Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Eastern promise

As the Chinese celebrate the New Year this week, Fintan Monaghan and his partner are celebrating a milestone of their own – one year in “the land of opportunity”, he writes from Beijing.

Wed, Jan 25, 2012, 13:00


As the Chinese celebrate the New Year this week, Fintan Monaghan and his partner are celebrating a milestone of their own – one year in “the land of opportunity”, he writes from Beijing.

“You’re crazy!” That was the vibe I got from my friends and family when I announced I was emigrating to Red China. When they asked me what I’d do over there, I honestly didn’t know, but one thing was for sure: there was nothing going on in Ireland and it was probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Their scepticism was somewhat justified. I’d just finished up an internship as a press officer at a Human Rights NGO, and plying those skills in a totalitarian state notorious for its dodgy Human Rights record didn’t exactly seem like the best fit on paper. Not to mention I could barely speak two words of Mandarin. Up until then I’d had my eye on a career in law, but with the downturn, apprenticeships seemed to dry up completely. Without connections in the profession, the only way forward was years of sending out endless applications or hoping to impress in more unpaid internships; neither of which offered any guarantees of success.   Looking at my friends slogging away with little recognition or reward, and the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over the country, taking a chance on something different didn’t seem as big a risk as it had a year before.

Relocating to the communist powerhouse wasn’t an idea that had occurred to me out of the blue. My partner, the Asian linguist extraordinaire, had been quietly lobbying for the move for a while. “It’s the land of opportunity!” she assured me and, as an American, that statement came with some authority. “You can just show up and walk into jobs, and nobody cares about work visas.” Meanwhile, the media had been working its magic, eroding my reservations through years of glowing praise for China’s booming economy. Shelve your thoughts of Tiananmen Square and take a chance out East!

We arrived in January at the dead of night in subzero temperatures. Looking out the window of the cab, the streetlights illuminated a barren highway as dark buildings towered ominously on every side. It would be several days before we got used to the currency and realized that the taxi driver at the airport had absolutely fleeced us. We pulled up to a crumbling soviet era apartment bloc. We’d agreed to rent a room from an old friend of the other half, but she was away for a few months so there were no familiar faces to greet us. Dragging our bags up six flights of stairs we finally reached the tiny room with the broken bed that would be our new home for time being. My initial surge of enthusiasm had given way to doubt.

Thankfully things seemed a little better in daylight. Sure, the water in my hair from the shower turned to icicles as soon as I left the building, but there was a whole new world to discover. Beijing is a modern city with a robust public transport system. There’s every kind of restaurant you could want, and an affluent lifestyle can be enjoyed at a fraction of the price.

Once I got my bearings, it was time to get a feel as to what was going on in this town. The classifieds in Beijing are always filled with jobs. Some are what you’d expect, English teaching proof reading. Others are a little more unconventional. Ever think you could be paid to show up to a corporate board meeting in a suit once a month, or sit on stage at a swanky antiquities auction pretending to be an international art dealer? People are more than willing to hire a white face for the day, just to make their concern seem ‘international.’ So it was for the first couple of months I did series of bizarre jobs, with my regular crust earned writing UK and US college application essays for rich Chinese kids under the auspices of an unscrupulous education company.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my career as a ghost writer and body double gave way to a real job. In China connections are everything.  There are plenty of jobs out there for the taking, but the good ones only reveal themselves once you get to know people around town. I’d done a lot of freelance writing in the past, and a chance encounter and exchange of e-mails at an ex-pat coffee morning led to my first proper job in China: as a writer and editor for the state television channel. My friends like to joke that I’ve gone from Human Rights activist to state propagandist, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than anything I might be doing back home.

China is where it’s all happening right now. You can’t expect to just seamlessly transplant your career out East, and being willing to adapt is essential to survival in the Middle Kingdom. But, while nothing gets handed to you on a silver plate, there’s no shortage of opportunity if you’re quick enough to grab it.