‘I was the foreign kid.’ An Irish teenager moves to Beijing

China turned vegetarian school student Fionn Clifford into a bilingual meat eater

Fionn Clifford: ‘Despite all the pollution, the messiness, my difficulty with the language, I can’t help but love living here in China.’

Fionn Clifford: ‘Despite all the pollution, the messiness, my difficulty with the language, I can’t help but love living here in China.’


I remember being driven through Beijing for the first time. My father had picked my mother and I up from the airport in a taxi and the hot summer mist (which I later found out was smog) wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. My mind was racing through the possibilities of this new life in a new country. Even the Chinese characters on the buildings and advertisements seemed strange and exotic. We were whisked to our new home which was across the road from the Bird’s Nest – the 2008 Olympic stadium.

There was a great deal about China that took some getting used to and it took a while before I would consider Beijing to be my home. In my first few years I felt I couldn’t get a feel for the city. I missed Ireland greatly, which I talked and thought about obsessively.

When I first came to China at the age of 11 years, I was an adamant vegetarian. I can’t quite remember what exactly had got me started on this phase, although it may have been youthful morality combined with watching Charlotte’s Web, which tells the story of a gentle spider and friendly piglet. At the food court where we would often eat, I gained a reputation as the foreign vegetarian kid. When we would go there to eat, the cooks would shout, “Bù chī ròu” which means “no meat!”.

The vegetarian phase would last another year or so before I forgot my morals, caved in and started to eat many local dishes which I had denied myself for so long.

Flying sheep

When school started I was placed in an all-Chinese course in my international school for three years. The first thing I was taught was my name in Chinese. Fionn was translated as Fei Yáng which, as far as Chinese names go, sounds quite elegant as it means “to fly upwards”. However if mispronounced slightly, it takes on the meaning of “flying sheep”. This meant that for the next few years my various nicknames would be sheep-related in one way or another. My Chinese teacher started calling me Xi Yáng Yáng, a character from the Chinese kids’ cartoon show, Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf.

When we went to restaurants or shops we would often be greeted by the same friendly phrases: “Where are you from?” or “Are you American?” I would explain in my broken Chinese that I am Irish, to which I would receive either a confused look or a follow-up question on whether Ireland was still part of Britain.

I am often mistaken for being Russian, however, most recently in a noodle shop by an elderly man. When I told him I was Irish, he didn’t seem to take much notice and told me that Vladimir Putin was a “real man” before riding off on his bicycle.

Street food

People here, young and old alike, are often quite interested in foreigners, and will ask to take selfies with them if they see you on the street. I assume that over the years, dozens of photographs have circulated on social media of me awkwardly smiling with total strangers with their arm on my shoulder.

One of the perks of living in Beijing is the cheap, addictive street food. Almost every day after school, I go to a stall selling jianbing, a type of savory crepe with my classmates. The first rule of eating street food in this city to avoid getting anything with meat, a mistake which many of my friends continue to make and pay for dearly. Although most street food is great, there are certain exceptions such as chòu dòufu, which literally translates as “ stinky tofu”. It more than lives up to its name and you are greeted by its nauseating stench when you pass within 10 meters of a stall selling the product.

In a few months I will graduate from high school and likely stay in Beijing for college, which I may take in Chinese. Despite all the pollution, the messiness, my constant difficulty with the language, the restrictions on internet and the chaotic driving, I can’t help but love living here.