Beijing: the human city

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Beijing has a reputation among Americans (and really most foreigners) as a bad place to live, a place where living conditions are so atrocious as to render it as unfit for human habitation as the icy, barren outer moons of Saturn. The intermittently toxic air, the sprawling suburbs, the limited water supplies, and the everyday dangers of life (crossing the street, walking down a hutong, questionable meat on skewers, etc.) are all woven into a narrative which paints Beijing as a place approaching New Jersey in terms of pure hostility to human life. And if the stew were not yet complete, the occasional sandstorm whistling down out of the Gobi serves as the additional garnish (as it were).

Having been to Beijing approximately fifteen times over the past few years, I can attest that all of the horror stories can, at times, become reality. The pollution can diminish visibility to a few meters and make any venture outside a painful experience – and more than a little reminiscent of venturing onto some alien planet where all humans must wear gas masks to survive. Traffic is atrociously dangerous. The water table is dropping meters each decade; sprawl continuous apace towards the mountains that surround Beijing on the north and west. And occasionally, there is rat in the barbecue (key tip: only eat at Muslim barbecue restaurants, as meat quality is assuredly high). There are even (gasp!) people from New Jersey (and, what’s worse [for Chinese people], a vast crowd of people from Henan Province, similarly the butt of many jokes).

However, I can also attest that while these stereotypes have bases in occasional fact, they have also been extensively mythologized into an idea of a permanent reality. The sky is not always grey, green space is (in many ways) keeping apace with some of the sprawl, and much of the barbecue is authentically (and deliciously) the meat it is advertised to be. And now, nearly halfway through my three-week trip to Beijing (my longest ever),  I feel like I am rediscovering a place that – while I’ve always enjoyed – I previously unfairly maligned.

Part of this sense of rediscovery is due to absolute improvements in the so-called quality of life issues: the air has been great since our arrival, the subway system continues to improve, and the city center is cleaner than ever. It’s also helped to have a structure to most days, and to be immersed in a Chinese school – though many of my favorite moments of discovery are while wandering by myself.

But it has been most helpful to have friends in the capital, friends who have helped transform Beijing from an intimidatingly vast megalopolis into a human city liberally scattered with points of linkage, roots, mentally mapped specks of personal connections to specific places and to individuals from many walks of life. In one neighborhood, there is the Muslim kebab restaurant, in this other neighborhood, my favorite store owner; yet another has fantastic jianbing 煎饼, while my friend lives in an alleyway deep in another fascinating area of the city. No longer is Beijing monolithic; it has become a human city, full of lives and stories and emotions and dramas and fascination. The macroscopic lens has been exchanged for the microscopic, but on a vast, Wagnerian scale; the simultaneous operas of individual lives that occur all over the city, weaving together and apart, connecting and linking and unraveling and ultimately forming a pattern of chaotic beauty.

This humanized Beijing, it turns out, is not a bad place to live. Just make sure you occasionally bring your face mask.

And sorry, Jersey. Just live with the hope that one day, it might be your turn.

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