Late in college I studied in Budapest, Hungary. Tourists to Budapest talk about the beauty of the Danube, the Opera House and the Parliament building. People who have lived in Budapest describe it more critically: dark, home of an impenetrable language, a country of relatively few smiles.
When I have only been in a place for a short time I also focus on the positives: beauty, architecture, smiles, culture, weather. It’s easy as a tourist to misunderstand a town and take the wrong message from the culture.
Beijing is at least as complicted as Budapest. The American media like to give a negative view of Beijing. The media show smog, unhappy people walking in the streets with their heads down, and drab architecture. What media shows is the truth, but truth is a malleable object: there are so many truths in any reasonable topic that a writer must choose where to focus energy. There is so much to write about that an unbiased view is actually impossible. I must choose which truth to represent.
I could just as easily show you a beautiful nightscape or a smog-ridden day.
I could just as easily show you a stoic soldier or one joking with a tourist.
What are the truths of Bejing? The smog is bad, but not as bad as you might think. The government buildings are drab and uninspired, but only as much as Washington DC or any government city. People can be rude, sometimes incredibly rude. People can also be very nice.
The wealth gap is clear. People missing limbs beg on the street while a motorcade of Mercedes or Audi cars fly by at an uncomfortable speed. People in cars seem to show their disregard for pedestrian lives in proportion to how much their vehicles cost.
One of the reasons I’ve been so quiet lately is that access to the Internet sucks in China. Accessing a Chinese hosted website is fast, but American hosted websites are slowed down, like Google, or outright blocked like Facebook and the New York Times. Inside China we use a VPN tunnel to Los Angeles. This VPN exposes another truth: Google is intentionally slowed more than the rest of the Internet. Once we tunnel through Los Angeles it’s much faster. Everything outside China seems to be throttled to 1⁄5 of normal speed. This is how China gives an advantage to state sponsored technology companies.
People complain about the Chinese being rude. It’s true. Some of the rudeness is simply a cultural mismatch between China and the west. People here spit frequently. It’s common to hear someone coughing, snorting, and then spewing snot and saliva onto the sidewalk. People stare a lot. When you smile at them they just keep staring. But this I understand as a cultural mismatch: As I’m learning Mandarin my friends tell me to stop saying “thank you,” you rarely say “thank you” here.
In comparison to Japan the differences are stark, the Japanese try as hard as possible not to bother each other. In China phones are not silent and loud calls are made all the time. People cough without covering their mouths, they cat call and yell at you. Even the warning bell on the metro is makes an ear-itching squeal.
More sinister and concerning than a cultural mismatch is Beijing driver’s disregard for pedestrian life. An economy car will drive 15 kilometers per hour through a cramped side street. A BMW will go three times that speed holding down its horn and barely missing pedestrians. A taxi will push through a crosswalk three deep with walkers (with a walk sign!) holding down the horn and driving its bumper into their legs until they move.
In Beijing you must look around you at all times. A taxi, electric motorcycle, or bus is probably running a red light and moving to hit you. I can reconcile being cut in line, laughed at, and stared at in China as cultural misses, but I haven’t made peace with the number of times a car has almost hit me here. It strikes a different nerve.
Overall I find Beijing very foreign. The dust gets everywhere, it’s hard to find cold water, and I’ve had a persistent cough for a week since getting here. It’s hard to live.
Maybe after leaving I’ll feel differently. Maybe I’ll want to come back. I hear that Beijing is the most “authentic” of the major Chinese cities (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing). I also hear that without more advanced Mandarin skills I’ll have a very hard time traveling outside these major cities.
I wish I could give you a better opinion on Beijing. I tried to look for the positives. It’s remarkably Western in places, and if you get along and speak Mandarin well it’s probably a decent place to live. But as a tourist knowing only basic pleasantries China is a hard country to get by. As an American tourist it is one of the hardest countries I’ve visited.