What is Beijing?

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Disclaimer: Harsh impressions ahead.

You know what? I don’t like Beijing, and I am confused by Beijing.

If each country is its own little world then Beijing is like a stray universe within China. It’s part of a culture swallowed by a communist government and suffocated by its whiny ally, North Korea. I don’t understand how they live the way they do, but I’m willing to give Beijing a second chance.

First of all, let’s talk about the guilt-free littering, spitting, and peeing in public. Are you kidding? Just crossing the street, I feel like I need a shower, and they don’t even have soap in the bathrooms. When I landed, I couldn’t see any of the surrounding landscape, and all I could think was “Oh, when they said Beijing was polluted, they weren’t kidding.”

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So with 29 million people crammed into one city, what did I expect? I mean, this is a place that was featured so prominently in videos we watched and books we read in school. For most of my adult life, I was under the impression that China could pretty much kick our ass at anything, and my visit to Beijing only cemented that impression. The people have these expressions that look like they want to murder you, and a demeanor that comes off as if they could snap at any moment, if you refused to leave them alone. They seem like they want nothing to do with you and in turn, I didn’t want anything to do with them.

From a Westerner’s perspective, it always sounds like people are yelling at each other in a disrespectful manner. Not to mention that when people speak in English, it feels like they’re mocking you. At one point, I thought to myself these people have no emotions, no remorse, they’re rabid, stingy robots who are easily bribed by money and cigarettes.

People sing for no reason as they’re walking down the streets. That I admire. What I am not too fond of is their serious lack of respect for road rules or hygiene. As my tour guide told me, pedestrians essentially have no right of way in Beijing. People ride their motorbikes and scooters on the sidewalk, and at times, are completely oblivious of red lights. Beijing is a city that creates rules just so they can be disobeyed.

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Welcome to the Beijing subway

Therein lies a culture that I don’t think I could ever get used to and one that makes me feel like a low life. The whole time felt like a game of survival of the fittest. If it came to it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people would go so far as to kill the next person that passed them on the street, if they were desperate for food. I could start a whole conversation on the number of dogs roaming the streets, and God knows they’re being raised for slaughter.

Spending only 4 days in Beijing certainly left a lot of room for misinformed impressions and opinions, but I will say this. I have hope in the young people. With every new generation comes a new opportunity to deviate away from the lifestyle and way of thinking of their elders. A slim possibility no doubt, but a possibility nonetheless.

Ok, enough whining. Time to get practical. On the surface, the things that stand out the most about Beijing are the cheap, delicious foods, the security checkpoints everywhere, a militaristic sense of fashion, and a strange mix of modern buildings and crumbling hutongs (back streets and alleys).

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Back alleys of Beijing known as hutongs

Everything in Beijing is cheap. The food, subway rides (2 CNY), and even accommodation. Speaking of accommodation, because few people speak English, Beijing is a great place to couchsurf so you can hopefully experience a more positive, friendlier side to the city. Hostels are great too so you can get some interaction with other foreigners and take a moment to breathe away from Chinese culture.

The highlight of my short stint in Beijing was the Real Gourmet tour by Urban Adventures. We took a walk through the local markets where foreigner sightings are an oddity, and we got to sample various street foods and sweets including different flavored mochi and soybean squares. As we zigzagged through a maze of courtyards and hutongs, we made our way to “Grandma’s” house where we would eat dinner and learn how to make dumplings. I asked my tour guide what the must try foods are when people visit Beijing and he answered Peking duck and dumplings. I don’t eat duck, but with dumplings, I do agree.

All in all, Beijing is not my favorite place I’ve ever been, but despite the 180 degree difference in Beijing’s personality and culture, I’m more intrigued by China than ever. Since my visa doesn’t expire until next February, I’m looking forward to returning this year to pick up where I left off and visit Xi’an, Chengdu, and Shanghai. Fingers crossed!

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