Jason has been living in China for almost as long as I've known him. I don't think he intended to be there for so long, but something about Beijing has obviously reeled him in. I first asked him if he would do an interview for me, about his life there and photography, on the 3rd of January 2015; between the two of us, we have managed to string it out until now... I think it was worth the wait. I particularly love his photos of lights and rain in the darkness and for me, his answers are a rare insight into a idea I once considered for myself. We cannot be everywhere and do everything in the same lifetime, so it's good when our friends can be some places for us. I hope you enjoy the read.
It sounds like you're working really hard. How is the job going?
It’s going well. Actually, I have managed to work my way into a few different jobs here in Beijing. English teacher, Research and Development for the English teaching tuition company I originally taught for and the Library Manager at the Montesorri School of Beijing. There's a fair bit to talk about for each so I’ll try and be brief.
The English teaching was interesting. It was the first job I got into when I arrived there and it’s a relatively well oiled machine when it comes to pulling in a ragtag assortment of ‘laowai’ (aka foreigners) and employing them in very controlled teaching roles. Lessons are all fully prepared and the FT’s (Foreign Teachers) are there to deliver the pre-prepared interactive slideshows. The work is relatively easy and can be very rewarding. The foreign teaching community is an interesting mix of people, from those who want to travel and see a different part of the world to others who couldn’t find a place in the west. On the whole, Beijing has encountered a LOT of the second type of person (who were typically struggling) and there is a very negative stigma attached to the English teaching community now. When you’re in there it’s not so bad and, of course, it’s really a few bad eggs screwing up the omelette but apparently there are some very smelly eggs out there.
As one of those teachers, there is enough time in your schedule to travel around China and those that made this a focus, could do so using their weekends and Chinese pubic holidays. The English teaching community works during unsociable hours, so evenings and weekends with Mondays and Tuesdays off. Being unable to drink I didn’t really integrate with the FT social life very well, but from what I heard for most people, its a very party-centric lifestyle akin to university. I’m not the best person to talk to about that to be honest, but there are a lot cool people having fun if that's what you’re looking for.
I was pretty fascinated by the interactive slideshows that I was using as an FT and I asked around to see if I could try my hand at making them. After a little persistent pestering and with a bit of luck, I managed to land a role designing the slideshows. This was about six months into my one year contract. I enjoyed the office lifestyle and the design process that went into making the slideshows. I found I was calling on my training in photography to produce them; I actually miss that side of things quite a lot now that I have moved on. I was doing this for about two weeks, when a friend of mine invited me to start working part time in the Montessori School of Beijing. It was there where I shadowed the then librarian to take over from them when they left. This was a great opportunity for me as it meant significantly higher pay and an insane amount of holiday, but it came at a price. I was working seven days a week for about six months and that is something I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. I was enjoying the R&D work and the guided reading specialist/trainee librarian roles, but I wasn’t living the most fulfilling lifestyle outside of that.
I left R&D after six months and started the job as library manager at the Montessori school of Beijing. This is my current position and I’m enjoying it. It’s a unique specialist role in the school that I work at and even though I could stagnate a bit, there is a lot of room for growth. Developing the space has become a fun goal between juggling the day to day responsibilities of delivering library lessons and managing circulation. I am part of the Beijing Library Network which is a surprisingly tight knit and lively community, honestly, I promise. By the way, I can’t call myself "the librarian" as I don’t have the right degree so I have to call myself the slightly pretentious sounding ‘library manager’. Labels are important in this business.
What is Beijing like as a city? Do you enjoy living there?
Beijing is a weird place to be. It’s first and foremost the capital of China and over the last twenty years an INSANE amount of development has happened to reflect China's standing in the world economy; especially since the 2008 Olympics. There are extremely wealthy areas and the polar opposite in close proximity with high-rise apartments fully kitted out with chrome plated Lamborghinis rubbing shoulders with the sprawling hutongs (shanty towns, but nicer). The population is officially around the twenty-two million mark but that isn’t counting undocumented migrant workers who, I have heard from unreliable sources, bump that number up to over twenty-six million. Then again, there wouldn’t be a reliable source for that particular figure. Oh well. There are a lot of people, but as a foreigner you find yourself in a surprisingly small pond. I bump into people I know all the time and I wouldn’t call myself the most well connected laowai in my neighbourhood.
There are definitely the western places and the local places with surprisingly little middle-ground. It’s quite a strange set-up that’s not as black and white as I make out, but there is a degree of segregation involved. I think it is more about what the different cultures find comfortable/fun and there’s not a huge amount of overlap. The language is a big factor in this!
After living in the UK have you found China hard to adapt to? Are there any aspects of life there are particularly difficult to get used to?
