On paper, Beijing probably ranks somewhere between East St. Louis and Gary, Indiana. So why do so many people love Beijing?
My Beijing friends often complain that my writing is too negative about Beijing. That impression couldn’t be farther from how I feel about Beijing, so in a sense of fairness, I’ve been trying to gather insight into what makes Beijing attractive to me.
My first trip in Asia concluded with a whirlwind tour of Asian metropolises as I visited Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo in the span of two weeks. Seeing three different cultures and metropolises in such a short time allowed me to compare the cities directly, and the scoreboard wasn’t favoring Beijing.
Other than being the cheapest, Beijing swept the worst prizes: worst traffic, worst infrastructure, worst pollution, worst manners, worst sanitation, worst place to ask for directions. Yet of all three cities, it was Beijing that I wanted to return to. A year later as I was graduating from college, I turned down better-paying offers to teach in Korea and Japan in order to return to Beijing.
Since then, I’ve been at a loss to describe what it was that draws me to Beijing. I had hoped that after living in Beijing longer, I would be able to put my finger on it. Yet after a total of ten months in the northern capital, I’m no closer to understanding it than saying it has a feeling, an atmosphere.
I’ve always wanted to write about the ineffable magic of Beijing, but I’ve held back because it seems so effemeral and trying to show it would seem too subjective.
But today I opened an email from a Chinese friend of mine who moved from Inner Mongolia to Beijing for university and then to Tokyo for graduate school. The letter eloquently put into words the feelings of so many who seem drawn to Beijing in a way people don’t talk of places like Shanghai or Hong Kong. (Loosely) Translated, her letter reads:
“Two years ago I went to Suzhou and Shanghai, and after two weeks I already missed Beijing terribly. Last time, I went to Shezhen for over a month, and I missed Beijing. I miss Beijing now too…It’s just that it seems now to give me a feeling that Beijing is moving along without…A friend of mine said, ‘Beijing’s really hard on the eyes, yet nowhere in the world can match the feeling Beijing gives.’ I really agree with that friend.
After I went to school in Beijing, it became my home. When I found I had to leave Beijing, I was terribly sad. Even now I don’t know what sort of fate I have with Beijing—whether or not I will ever be able to return…”
After reading it, I’m no closer to understanding the reason why, but there’s no denying Beijing.