Resisting Beijing

I landed in Beijing at 4pm on May 6, 2012. The next morning, I flew out at 7am to Kunming, Yunnan. I would return to Beijing 15 days later, but on my first morning there, I wrote this brooding post about the Beijing I observed in those few hours I was there. While I had learned to see the Chinese capital in a slightly different light by the time I left the country a month later, I wanted to post this write-up in its entirety  because it was an accurate reflections of my thoughts at the time. The post grew out of the perspective, not of a foreigner, but of a returning Chinese native torn between expectation and reality. 

Beijing, China; May 7, 2012

I was unsurprised at the suffocating heat that welcomed me back to Beijing. But I wasn’t necessarily prepared for it, stepping off the airplane in my jeans and hoodie amidst the 30C weather. I was surprised, however, to see the sleek new international airport terminal and the easy to navigate subways. Ubiquitous English translations were plastered all over town, from the trains to the street signs to the restaurants. When I was back in Canada, I pretended that Beijing was still the exotic cultural gem of a city, where I grew up while learning to cross 10 lane intersections, surviving crowded bus rides, and breathing the smog of car exhaust that veiled city. But the plethora of foreigners and the prevalent use of English quickly betrayed the lie that I had been telling myself for the last few years. No, Beijing is no longer the same city I grew up in – and it hasn’t been that city for years, the turning point was in 2008 with the summer Olymics. High rise condos, large shopping centers, and a booming private sector have taken over the city.

The changes have mostly been for the better, including improved road and telecommunication infrastructure. It’s made the city much more accessible and livable for tourists and foreign business travelers. Yet I miss the old Beijing. What people called “crowded”, I brushed off as “intimate”; when people complained of the heat or the air pollution, I carried on like business as usual as I had never lived in any other (improved) conditions. I have romantized this place (and my childhood), and I now return to find something completely different from the home in my memory.

I like red tile roofs and brick houses, not the 50+ floor high-rise apartments and office buildings. I like people watching from back of my dad’s bike as he takes me around the city, not staring out at a dark tunnel wall from the subway car. I should probably embrace these changes since I have mostly benefited from them, but I am restraining myself from showing even the slightest hint of joy knowing that I can now ride the subway from the airport to my house. Yes, I am stubborn, but I liked city the way it was before.

It seems that while the city was on the rise to becoming a new economic heavyweight, I got left behind.

And I intend to stay behind for as long as I can.

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