The language is a ***** (colourful language removed to save Dan's mum's impression of his long held friend) to learn and I think it's partly why there is that natural segregation between the laowai and local Beijingers. Having been there three years now I would call my Mandarin functional at best. Because it's tonal, you have to inflict your vowels to make a word, which, if you’re not used to it, is a skill that takes some (years of) practice. Listening to first time attempts from fresh off the boat foreigners makes me cringe and I know that I’m not even that good! Saying all this though, the local people of Beijing respect your custom and will accommodate the most cringey of attempts at Mandarin. If you can point and say I want this/that, people will smile and help you out to the best of their ability. Getting by with very little of the language is, almost sadly, very easy. I would be much more inspired to learn more quickly if I had to! That being said, as I have been working full time I have struggled to put in as much practice as I could have. To be honest, I think with about six months of committed study you would be at the same level as me.
Pollution is a thing. I would say not a lot of people know how lucky they are to be able to go outside run/cycle/walk without having to worry about the AQI (Air Quality Index). I preferred the world I lived in where I wasn’t aware of that term, but hey ho, you can get fashionable masks that brighten up the muggy days...
Rent is weirdly expensive, I’m paying about £640 ( €726/$858) a month for a cockroach-infested, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Beijing. It sucks, but the location is great and within reach of all the places I like to go to - that's what I’m paying for. Prices drop significantly depending on the area that you’re looking at and I have to admit, I was picky on that front. A few friends have managed to find some better deals, but the apartment renting scene is tough at the moment.
How is the food? Is there anything you would particularly recommend or advise people against trying?
The food is AMAZING. Beijing has managed to bring in excellent examples of most, if not all, of the different Chinese provincial dining; from the mouth-numbing Sechuan specialities to the more meaty/stew-like dishes from China's chilly northern borders. There is an incredible amount of choice and so far, all the different provinces have provided me a couple of "ermagheeeerd, this is derlishusssss"* dishes.
Street food might be a risky choice at first - I waited about six months before it out and didn’t ever get a bad bout of the Beijing Shlits**. Right now I have a 5 rmb (€0.64/$0.75) jianbing (Chinese street-food breakfast pancake) every morning. I’ve heard a few people have suffered, but it’s surprisingly rare to the point where I’m not sure it really exists (touch wood).
There is an ever broadening selection of western restaurants in Beijing which are also really good. I have had great Tex-Mex tacos and Argentinian steak here. I haven’t tried them elsewhere, but more knowledgeable culinary conquistadors have told me they hold their own. All in all, the Beijing food scene is EPIC.
* Technical term.
** Even more technical term.
What sparked your love of photography?
Love is a strong word. It’s been a rocky relationship to be honest. I was drawn to the countless images around me and I guess appreciated the good ones and became critical of the others, when you look at a photo and think what an idiot that person was for not lifting the framing up a bit, I guess you want to get into it.
How has your style and choice of subjects changed over the years?
I’m struggling a bit to answer this. For subject, I just spent some time in Taiwan and had the most fun I’ve had in a while taking pictures of a snake I almost stepped on while I was climbing down a hill at night. The only reason I was up there was because I wanted to get a good picture of the sunset. So I guess you could say wildlife and landscape are my ‘thing’ at the moment. Despite that being something I focus on, I equally enjoy taking cityscapes with a touch of life in them. To stop myself from rambling on here (which I would), I really enjoy seeing what the world has to offer and like to capture small slices of what I encounter to preserve for myself and share with others. I would travel if I didn’t have a camera, but it would leave me frustrated and I would definitely look at scenes and think ‘****, I wish I had my camera.’
For style, it depends, I think my photography adapts to the subject in front of me. I’m a minimalist at heart and that's reflected in my editing. I tend to decrease saturation (how punchy the colours are) as I find too much colour distracting. I don’t go black and white though - unless your using film I find it a tad pretentious. Those are about the only constants. Oh, I should add that composition is everything and I jiggle that around in photoshop. I’m not a very stylish person!
What have you found particularly exciting to photograph in Beijing?
I enjoy when it rains. Beijing changes a lots when in rains. The drainage is pretty bad so there are these huge floods in the streets. That combined with its massive population and the resulting traffic, well, they make some pretty interesting scenes.
Do you ever attract unwanted attention or negative reactions because of your
photography? Are there any ways you try to avoid that?
I’ve had one older Chinese man get a a bit angry at me when I photographed him while he was driving a wagon around a roundabout. I went over and deleted the image while he watched. To be honest he only spoke Mandarin and I was pretty new there, so I’m not a hundred percent sure what was going on; maybe he just hated tourists. I’ll definitely stop if people seem uncomfortable and I’ve learned the Mandarin for ‘can I take your photo’ which I would use if I ever needed too.
If you could photograph anywhere in the world where would it be? Why?
Mmmmmmm…. Hilly/mountainous terrain in and around the Amazon or central African rain forests I think. I would need some better kit to make the most of that though. Also a lot more knowledge on how to navigate through that terrain/stay safe, but that would be fun and I think very rewarding photographically. I guess I like a challenge, and that would be one! On a side note, I would like to take on a conservationist element to my photography. I think the best way to apply my natural drive to travel and photograph the world is to show people what we will miss if we let it disappear. The more information the world gets, the more informed a decision we can make about how to move forward. I like how you can be relatively objective with your photographs when it comes to landscape and nature and people will generally react with a ‘wow, I don’t feel comfortable about contributing to the demise of that.’
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