Prior to arriving in Beijing, I did my best to refrain from forming assumptions about what things would be like, from how the city would look to what everyday life would be like. Yet, in anticipating the trip, it was impossible not to have any expectations.
Back when I was choosing where in China I wanted to study, by that point knowing that it was Chinese language and culture that I indeed wanted to study, my reasons were very practical: Beijing is a city ripe in historical and political significance, whose dialect is as standard as it gets. At the time, I didn’t really have any love for Beijing itself, and in fact I thought of it more as a chilly (in winter), too warm (in summer), smoggy city where I was unlikely to be seeing much green for the next few months. I boarded the place for Beijing with a determination to like the city despite these shortcomings, to focus on learning the language and making use of the city’s history and resources to learn more about China as a whole.
Although it’s not really wrong to say that Beijing is a bit on the chilly (in winter), too hot (in summer), smoggy side, to think that Beijing is a city that needs to be endured for the greater purpose of learning is to really sell the city short. It doesn’t have the reputation for nightlife that Shanghai has, nor the vast expanses of fields that come to mind when thinking of rural China, but living in Beijing is no “grind.” Since this semester began, the first expectation to be shattered was that Beijing is a nature-less, gray and red city. Actually, as I write, I am sitting in a very large park not even a fifteen-minute walk off campus, where trees abound and despite the 70-degree March weather and pristine, blue sky making this park seem like the ideal destination, all is quiet and peaceful. This is not to say that the city hasn’t got lots of areas that have a more gritty, dense, over-populated feel, but the city is much greener than I would have guessed, harboring several oases such as this park.
The second big thing that has struck me since my arrival in China’s capital is the melding of years upon years of history with today. The melting pot of Beijing’s past and present can be seen from almost any city block, whether in the architecture or in the technology that composes the Beijing environment. At once it is possible to see shorter, older-style buildings and towering apartment buildings that must house hundreds of residents in clusters of pink, gray, and yellow. Some buildings’ exteriors carry the grime of years sitting in Beijing’s air; others are glass giants that house the offices of huge companies or serve as high-rise hotels. On the streets, bikes, cars, buses, motorcycles, and everything in between vie for space, a further reflection of the integration of various periods of development in Beijing.
Where in the U.S. car ownership is often considered a cornerstone of a middle-class lifestyle, in a city as populated as Beijing it simply wouldn’t work for every family to have a car. Instead, it is easy for many Beijing residents to hail a ride with Didi (much like a Chinese equivalent of Uber) or, better yet, use a phone to rent one of the thousands of bikes that get parked on just about every sidewalk in the city. Mobile apps are central to life in Beijing in a way I think they never can be in the privacy-minded American society. In addition to all kinds of public transport available on the streets, Beijing’s subway and train systems far outshine those in the U.S. in complexity and modernization. Their efficiency and coverage are really astounding, and it’s all to accommodate the massive Chinese population.
So, although China is certainly still a developing country in a lot of places, there are many facets of Beijing daily life that continually awe me. These include a surprising presence of natural life, the coexistence of old and new, and the remarkable advancement that is visible nearly everywhere. These are things that far out-scale the narrow impression I had before arriving in Beijing; things that repeatedly remind me why Beijing is in itself very much a city worth studying and experiencing.