An Ode to Beijing

I’ve been terrible about updating this blog. It’s this paradox where there are so many things happening all the time, so I don’t know what to write about; I’m not sure where to begin. I finished my first term of teaching a few weeks ago, then my family visited, and I’m heading to Taipei for a week this Friday to teach a conference. The next few months after that are even more exciting—Chinese New Year travels to Singapore and Vietnam, best friend’s visit in March, and a long April weekend in Bali for Qingming Festival. The adventures are endless, and it’s exactly this sort of excitement that has made five months go by in a blink.

I’ve been procrastinating writing curriculum for next week’s conference by reading other travel blogs, and I came across one blogger who wrote about her disappointing few days in Beijing, complaining that it was not the “oriental China” she expected. It’s something I hear often from other travelers; they moan that Beijing is dirty, it’s polluted, it’s not pretty, it’s confusing, it’s crowded, the people are rude, the internet’s blocked, etc, etc, etc. This time, though, it surprised me how intensely it felt like a personal attack, and how immediately I wanted to jump to my adoptive city’s defense.

Beijing is pretty special to me. It was the first place in Asia I ever visited, and those few weeks here in 2014 set in motion so many changes that have shaped my current life. I can’t quite explain the connection I felt with it from the beginning; maybe it was just sheer awe, but within a couple days of returning home I was telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to teach English in China after graduating. I soon let the idea fade, thinking there were other places in Asia I’d prefer to work, but somehow I ended up right back here after all. It’s a perfect full circle.

So in an impassioned attempt to defend the heart of the Middle Kingdom, here’s me musing randomly about the three things I love most about Beijing.

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1. The Variety

I’m still amazed by the immense amount of things there are to do in this city. In one weekend I can bike around Tiananmen Square, eat food from three different Chinese provinces, chill with kittens at a cat café and sing (read: shriek) at KTV in Sanlitun. I can pop over to the Great Wall for a morning hike and be back in time to catch my friend’s art exhibition in the afternoon. Even with a year, I cannot begin to exhaust Beijing’s vast array of choices.

Beijing feels like a Chinese city, but that doesn’t mean there’s an imperial palace on every street corner. Yes, you can escape into the past by wandering the hutongs, munching on tanghulu and trying to spot the elusive hutong weasel. But on your way, you might crane your neck to peer up at a skyscraper or walk past rows of blocky buildings that look straight out of the Soviet era. These modern additions to the city don’t make it any less Chinese—rather, this mix of old and new, past and present is a vital part of China’s contemporary identity. To understand it, you have to see both sides.

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2. The Pace

The best way I can make this point is with a story.

In Beijing, the number one rule of elevator etiquette is to always push the “door close” button after each stop. I learned this the hard way in my office building, after multiple rides where I found myself in the closest corner to the buttons and received mutinous stares from the other riders for forgetting to push “door close.” Even a few extra seconds waiting for the door to slide shut on its own is time wasted.

That’s because Beijing—and modern China in general—is all about progress, and progress means speed. People wake up early, they work hard, they do tasks quickly and efficiently, they keep going, going, going until it’s time to sleep, rinse, lather, repeat. Beijingers make things happen. Opportunities fly by, one after another, and if you don’t seize them right away you miss out. The pace of life here is rapid and constant, and the city never pauses to breathe. To some, I can understand why this might be an exhausting atmosphere to live in—to me, though, the speed is exhilarating.

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3. The Challenge

Beijing is a thing you need to figure out. It is not made for foreigners, and likely never will be—Beijing is designed for Chinese people, and as a tourist this will affect every part of your time here. There will be restaurants that can’t scan foreign credit cards, public wifi networks that need a local phone number to access, hugely important smartphone apps that have no English version and infrastructure that is often difficult to navigate. You can’t just show up in Beijing and expect your stay to be seamless; you need to prepare for uncertainty, do your research, and ultimately, accept that there is going to be chaos.

I’ve spent the last five months figuring this city out, fitting together one puzzle piece at a time. I’ve certainly screwed up a ton, but now, as I Mobike to work, pay with 支付宝, update my WeChat Moments and shout Chinese directions at taxi drivers, I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something. For this city to open up to you, you must work to get to know it. Being foreign in Beijing is a spectacular challenge, whether you’re here for days, months, or years—luckily, though, it’s one with a lot of rewards.

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