The title of this post suggests that I should have published it a week or so ago, when I was still in China. In fact, I started it then. But then with the rush of packing and saying goodbye, the lengthy trip back home, and the usual battle with jet lag I couldn’t muster the time and energy to take care of it. Until now.
First, though, a word about jet lag. There’s a misconception that jet lag solely consists of being on an unusual sleeping schedule. It’s much, much more than that. In addition to waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, there’s the feeling of fatigue so powerful that you have to sleep no matter what you’re doing or where you are. There are also the stomach aches, the irritability, and the yawning. There are no remedies for jet lag that I know of, regardless of what people will tell you. It’s simply the bill that’s due for the pleasures of traveling. