When I told people that I was going to be studying Chinese in Beijing this spring, many people nodded understandingly, reconfirming briefly some form of “That’ll be great for business” or “big future,” while others, completely overwhelmed by the concept of society on the other side of the world, simply responded, “Wow, sounds like an adventure”; still, others just stared at me blankly and asked, “Why?”
I won’t lie and say that I didn’t ask myself this question many times leading up to my departure and on the plane (and even now, occasionally as I’m packed onto a bus or subway car and stared at for the entire ride). Most people who have never been to China – including myself before this semester – really have no idea what China is. This may seem like an odd statement, but the question “What is China?” is one that thousands of expats (foreigners living in China), 1.3 billion Chinese people and a Communist government are all currently struggling to answer for themselves.
When I arrived in Beijing, the 15-day Spring Festival that celebrates the Chinese New Year had just begun. As a result, for the first week I was here, the city was not too crowded since 10 million unregistered migrant workers were trying to get home through the snow storms in southern China. Fireworks were constantly exploding day and night, and the factories were closed, making the air clear and breathable. Now, however, the factories have reopened, and if I forget to close my window at night, I can feel it in my throat when I wake up in the morning. What had been a clear blue sky during the height of the holiday has now turned to a dim bluish haze, and it’s only gotten worse.
With the 2008 Summer Olympics looming, the world has its eyes locked on China, and Beijing is outwardly making an effort to “clean up its act.” Still, the pollution is more than noticeable, and attempts to further “Westernize” the city are only skin-deep. Beijing is still the Beijing that I had heard tales of: you can still find signs around the city with English translations such as “Small Heart! Grass is smiling slightly” and “Condom – Urge the feeling. Birth Control”; you can still eat bee pupae, sea horse and scorpion on a stick; and you can still buy fake Timberland boots for 60 Yuan or about $8.50, which will inevitably fall apart around your feet while attempting to run across a busy street with no crosswalks.
The most striking difference for a newcomer to Beijing, however, is how much cheaper everything really is here. While it costs us $8 to $10 for one Club Meal at UR, I ate lunch and dinner today for a total of 15 Yuan (about $2). You quickly get into the mindset of this cheaper lifestyle and find yourself arguing over a difference of one Yuan (about 15 cents) for a bottle of coke. What’s more, tipping, which is less than obligatory, is actually often seen as an insult. This, of course, is only one of many cultural differences between China and America. Spitting, for example, is not seen as disgusting here, and Chinese men (and women) are often seen loudly coughing up mucus in the streets.
The Chinese government is working hard to project a positive image while still shielding its citizens from “inappropriate” foreign influences. While some sources have claimed at least 10 fatalities during construction of the main Olympic stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest,” the Chinese government initially claimed that there weren’t even any injuries, only later admitting that there had indeed been two deaths. At the same time, China is apparently taking its Olympic security very seriously. One of my friend’s friends, a long-time expat living in Beijing, convinced a security guard to let him into the Bird’s Nest to take photos. On his way out, however, he was stopped by the police, arrested, detained for 32 hours and then deported. The Beijing government also censors what Web sites can be accessed by its citizens, blocking sites such as Wikipedia, the BBC and YouTube, as well as preventing users from accessing information about such things as “Taiwan’s Independence,” “Chinese Human Rights” and “Tibet” on popular search engines like Google.
So as China struggles to maintain its way of life amongst pressure from the international community to change, we have no choice but to wait to see what the future holds. I still have over two months to figure out exactly what China is; but, in truth, the more I learn, the more overwhelming it all is and the more interesting my adventure becomes.
Herman is a member of the class of 2009.