When visitors come, one may see one’s surroundings through new eyes. I’m not sure that really happened with my siblings’ recent visit. On the one hand, there were things that I used to notice but no longer do, which they found weird/annoying: squat toilets, uncaged dogs, naked babies, or the like. On the other hand, there were also many things they were more willing to shrug off than I was, like when I cried tears of rage at a pointless police barricade (yes, yes I did).
Doing more China traveling in recent times has shown me several things. One, Beijing is not the same as Chongqing. The people are different. More cosmopolitan, more western dressing and looking. More hipsters. Far, far fewer perms. Fewer sparkly bows on 40-year-old women.
But then, Beijing is also the travel Mecca for Chinese tourists, even more so than for westerners. Everywhere you look there are swarms of Chinese tour groups, a shepherd with a flag and 20 or so members of the flock sporting matching baseball caps (or Burberry-style bucket hats in one case). So it’s also easy to separate the native Beijingers from the out-of-towners.
It was also shocking how much easier it was to function in Beijing. The general populace seems to have better English skills by and large, and, of course, better Mandarin skills, since that’s the official dialect of Beijing. (Recall that I, as well as the vast majority of foreigners, learn standard Mandarin, which is also the language that Chinese school children learn, but which is not the language spoken on the streets in most of China, where the local dialect can be a variation as small as an accent, as is the case in much of Northern China, or as different as an almost entirely separate language, as is the case with Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, etc.) Aside from that, this is a place that is used to tourists, thanks especially to the Olympics but also to the three decades of international tourism in general. For example, I have seen maybe one English menu at a Chinese restaurant in all my time in Chongqing. But I never ate anywhere in Beijing that didn’t have a lovely one.
Another thing that China touring has taught me is that…being a tourist in China kind of sucks. The major sites, although must-sees, are often so overrun with loud Chinese tour groups that they’re hard to enjoy. Thus I spent much of my time in the Forbidden City sitting alone in a relatively quiet courtyard so that the feelings of rage and despair could subside.
Plus, so much is framed in Confucian values that it can be hard for Western tourists to appreciate many sites in the same way that Chinese tourists do. For example, there seems to be a belief that nature is best enjoyed when dominated and arranged by man’s hand. Thus in most of China does hiking mean walking along a concrete path or stairway. A manmade lake that makes best use of feng shui and blah blah blah is always superior to a wild, natural lake that does not balance yin and yang as perfectly. Plus, the traditional value of honoring what came before by copying it means that for many, many centuries, there were only minute changes in the style of painting or sculpting or building temples. Show me an Italian painting and I can probably guess the century from which it comes. Give me a Chinese scroll painting and I can tell you within…two millennia?
And, as a Westerner not very well educated or interested in ancient China, the history will always be less meaningful to me than it will be to a Chinese person who grew up hearing stories of the great dynasties and characters. When I travel in Western Europe I enjoy lots of “aha” moments with paintings and palaces and churches I’ve studied or read about. But that’s almost never going to happen in China, unfortunately. If you don’t know the history or the figures, or aren’t very interested, temples and scroll paintings that were made in approximately the same style for fifteen hundred years will all run together.
Thus, we spent less than an hour in each of the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace—both sites that the Lonely Planet recommends spending a half-day on. And although it was cool to hike on the Great Wall, and it’s definitely a must-see…it is, really, just a wall. One probably primarily (re)built in the last fifty years or so. Which you absolutely cannot see from outer space.
However, I did like Beijing in general and am quite glad I visited. The attractions I enjoyed the most: seeing the waxy, embalmed form of the late chairman, and seeing the Louis Vuitton exhibition across the street in the national museum.
I’d also recommend visiting to everyone I know who already lives in China. It’s neat to see that there is another side of China. My hostel in Beijing was in a hip area of boutiques and bars called Nan Luogu, which featured three different mojito stands within two blocks on our street. We sat at a bar next to a diorama artist whose most recent work depicts a post-apocalyptic Tiananmen. We had paninis in Beijing’s Silicon Valley equivalent, and picked up fliers for a big techno party happening on an old Soviet aircraft carrier outside of town.
If you want to be a hipster in China, Beijing—not Shanghai, and definitely not Hong Kong—is the place to do it. And although those places enjoy glossier, more Westernized cultures, it seems like Beijing will be the vanguard on a Chinese culture that is more fully Chinese. People of Hong Kong and Shanghai may be able to make good lines, but Beijingers won’t, no matter how much government-mandated lining-up rehearsals you give them. Now that’s the China I expect.