For outsiders in a city of 20 million people, small things that most people take for granted tend to stick out.
Beijing is a world away from Washington, DC. Aside from Australia and the Pacific Islands, it’s about as far away as I could have gone from my hometown. Before I came here, I thought that the immense distance would bring with it an impossibly different culture and way of life. For this week’s blog post, I’ll discuss the ways in which that is and isn’t true.
My dorm room at Beijing Normal University has enough differences from my everyday life at Brown University to fill an entire post. The beds are low to the ground and have built-in storage underneath them. My room has a powerful air conditioner, a modest flat-screen TV and a landline telephone. We also have a water boiler. Beijing’s water isn’t clean—in fact, it’s very much not clean. And it stinks.
Aside from the guarantee of awful diarrhea, a sip of Beijing’s tap water carries a significant risk of typhoid. We buy our water in huge jugs and use a pump to draw it out and transfer it to our bottles. We also use this water to brush our teeth.
It’s not a huge adjustment, but it’s somewhat discomforting to think that one accidental sip could land you in the hospital.
But enough about my dorm room—let’s head outside.
Beijing’s grass doesn’t differ much from the lawns in DC. But many of the city’s trees have white paint halfway up their trunks. A quick Internet search reveals that limewater paint protects the trees from insects and stabilizes the tree’s temperature in winter. This preventative measure is common in many countries, but not in the US.
One of the lessons in our Chinese textbook discussed the increasing number of private cars in Beijing. The roads are packed with traffic, but the number of two- and three-wheeled vehicles easily outnumbers traditional passenger cars. You also see a lot of bicycles, mopeds, buggies, scooters and rickshaws. Major thoroughfares have median-separated lanes designated for these smaller vehicles.
These smaller vehicles often don’t abide by any traffic rules—even the sidewalk is fair game. I’ve seen quite a few bikes going against the flow of traffic on multi-lane avenues. Unlike the roar of an American motorcycle, these bikes run silent, like a Prius traveling less than 5 miles per hour. I’ve come within inches of being gored by a banana cart more times than I’d like.
I have yet to see anyone wearing a helmet in this city.
Pedestrians have their own rules, too. Cars in Beijing don’t have to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, but the locals still cross the street whenever they please.
I’ve seen several instances where bold, or perhaps just impatient, older men and women have led groups of younger people across intersections while traffic was still flowing.
Pedestrians also don’t think twice about huddling in groups in the middle of an intersection, forcing traffic to go around them. I tried this local custom once; it reminded me of boating in Venice’s Grand Canal, where gondolas and motorboats regularly pass within inches of each other.
Beijing’s architecture is a mix of ultra-modern buildings that reflect China’s technological advances, Imperial-era Hutong (narrow streets or alleyways) and courtyard houses, and hulking Soviet-era communal housing structures. Many of the latter have shops and restaurants on the bottom levels and residential apartments on all of the upper floors.
All the major malls and consumer electronics outlets are in the Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers. The mall nearest to Beijing Normal University has an entire floor devoted to TVs.
Although Beijing’s shopping malls are impressive in their own right, they lack the casino-like feel of an American mall. In the US, malls seem designed to encourage walking from store to store; finding something new to buy is usually easier than locating the exit.
The shopping centers in pedestrian-oriented Beijing usually don’t have parking garages. They’re also easier to navigate and escape; it’s a breeze to get in, buy what you need and head home.
Beijing’s smog is a terrible. On the worst days, I’ve been unable to see more than 500 feet in front of me. My teachers have told me that the smog has been much better than last year; more often than not, it’s been sunny and clear—mostly because Beijing has started to use chemicals to force rain to fall prematurely, cleaning the smog out of the atmosphere. This technique, called cloud seeding, results in frequent rain that’s light and short-lived. I haven’t needed to wear a raincoat yet.
Several Beijing residents have complained about the hot, muggy summers. I challenged them to endure a summer in Washington, DC’s swampland.
Next week, I’ll share some of my encounters with Beijing’s locals.
Till then, I challenge you to think about what is 司空见惯 (sīkōngjiànguàn, or commonplace) where you live. Some things we take for granted may seem strange to an outsider.