As I said in an earlier post, I’m going to be in China for a total of ten months. Although I’m hoping to make some research trips (and maybe one or two fun trips!) while I’m here, the vast majority of these ten months will be spent in Beijing, where I happen to be right this minute. For those of you who have not had a chance to visit this city, or who haven’t visited it in a few years– Chinese cities change quickly– perhaps this post will help you picture it.
I’ve visited Beijing twice before, but I’ve never lived here. It’s very different from Shanghai, the other Chinese city I’ve lived in. Shanghai’s growth has come in waves, where Beijing’s has been steadier, without quite as dramatic a growth explosion, so it feels older and a bit grungier than Shanghai. There are tons of new buildings, and a bunch of old hutongs were knocked down for the Olympics, but there’s still way more old construction around than in Shanghai. One example of this was the apartment listings Bing and I looked at before arriving– way more Beijing apartments listed still have squat toilets. Another example is convenience stores. Everywhere I went in Shanghai, there would be a shiny convenience store– Family Mart, Lawsons, etc– if I needed soda or ice cream or a tea egg. Here in Beijing those are a lot rarer, and if I am suddenly in need of a coke (Chinese coke is made with sugar, like the Mexican coke that’s super-popular back in the US these days), I’m more likely to go to one of the little stores run out of a family’s living room. This has some disadvantages: shorter hours, and no air conditioning (so I can’t get chocolate). Even larger convenience stores usually don’t have AC, and they’re not as well-lit or clean as the chains.
There are also the more obvious differences. Beijing food is saltier, and it’s easier to find spicy food (Sichuan food is trendy right now). There’s more wheat and potatoes around, too. Beijing people tend to be taller and heavier than southerners, though I am still a bit tall and quite fat by local standards (and my feet are huge). And the Beijing accent is taking some getting used to– practically every other word ends in “ar”.
Of course, if you’ve never been to China, none of this is very helpful. If I were going to compare it to an American city, I would probably say Chicago, with a little bit of DC thrown in. But that’s still not that descriptive. So let me try again.
Beijing is big, and crowded, and dusty, and busy. Streets are either four lanes wide and filled with cars and trucks and taxis and motorcycles, or they’re narrow and filled with all of the above plus pedestrians, cyclists, produce vendors, and snack carts. The air is usually hazy and horribly polluted, but sometimes the smoky smell is overridden by the smell of lamb skewers grilling over charcoal, which is quite nice. Other times the smell is overridden by the local stinky tofu cart or durian cake stall, and that’s less nice. People don’t stare at foreigners as much as they do in smaller cities, and when they do, they tend to just quietly watch, instead of pointing or shouting. In general people seem a little more aloof, which matches the stereotypes I’ve heard of northern China. The subway is new, but not very reliable (it’s been mysteriously delayed or stopped three times since I got here, and was delayed so long this morning that I gave up on going to the archives today). The bus network is quite good, but the buses rarely run AC, so on hot days a crowded bus can start to smell a little like the stinky tofu cart. There are signs up in red and yellow reminding you to “uphold the spirit of Yan’an!” and similar bits of Communist encouragement, and all the pedestrian bridges are hanging banners asking everyone to be civilized and polite, for the pride of the city and the local district. There is a definite sense of civic pride in Beijing, though it doesn’t stop people from smoking, spitting, and littering everywhere.
That’s really all I can think of right now. It’s a city, there are people, they do their thing. If the subway starts working again and my lungs can hold, I think I will like it here.
Cross-posted from Archives and Stuff.