Beijing is a lot like Manhattan. The stinky tofu stand down the street and the skinny guys with monumental loads of cardboard boxes on their bikes are pretty far from the Manhattan experience, but otherwise Beijing is a lot like New York City if you think about it.
Beijing is China’s political center, but anyone who’s lived in Beijing will tell you it’s much closer to NYC than Washington D.C.
For one, Beijing creates a pride in those who can rightfully (or wrongfully) call themselves ‘beijingren,’ true Beijingers. In China, only Shanghai has such a reputation for zip code-based haughtiness.
Beijingers certainly have the right to wave around their hometown’s wealth of historical artifacts like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, as well as its education, culture, and art scenes.
My cell phone is proof. Asked where I am, I can most often type an entire place name into my phone and the characters will come up automatically. For example, I live next to the Drum Tower, so typing ‘gu’ (drum) ‘lou’ (tower) brings up the pre-programmed combo, without making me type and find each character individually. Try that in your hometown.
However, Beijingers like to wave around other advantages of their hometown to which it does not actually have the right. Poking through these fallacies by explaining that other parts of China, like Guangzhou, are more modern and more fashionable than Beijing is a good way to make a Beijinger angry.
I had the misfortune to cross my linguistics teacher when he was explaining why Beijing’s dialect of Chinese was chosen rightfully to be China’s national dialect (another point of pride).
“Beijing is a highly developed center of commerce. OK, perhaps Shanghai is more developed, but after that it’s Beijing,” my teacher said.
“Actually,” I contributed unsolicited, “Guangzhou is more developed than Beijing. Just look at the subway system.”
“Hmph, Guangzhou,” he said, spitting out the sounds ‘Guangzhou’ and dismissing my objection.
More importantly, Beijing, like New York City, is an isolated universe that produces people who think the nation revolves around them and who are sadly and willfully ignorant of anything in the country other than itself.
Foreigners are drawn to Beijing for its vibrancy and center-of-the-actionness, but the problem is that foreigners (like me) who live in Beijing tend not to get out past the 5th Ring Road, let alone Great Wall.
When I was living in Guangzhou, there simply was not as much exciting stuff to do, so I left often several weekends a month. I first realized that Beijing was actually New York City when I looked back at my first two months in Beijing and realized I hadn’t been outside the 6th Ring Road.
Finally, the Beijing ‘r’ accent has an informality and casual hilarity associated with it just like a classic New York Brooklyn accent. I’m not aware of any Washington D.C. accent, and the other metropolitan accents in China just don’t have the same ‘fugedaboudit’ feel of a Brooklyn cab driver.
Although I find the potty mouths of my Beijing taxi drivers amusing, I’ve resolved to do my best to see the world beyond my city-state of Beijing. Even street vendors peddling hot dogs wouldn’t be enough to convince me that Beijing is the center of the universe.