I think living off campus, out in the community, is a much better way to see how things really operate. Living where I do now has enabled me to witness so many new sites that I
otherwise would have not seen.
Of course there are downs; getting woken up at 4am by the men cutting sheet metal or the guy upstairs who likes to play the trumpet, but the ups vastly outweigh them. It’s a good place to go outside and broaden your knowledge of other cultures and everyone wants to talk to me. Beyond the usual questions you can actually get some idea of how many of these people perceive foreigners and their beliefs, and some of the things I have heard are mind opening.
I don’t mean living in an upmarket, exclusive compound for the rich; though I have done this too and although very pleasant, it’s rather like being in legoland – distant and cut off from reality and I can understand why this is appealing.
Of course most foreigners live in such places or in specific buildings designated for foreigners only, and I think most westerners wouldn’t accept anything less in terms of a basic standard of accommodation, unless you have lived in China for a period of time and are accustomed to the conditions.
The government (and employers) encourage this is to protect the safety of the foreigners, as if anything happens to them the employer is vicariously liable. But by doing this they inadvertently have created a situation where foreigners and Chinese dont mix.
Sure there are some unsafe places just like any other city but I think Changchun is significantly safer than London. I’ve heard stories of foreigners getting in fights and being hurt- but this is confined to drink related bar-brawls and this happens in any city, and is often to an extent, self-inflicted.
I think having an awareness of what is going on around you (understanding the basics of the language and the culture helps) – probably goes a long way to keeping yourself safe.
However, most people I know have had at least one phone stolen at some time or another. Petty theft and pick pocketing is a problem (as it is everywhere in China) especially so on public transport and in other public areas – but you just have to be vigilant. Also if you leave something somewhere, like forgetting to pick up your phone from the restaurant table, then it is gone. You won’t get it back. The same applies to taxis, shops, even classrooms.
When I get on a bus I adopt a common stance, I take my phone into one hand and move everything else into my other pocket and leave my hand in that pocket. Fortunately (touch wood) I’m yet to lose a phone, though someone took my keys (yes my keys!) when I left them on a table once.
Living on campus has it’s advantages in that work is convenient, I had only a 5 minute walk every morning, but keeping work separate from the rest your life is impossible.
I would find that students would ask me questions like ‘what were you doing last thursday night, I saw you walking past the library’ and other such nosy, but inquisitive questions
At first I thought that someone was following me, but I later came to realise that news spreads incredibly quickly when you are on a campus – everyone seems to know things about you and often they know things before you! Which is spooky, but you soon learn that you are the last person to know about anything that happens!
I used to think this was and example of the great Chinese eaves dropping network in operation, the idea of nothing being private. I actually believe it was more a case ‘Chinese Whispers’; the students having nothing else to do but speculate and spread rumour, and being the foreign teachers on campus makes you an interesting topic of conversation!
I sometimes got the feeling that my life was being watched, (It might well have been!)
as people would know things about my movements, but I never found out if this was true or not.
Most universities (all in Changchun) have special buildings for the Foreign Teachers to live in and these are subject to curfews (doors are locked!) which to me spells nothing but FIRE HAZARD. At least they don’t cut the power, like the Students halls.
The Chinese teachers also are expected to live in special accommodation on campus, but in recent years as home ownership has become more affordable, many can rent or live in their own place. And I don’t blame them, the Chinese Teachers’ accommodaton can be nothing more than a military style dormitory!