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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
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?