Bittersweet Beijing (苦甜 北京)

If complaining was a sport, it would be the official sport of Beijing. And not just of foreigners, but of the 本地 (local) people as well. The top two conversation topics of Beijingers are  “今天的天气好不好?”  (how bad is the air today?) and  “今天赛车很厉害吗?” (how bad is the traffic today?) And for good reason, because there are so many things about Beijing to complain about.

In the summers it is a hot humid basin of pollution and urban excesses that coats your skin with a thin film of sweat and humanity; in the winter it is a frigid enclave of life meagerly sheltered from siberian winds by puff coats and coal soot. The congestion here is so bad that to go anywhere in the city at any given time of the day at any given time of the week, you need at least a hour and trust that you will never find a cab. Riding a bike/taxi/walking or generally being outside requires the same agility and cat-like reflexes as Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment. Every bite of food is Stomach Roulette and you have not lived in Beijing until you have bowled before the all-mighty white porcelain God of doorless 公共厕所(public toilets).

But this is not another rant about Beijing. Instead, this is my (bittersweet) love letter to Beijing, the city that I consider a second home. 

What is it about Beijing that draws so many people, both Chinese and foreign, here? I’ve been pondering this question a lot as of late, prompted in part because of a conversation I had the other day with some 老外(foreign) friends as we came back from dancing on a music competition program for Beijing TV. (topic for another post)

The topic is one that I have heard often in China and, to be completely frank, irks me to no end every time I hear it uttered. “I would prefer to be in Japan because I like the food and the air is better, but I felt like studying in China is more pragmatic.” Whenever I hear these words, my initial response is a small twinge of annoyance. Part of me always wants to retort: “WHY stay? GO to Japan then, you’re doing anyone any favors by being here in China. There are tens of thousands of foreigners in China, you don’t need to be here.” The usual response is, “But studying Chinese is better for my career”. To that, I want to say, “Then go to Taiwan! You’ll learn twice as much Chinese for half as much 拉肚子.”

So WHY? Why China? And more specifically, why Beijing? Why not Shanghai, where the English is more prevalent, the city more wealthy, and the attitude towards foreigners much more cosmopolitan. WHY do so many people come to Beijing? Why do they stay?

The answer to that question may be different for every person you ask, but for me it can be expressed in one simple phrase: 吃得苦中苦, 方为人上人 (To eat bitterness is to make a person better)

Living in Beijing is hard, the people who choose to live in this city are some of the hardiest, most resilient people I have ever met. There has only ever been one other city that reminds me of Beijing, and that is New York. Like New Yorkers, Beijingers have an innate arrogance of their superiority because they are BEIJINGers.The very act of living in the city makes you strong, and the very fact that your survived and (gasp!) succeeded in Beijing makes you a bad ass. The super achievers of our generation, Chinese and foreign, have come to Beijing, exploding at the seams with their 希望s (hopes) and 梦想s (dreams). This city is teaming with bright minds, big ideas, intense personalities, unique talents, and Will Power…. intense, delicious, poisonous Will Power to BE, to EXIST.

I can’t describe the ethos of Beijing better than this Chinese song, called “存在” -汪峰( “To Exist” by Wang Feng).

“我该如何存在” – How do I exist?

That is the main lyric in this song and the mantra of a Beijinger’s life.

Beijing …. Beijing …. Bittersweet Beijing. It’s because Beijing makes you eat bitterness, it makes you eat so much bitterness until even bitterness tastes sweet. It’s counter logical, like putting salt on watermelon to make it taste sweeter. Living in Beijing is to suffer, but for every bitter pill of suffering, Beijing lures you with the sweat taste of greatness, of life filled with possibility. Beijing makes you more than who you are, it makes you a part of something greater. The bitterness of Beijing is why it gives rise to some of the greatest modern writers, artists, musicians, and personalities of China. To suffer in Beijing is to live.

It’s like a love hate relationship, one moment the city tears you apart and then next moment it fills you will the overwhelming force of life that only a city this hard to live in can make. It is like an abusive relationship, a relationship where the city eats you up, spits you out, and you keep coming back for more.

And why? Because as every sip of local microbrew tastes better because you had to stumble through dark hutongs in bellow-zero temperatures for a hour to get there. Because the music-art scene here is still so mercurial and 丰富 that you can go to a new show or gallery everyday and never go to them all. Because you can accidentally stumble onto the wrong table at Spark and end up taking vodka shots with a 3-star Chinese general. Because one day the air will taste like a pleather factory offloaded its emissions directly into your mouth, and the next day taste of pure sweet oxygen. Because you will never have a dull moment in Beijing. Because the people who live in this city are all mad, mad to live, mad to laugh, mad to cry, mad to be. (to borrow from Kerouac)

AS for the foreigners in Beijing, I suspect that we take an honest look at our feelings about this city, one may discover that under all those layers of thermal underwear and moaning/complaining, those of us who stay all possess a certain masochistic love for this city.

Who knows, one day I may change my mind. I may go to Hainan next year and discover how foolhardy I have been to convince myself that I am happy in Beijing. Perhaps I really do just want to live on a beach with clean air and happy people. Maybe one day I’ll decided that Beijing is no longer for me. But when I do leave, it won’t mean anything anything. It won’t be a reflection of other foreigners in China, it won’t say anything about China (as a recent disenchanted expat railed), it won’t have any generational implications (as another expat pointed out in his response to former expat’s rant). It will be just because I’ve changed and that I am ready for a new 体验.

But until then, 现在 I say that I love Beijing. I love to hate to love it.

One thought on “Bittersweet Beijing (苦甜 北京)

  1. I must admit I felt the same way about China being more pragmatic than Japan, initially. And I am inclined to agree with Jonathan Watts that it is the stage for the most important story in the world right now . But spending time in both places actually enhanced my appreciation for the beautifully gritty realness of Beijing as a stark and refreshing contrast to the Pleasantville vibe permeating the manicured archipelago to the East. I don’t think I could now say that I would rather be in one place more than the other. If you think about it, there are perfectly valid reasons to both love and hate pretty much every culture.

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