First Impressions of Beijing

Temple of Heaven, one of the few examples of Chinese architecture I saw in Beijing.
Temple of Heaven, one of the few examples of Chinese architecture I saw in Beijing.

In a recent blog post, Damyanti of Daily (W)rite asked her readers to comment on the last city we traveled to and how it made us feel. (Click here to see the post.)

Her question made me think about Beijing, China, which I recently visited.  If I had to sum up in one word how it made me feel, I might say “disconcerted.”  Even though I did not know what to expect before visiting China’s capital city, Beijing was not what I expected.

What I hoped for, I guess, was a city brimming with history and “Chineseness,” whatever that might mean.  I was hoping for a cityscape that could exist nowhere else on the planet besides China.

Instead, I landed in a bustling modern city, with buildings that appeared to be mostly younger than me.  If I had been “beamed in” to Beijing in a Star Trek type apparatus without being told where I was going, I do not think I would have known I was in China if not for the signs in Chinese characters (many of them side-by-side with English).  To be sure, the major tourist attractions, such as the Forbidden City, were older and distinctly Chinese in character.  But the vast majority of buildings were in the multi-story architectural style defined by me as Ordinary Modern Business.

(Click here for a previous blog post in which I discussed China’s lack of interest in preserving old buildings.)

On the positive side, Beijing was more attractive than I had anticipated.  Its major roads were broad and tree-lined, creating a cityscape that is more lush and livable than I had expected.  On the negative side, I felt the city’s relentless focus on the new resulted in a lack of something ineffable—whether we call it history, character, “Chineseness” or something else.

To be fair, I should point out that I was only there for three nights and two days.  Most of the two days was spent on a guided tour, with little room for roaming off the beaten track.  I know I missed a lot.  I also know that I am most likely indulging in a misplaced desire for exoticism.  Old China may have been more picturesque, but I would imagine that life is much easier for the residents of 21st century Beijing.

With this lengthy preface out of the way, here a few memories of Beijing that will stay with me:

  • People, people, people. People were rushing around everywhere, at seemingly all hours of the day and night.

    Train station at 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.
    Train station at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
  • Dead animals hanging in the windows. The Chinese apparently eat anything and everything.  Chicken feet.  Sheep’s head.  Pig intestines.  You name it, they eat it.
Not sure what all of these animals are.
Not sure what all of these animals are.


  • Random displays of bear paw(s) on street vendor’s table.


  • The “thoughtfulness” of our hotel staff in providing unsolicited sex products for us in our room.
From the Beijing hotel room.
From the Beijing hotel room.


  • Babies without diapers peeing in the open. I saw a baby running around a store room with nothing on his bottom.  One colleague told me he saw a Chinese couple holding their baby over a public garbage can so he could do his “thing.”
  •  The misguided fashion trend of men rolling their shirts up above their bellies.
Fashion faux pas?
Fashion faux pas?


  • Chinese people showed no hesitation whatsoever in taking pictures of me and my white American companions. Sometimes they asked if they could take a photo, and sometimes they just took one surreptitiously.  For a minute there, I started to feel like a celebrity.  (This feeling quickly passed when I returned home.)


This young woman requested my photo with her.  As did her dad and also her brother.  Not to mention her uncle.
This young woman requested my photo with her. As did her dad and also her brother. Not to mention her uncle.

I wish I could have stayed longer so that I could have gotten a better “feel” of the city.  I really want to visit the hutongs (the older neighborhoods), but I didn’t get a chance to do so.  Next time…


Have you been to Beijing?  If so, what were your impressions?

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

8 thoughts on “First Impressions of Beijing”

  1. After seven years in Gwangju, South Korea, and four visits to Beijing, I am impressed with how much you NAILED IT in just two days! The funny one was the free condoms, because, though this is not 100% certain, the tissue box in that same room may have had 10 or 20 phone numbers on it. If so, that would be another chance to try your hand with a local. The men with exposed bellies is odd to Koreans, because to do so here could get you arrested and WOULD get you yelled at by older women who have no shyness when it comes to telling you when you’ve done something wrong. All Asian cultures are disappearing under the misguided and bad music of things like KPOP. Korean Pop itself is an offshoot of American Boy bands, and the girl bands that prance in scant outfits are much love din China, where the local TV service would never run such stuff, even though it is, for sure, being produced. The art scene in Beijing is now strictly commercial, yet it once was the epitome of avante garde. If anything, Beijing proves that CHinese people, or at least most of them, will DO ANYTHING to try to be a westerners friend. why? Not just to practice English, but to get away form the terrible conditions of being factory workers (or less) in a quite polluted, dog-eat-dog capitalist set up that favors mostly those at the very top. Hmmm, no wonder the old pre-communism agricultural/communal ways have disappeared. Sad, really.

    1. Thanks for your thorough reply, Doug. What you said about Korean older women made me chuckle I noticed that was the case in Russia, where the babushki made it their business to scold people who didn’t behave properly. I was often the recipient of this scolding, although I never bared my belly like the Chinese men did! I wonder if “progress” the world over HAS to mean that everybody becomes more like Westerners. I hope not.

      1. I am with you. Every culture, every way if living needs to be protected. Less diversity started when Europeans wiped out 3000 cultures in North and South America. I cry for the one million west Papuans killed so big business could move in and steal their minerals. Strange world. Small communities that live outside globalization is the best solution I’ve heard.

  2. It surprises me that even in a city as touristy as Bejing, people are so excited by the sight of Western travelers. Imaging trying to live there and always having to deal with the paparazzi!!! Interesting pics 🙂

    1. I know, right? It surprised me as well. I think, though, that most of the people who take the pictures are not from Beijing. A lot of Chinese people from smaller cities and towns come to Beijing to see the sights, which apparently includes white people. 🙂

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