China – Not what I expected

Four days into my stay in Beijing, China, and I have to say, it’s simply not what I expected. I’m exposing my ignorance about China here, but I thought it would feel infinitely more restrictive than it does – and so far, its felt more like spending time in any city, outside of the ever-present Mao imagery and the ominous feel of Tiananmen Square.

I recognize that China underwent massive changes in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At this time, China essentially evolved into a place of “market socialism,’ – in China, referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” I think growing up in the United States, we are given, to a large extent, these sweeping, broad impressions of countries like China and Russia, and our ideas of them (or mine, at least), are significantly skewed, towards the negative.

I’m not saying that I have any idea what life is really like here – I certainly can’t make a judgment like that – but I am saying that thus far, Beijing is certainly not what I expected.

Some things I didn’t expect to see here:

  • Hundreds of people tangoing in the Temple of Heaven Park, a massive, public display of music and joy
  • Groups of young kids playing Hacky Sack like they are hankering for the 2012 hacky sack Olympics
  • Dance lessons outside of the Forbidden City late at night
  • Massive nightclubs with multiple DJ’s spinning everything from Kris Kross to Michael Jackson – Really?!
  • Strolling down District 798 (Beijing’s arts district) and feeling like I could be in Soho, NYC, a land of galleries and cafes

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, 86% of people in China expressed satisfaction with the way things are going in the country – I’ll go out on a limb and assume this isn’t an accurate figure, but its an interesting one, all the same. The joy, the music, the movement in Beijing is so different than the idea I had in my head, that I suppose its only natural to wonder what life is ‘really’ like for people here. Sure, a poll with numbers like that likely represents a decent amount of self-censorship – a statement in and of itself -– but all the same, as an outsider, it’s a fascinating place to be.

As Beijing certainly isn’t representative of the whole, I’m off to the coast in the next couple of days, and then south past Shanghai, and eventually, onto Kunming and the Yunnan province, a place that has managed to captivate me from afar. I’ll probably stick here longer than I had previously assumed, because the more I looked at China, the more ridiculously interesting it seems – and I can’t wait to delve deeper.

A few pictures from my first couple days here.

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