Beijing wasn’t at all what I expected. Aside from the rip-off cabby, the masses of tourists, and, most notably, the public restrooms with many squat potties, but no doors of any kind, Beijing was kind of surprising. Nicely surprising, even.
The first thing I want to tell you all about is the streets. Long, wide boulevards cut the city into manageable boxes while a series of ring roads makes concentric circles of highways from the center. Bike lanes border the grid on all sides, and wide, lantern-dotted pedestrian sidewalks border those. Between the boxes, ancient alleyways meander in mazes full of history. Escaping from the massiveness of the city is as easy as ducking into one of these hutongs, and the entire city’s flat mass is easily navigated by bicycle. In fact, Andy and I took a 20 kilometer ride from the Forbidden City, which essentially functions as modern Beijing’s core, all the way up to the Olympic Park and back. It was great to be back on a bike, though our sore saddles meant navigating the city exclusively by foot and (stupendously cheap) subway the next. The city planning is beautiful. The map a treat to behold for urbanity nerds like me.
The next surprise I want to tell you about is the food. I was expecting it to be expensive, given the price of tours and accommodation, but to my delight it’s still easy to get a delicious bowl of noodles for about $1 in Beijing. We ate splendidly and with little effort, by walking into crowded hutong restaurants full of cigarette smoke and children and pointing to the most delicious-looking items in picture-book, Chinese-language menus. The one meal for which we planned and splurged, the one, the only Peking duck, was totally worth every yuan in the hefty bill. I promise to show you some pictures soon. In this regard, Beijing was closest to Tokyo in my book of travel experiences, as providing even simple tourists with easy access to the real food. You can simply stumble in and mime your way into piles of dumplings and tofu skin. You don’t have to know someone, you don’t have to escape a tourist ghetto–it’s all right there for you to take.
The Chineseness of Beijing’s modernity was surprising to me. I knew it would be modern, but I thought that it would veer closer to cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in its development, taking a strong Western influence. Even with downtown architecture mimicking western capitals like D.C. and Paris, and with some Houston-style McMansions sprinkled in the suburbs, the feeling was still overwhelmingly Chinese. That KFC? So Chinese. The mall? I can’t get over the Chineseness! The Starbucks? This is not the company I worked for in Massachusetts. The difference lies in how things are operated. International brands have had to adapt to the Chinese way of doing things to make money. GAP can’t exactly sell the nostalgia of 1969 via their blue jean line the way that they can in other locales, and Subway isn’t going to stretch profit margins by watering down soft drinks with ice in a nation that views cold beverages as bad for one’s health.
Yet despite everything’s very astute Chineseness, I was mostly surprised by the kinship I felt with China as an American. Our countries have so many similarities–on different scales, we’re both nations with incredible wealth and third-world conditions within the same borders. We both have ego problems: America wants to fulfill its destiny of being the best nation on Earth while China yearns to let loose the full roar of the dragon. We thrive on very conspicuous consumption on all levels of the economy for the same reasons–the American Dream and the Chinese Dream may very well be the exact same thing.
It may have just been that we were in the capital on National Day, but the pride in being Chinese mirrors that of Americans. Domestic tourists flooded Tiananmen Square on the national holiday, waving and wearing flags in a way that reminded me very much of the Fourth of July. The Chinese I talked to obviously have reservations with their country; they want more children*, more political parties, and the freedom to use Facebook, yet what American thinks the US is perfect and without flaw? I still feel pride in being an American despite the fact that my country is the only developed Western nation to ignore healthcare for the masses and has a penchant for running up our debt with war.
It’s what we have in common. And it shouldn’t have been a surprise–it’s so obvious!
*According to our Great Wall tour guide, China now apparently has a 1.5 child policy. If your first is a girl, you get one more try for a boy without having to pay a fine. While this step is considered crucial for minimizing the number of unwanted girls, it still blasts GIRLS ARE USELESS from the every drop of ink used to pen the amendment. Ah, progress.
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