Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beginner Beijinger

Ni Hao, y'all. Collin here.

Allow me get right to it: China is incredible. It’s been an invigorating, mind-blowing, and wondrous initial 10 days in China’s capital. I’ve been overwhelmed by the scale of the city, the warmth of the Chinese people, the flavors and diversity of the cuisine, and the co-existence of new and old ways of life. So far I’ve been focusing most of my energy on absorbing and processing the sights, sounds, and smells of Beijing, but I have a couple of initial reflections to share.

I feel like a kid again

I’d estimate that I understand about 4% of what’s going on around me at any given time. When I first arrived, I thought I understood more like 10%, but the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know! This is due not only to the fact that I speak almost zero Mandarin (Wǒ bú huì shuō pǔ tōng huà!), but also lack a frame of reference for so much of Chinese culture and history. Despite my best efforts to prepare for this experience, I inevitably end up speculating about the cultural meaning or significance of nearly everything around me. This includes a wide range of social interactions, many human-made objects, and sometimes even text that has been translated into English.

While occasionally my cluelessness produces mild frustration, on the whole it’s actually pretty awesome because it’s renewed my curiosity and imagination. Since I’m typically not able to figure out what’s going on with any certainty, it leads to child-like speculation and wonder, and reminds me how much there is to learn and explore in this world. I’m frequently wide-eyed and smiley, trying to figure something out. To Beijingers, I must look like an enormous bearded baby fumbling through the simplest of tasks. In fact, I’ve never enjoyed making eye contact with kids in the 2-4 year old age range quite so much, because I feel like they’re the only Chinese people that I can fully relate to. And they’re the only ones that consistently smile back. (The kid in the photo below is too old for me - check out the wisdom and skepticism in that facial expression).

Embracing Change

Beijing is a city in transition, full of fascinating juxtapositions and contradictions. The idea of “neighborhood compatibility” does not appear to be part of the planning or architectural vocabulary. There are 1950’s soviet-style apartments next to luxury western shopping malls and 30 story glass office buildings towering over historic one-story Hutongs. A seemingly endless fleet of shiny black Audi A8s (the preferred make and model of the top-level communist party leadership) pass people on 40-year old cargo tricycles hauling street food, building materials, and recycling.

On some level it’s sad to witness old Beijing fading away in the wake of rapid modernization, but it’s also refreshing to witness a society that is so much more open to sweeping change than we are. While I can’t be sure, I feel like the fact that it’s possible to build engaging modern architecture here is just one indicator the near-total embrace of modernization. It does feel a bit like Bladerunner.


Alex Steinberger said...

awesome pics, collin. keep em comin'!

emilyvasile said...

Fabulous photos and observations, friend. Love the bike-trucks. Ideally we feel that sense of wonderment you described everyday :).

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