Three foreigners share their take on what China is all about and what you take with you when you leave

By Mike Elias Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/24 0:43:02

The amount of time one spends in Beijing can have a big impact on how you feel about the city, some expats say. Photo: IC

Beijing means something different to everyone. Many expats seem to have a bit of an eye-roll toward the city, a sense of "oh, Beijing, you're so silly." This feeling may or may not include the romanticism that often affects a newcomer. To explore Beijing from the perspective of multiple levels of romance and familiarity, I've interviewed three people. One has lived in Beijing for five years (Leah H), one for five months (Michael E), and one for five days (Ken P). Is there something about Beijing that everybody feels, or that doesn't go away? Does familiarity breed contempt, or is to know Beijing to love it?

1. What part of living in Beijing will you miss the most when you leave?

5Y: I like my scooter because even though I can't fit a lot of things on it like I could a car, I skip a lot of traffic. The only time I get stuck in traffic is when there's a tricycle cart or a car that's blocking a bike path, but most of the time I can zip around everywhere, instantly. I'm looking forward to having a car when I move back to the US, but I also like not having to pay for gas or car insurance.

5M: I do love the food and the cost of it. But possibly more than that, I'll miss the chaos. China can be kind of relaxed about safety and stuff, and that can be dangerous. But it can also be fun, freeing, and delicious. China is less safe, less clean and less organized. Yet it may be happier than the US, and I'll miss that.

5D: The food - the different kinds and selections. I love the street food and, obviously, the prices.

A foreigner rides a shared bike. Photo: IC

2. What experience have you had that perfectly sums up what Beijing is like?

5Y: I took a trip to the Great Wall with some friends to do some fun yoga poses and take pictures. After three hours in traffic, we thought we were about to arrive at the wild, unrestored section of the wall, only to discover that the driver had mistakenly taken us to Mutianyu, the most touristy section of the wall. We had to pay both an entrance and a cable car fee, and it was crowded because it was a holiday, and I had been there three times already. It became another moment where you either sit and stew about it or make do with what you have, and making do with what you have is what living in China is all about.

5M: It took about two months to get my WeChat Pay set up. There was something about registering it with a foreign bank card and then resetting the password. Every step I took to fix it, some new problem would arise, so I would have to ask someone for help, and they would suggest all the things I had already tried, and then give up. Finally, a few Chinese friends banded together and hounded the WeChat customer service lines for a combined total of about six hours and got it handled. All along, friends kept telling me, "This is what China is like."

5D: Walking to the market at Houhai and walking back, that experience in its entirety. Trying to find our way through the crowds and the alleys, negotiating pricing, all of that.

Most of the foreigners living in China enjoy the convenience of WeChat Pay and Alipay. Photo: IC

3. What knowledge or skills have you gained from living in Beijing that people who have never lived here should know?

5Y: The bargaining training that I got at the Silk Market. Hiding the fact that I'm really interested in something so it's not obvious to the seller, and pretending that I know what something should cost, and then bargaining based on their reaction to my quoted price. Being able to walk away from a deal I don't like, not feeling pressured to buy something just because I started the conversation, and all of that has come into play with the way I negotiate with the landlord or my Chinese clients at work. In the business world there's a lot of "Silk Market bullying," and you have to recognize it and act like you're at the Silk Market. It's not weird necessarily; it's just a whole way of life.

5M: Coming here with zero Chinese and now being able to carry on a fairly normal life without much assistance, and having a few Chinese friends to help out now and then, has been one big experience in "dive in and then learn to swim." I love to operate that way, and I've learned a lot about how to start at zero, plan with just an end goal in mind, and then just work it out.

5D: I don't know if I got any specific skills while being here. [Perhaps,] Get used to walking and be open-minded. Don't have expectations.

Foreigners buy vegetables at a local market. Photo: IC

4. What impresses you about Beijing?

5Y: I think China does gardening really well. They have a lot of big public parks. Purple Bamboo Park near the National Library is one of my favorites; it has a big, beautiful lake. I once spent an entire summer going to a different park every weekend. China puts a lot of care into that, and it's interesting because it seems like a frivolous activity. Shouldn't they put more care into building buildings that stay upright, or sidewalks that don't collapse? I love the gardens, but I wish they would make the rest of Beijing a livable city. I guess I'm cynical in my old "China age."

5M: What really impresses me about Beijing is how hard so many people work. The kaolengmian (barbecue chilled noodles) guy works from 10 am to midnight about 360 days a year. There are trash collectors, bathroom attendants, cab drivers and restaurant owners toiling constantly - old men frying jianbing (Chinese crepe) ingredients through the wee hours of the night.

5D: One thing that impressed me about Beijing was the modes of transportation. Bicycles, scooters, rental bikes, cabs, buses, bullet trains, pretty much every method of transportation is available, and super-inexpensive compared to what I'm used to.

5. If you had to introduce someone to Beijing by taking them to only one place, where would you take them?

5Y: The Andingmen hutong. [It's] my favorite place because people coming to Beijing are either expecting big skyscrapers and don't know about this sort of residential side, or they're expecting culture and temples. I feel like Andingmen fulfills all of that because it's got Lama and Confucius temples and also a quiet residential scene with a cool expat culture. Andingmen is a place where Chinese millennials, expats and old Chinese people come together and find their own space. It's a pity they're doing all this bricking up. In a couple of years, my answer might be different.

5M: Definitely the hutong. After that, I might take them to Green Tea in the Central Business District across from the World Financial Centre. Their menu is huge and confusing, but if you know what to order, you can get a ferociously good meal for about 50 yuan ($7.31) per person. Learning to navigate that mix of chaos and reward could be a metaphor for Beijing in general.

5D: I'd take them to the Houhai market. I think all the activity and culture there would make one day in Beijing that encompasses what Beijing represents to me.

6.  What is the most beautiful sight in Beijing?

5Y: It's late at night. You're on the street. You've just left a nice evening out with your friends. You're ready to go home and fall into bed. You look down the street and there's red taxi light after red taxi light after red taxi light, all ready to stop and take you home. That is the most beautiful sight in Beijing. Rows of available taxis.

5M: The most beautiful sight in Beijing may be Lama Temple. The buildings are so ornate that it just boggles the mind to consider all the work that went into them.

5D: The hutong and the way that they look with the traditional entryways. The look of the alleys, with or without people, is just absolutely gorgeous to me.

7. What is your favorite Chinese word or phrase?

5Y: I like sui bian, which kind of means "whatever." For instance, "Should I buy this or that? Oh, sui bian." You can also use it like, "She's very sui bian. She can't really make a clear decision. She's too lax, too easy-going." China encompasses sui bian pretty well. Even if things are supposed to be done in a certain way, everybody actually knows it's kinda sui bian. You can kinda do whatever you want.

5M: "Weixin keyi ma?" Setting up WeChat Pay was an indescribable two-month odyssey for me, so when I finally got it working it was like magic. I ended up saying this a lot.

5D: "Kaolengmian" (get it without onions!)

Newspaper headline: That Beijing feeling


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