My search begins with my face pressed against the cold window glass of the airplane. Although we arrive in the late afternoon, the threaded clouds that circle above Beijing make it hard for me to clearly see the rivers and green fields, old courtyards, and highrise apartment clusters. We land, and I ask myself, what exactly does the “real” Beijing look like?
How does it compare to the Beijing that exists inside my head? When I think of the city, vague memories rise up from the last time I had come, four years ago. Hazy images of the Olympic Park reel behind my eyes, along with flashes of streets crowded with cars and rickshaws, all moving beneath the warmth of a gray summer sky.
Yet, when I roll my suitcase out the airport doors, I receive a different first impression. Outside, arriving and departing planes cut trails through the fabric of the crisp, blue sky. The air is still humid, but we are too close to autumn for the heat to beat me down. I take a deep breath and join the rest of my CET and Middlebury classmates. Together, we board the bus to take us to the Capital Normal University in Haidian, where we will spend the rest of the fall semester taking intensive Chinese courses.
Life on the West 3rd Ring Road North Highway
And throughout my first week in Beijing, many of my encounters with the city follow the pattern of my first moment leaving the airport— in every place, I am surprised to find things that I hardly ever see in America. In Beijing, the subway floors are so clean I can see my reflection in them. In the supermarkets, people pay for everything using their phones, and the goods and fruits are cheap and easy to find. All along the highways, I hear the constant grinding of jackhammers and construction workers repaving broken sections of the sidewalks and roads.
The city extends beyond me, and I find something new and exciting every day. However, while so many parts of the city impress me, I still feel that I am missing something important: the voice of the people that make up each image I mentioned before. Most of my first week in Beijing has been spent settling into my new room and figuring out how to open up bank accounts and phone applications; so far, my limited time and Chinese skills have stopped me from being able to speak directly with the citizens I see outside the campus.
To tell the truth, this problem cuts directly to my main goal for this semester. Not only do I want to see every part of Beijing life I can, but also to hear about the lives of the people that make up the city— the students, the bankers, the cleaners, and so on. While I am sure that CET will provide ample opportunities for this kind of cultural exchange, I believe the most impactful interactions can only come from those that are improvised, or found within the mundane moments of everyday life.
Maybe my question of finding the “real” Beijing is one that has no answer— my point of view will always be limited to some degree, and this city is too big to contain a single place or picture that includes every aspect of its culture. Nevertheless, I will keep trying to talk to the people I see, and ask them how they are and how the weather is. I will keep looking into every alley and garden that I see. And each day, as I wait for the green light at the intersection, I will keep wondering what kinds of stories pass me by, stories that must move alongside the bikers and pedestrians who follow the currents of the city traffic like petals that drift down a blacktop river…