …It also meant that I needed to support myself financially with other jobs. I started doing some small graphic design projects for friends, almost as a creative break from thinking about design.”
It was the move to China — and getting hired for more and more graphic design work — that Becky felt encouraged to take the design leap. “Like a lot of creative people, I spent many years being a perfectionist and very critical of my work. It made me afraid to call myself a designer and really explore the industry and put my work out there. In a lot of ways, China is a really unpretentious place. If you want to do something here and you work hard…people will give you a chance. Working with people here and getting a lot of positive response really helped me have faith in my abilities as a designer again.”
She’s run her business Tuesday Night Studio for over a year now.
“The first six months were a bit intense…as have the last six months. But there are so many entrepreneurs here in China that it’s easy to find a support network.”
→ HUGE thanks to Becky for kindly sharing insight into her experience of living and working in Beijing. You can visit her website to learn more about her graphic design business, and of course, be sure to check out her gorgeous (and teeny!) home in Beijing.