“Oh, Beijing is a crowded and dirty city. I’m not too fond of it,” a friend from China responded to my comment about studying abroad in Beijing. Well, hardly the enthusiastic response I hoped to hear. I chose Beijing partly because my professor told me that it is one of the best cities for Chinese language study, as the Beijing dialect forms the basis for Standard Chinese. I also chose Beijing for its host of historical sites, including the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and the Forbidden City. Since this will be my first trip to China, I figured I should try to visit these locations. Hearing a bad review about Beijing, especially one from a Chinese national, cast doubt on my decision to spend nearly four months there.
Fortunately, another friend from China responded with the enthusiasm I was hoping for, mentioning that Beijing was a fun, vibrant city with a rich history and a more “Chinese” culture than many of the other big cities, which would mean a more meaningful experience for me. The stark contrast between her positive comments and my other friend’s negative remark shed light on two very different opinions of Beijing, held by Americans and Chinese alike.
In fact, just about every time I explain that I will be studying abroad in Beijing this fall, I am met with one of these two images of the city. The first is the filthy, loud, frantic metropolis with air that belongs in Venus’s atmosphere. Mobs of commuters shove their way into subway trains. Taxis and trucks incessantly honk in vain at the stopped cars ahead. The entire place sounds like an obnoxious and exhausting experience. On the other hand, the second image is the lively, colorful, rich capital of the People’s Republic, complete with buildings and artifacts thousands of years old. Beijing Opera performers move gracefully across stages in traditional costumes. Grandparents practice morning tai chi under the trees in neighborhood parks. Magnificent temples, palaces, and walls reflect the centuries of culture and innovation that China has offered.
I realize that these two versions of Beijing are stereotypes, but I also realize that stereotypes are often based, to a varying degree, in truth; they don’t appear out of thin air. I sometimes worry that the first, less appealing image of Beijing will be the one I encounter. The air pollution alone caused great consternation in 2008 before the Summer Olympics, and such pollution will not bode well for my asthma. The fact that dust masks are a suggested item on the packing list doesn’t help.
However, I’ve been blessed to travel to other “difficult” cities in the past and I’ve learned that finding the second, more pleasant version of Beijing, or any city for that matter, heavily depends on the visitor’s outlook. In Dschang, it took effort to let go of my concern that a Schistosomiasis infection was lurking around every corner or to get used to carving my own toilets in the jungle mud with a machete. But I made the best of it, and that made all the difference.
So far, I’ve heard a tale of two Beijings. Most likely, the city is a mix of both stereotypes; it may be polluted, loud, and hectic, but it also may be cultured, vivacious, and pleasant. Therefore, I aim to enter China next week with few assumptions. I don’t want preconceived notions to cloud my actual experience of life in Beijing.