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One World, One Beijing Archives

November 6, 2008

Why Beijing is New York City

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.

November 12, 2008

A Flavorful New Home

“I want to live somewhere that has flavor,” I was used to telling my Chinese friends.

I suspect that my Chinese friends don’t quite understand this sentiment, mostly because I choose the word ‘flavor,’ since there may not be a true equivalent in Chinese for ‘character.’ I’ve settled on the slightly confusing term of ‘wèidào’ (味道)or ‘flavor.’

My discontent with living in the flavorless car park that was the Tianhe district of my school in Guangzhou simmered for long enough that when I came to Beijing with the freedom to choose where to live, I resolved to find a place with character.

After staying with my cousin Nikki for almost a month, I’ve finally settled down in a home in a hutong with some of Beijing’s poorest residents, must of whom have lived here their entire lives.

In my quest for flavor, I ended up in an ancient courtyard in a side room next to the south-facing room where the momma and poppa would live if we were a traditional Beijing family. Instead of walking past a guard and exercise room to go up the twenty-plus floors of my apartment complex, I walk up and over the threshold of the hutong past the traditional red doors, down a dark alley passing cabbage-lined roofs and underwear hung out to dry to get home.

I may just have found too much flavor, since it is entirely possible that a blind person with a heightened sense of smell could find my place quicker than someone capable of vision.

A pair of eyes don’t go very far in finding the dark, recessed entrance to my hutong home. It is so hidden that I couldn’t even find it the second time I tried to visit.

With that in mind, here are instructions on finding my home by nose.

  1. Starting at the drum tower, walk south, passing the smells of noodles, kebabs, and málàtāng until you reach the smell of sewage. Prepare to turn left.

  2. At the smell of stinky tofu turn left. Be careful not to confuse the stinky feet funk of stinky tofu with the food-and-human-waste-funk of sewage.

  3. Continue forward past the baked sweet potato stand. Do not be lured in by the heat emanating from inside.

  4. At the spice-till-your-nose-runs smell of the (麻, ‘numb’) (辣, ‘spicy’) tāng (汤, ‘soup’) stand, turn left. Take care when crossing the raised threshold to the hutong—the elderly residents prone to getting stranded on the threshold for lack of mobility are an added obstacle.

  5. Take a left down the alley toward the direction with the greater concentration of the smells of Chinese cooking. The alley is small and the hovels on either side are smaller, meaning that what’s cooking in the kitchens is within hand’s grasp. At the end of this alley is the courtyard where my home is located.

Finding my home involves flavors that are both nose-pleasing and nose-turning, from my neighbor’s home cooking to the old invalid Mr. Qin whose inability to walk to the nearby public toilet adds to the scents of the neighborhood.

My life in a traditional hutong is not always easy, nor is my presence expected—everytime I emerge from the hutong carrying a bag of household garbage for the trash collector I elicit double takes worthy of Yao Ming. But my hutong is alive with my life and the lives of my neighbors on in a full display unheard of in the anonymity of modern apartment complexes. The rhthyms of life still beat here, most recently with huge collections of cabbage appearing in the small alley and on rooftops in a collective effort to stock up on vegetables for the winter.

In the end, I may even be adding to the wèidào of the neighborhood (if not its gentrification) assuming I’m living up to the stereotype of westerners smelling like dairy products. Come to think of it, that’s one flavor I could live without.

March 23, 2009

The Unspeakable Magic of Beijing

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.

July 24, 2009

Proving Beijing is New York (Again)

Far be it from me to blow cow or toot my own horn, but a recent post on MSNBC claiming “The New New York is Beijing” reminded me a lot of an argument I made back in November of last year.

I’m clearly not the first to mention the similarity, just as this article argues that Beijing’s changes right now parallel Paris and New York’s, although its posting date is November 10th, four days after the post above. (Not that anyone’s counting)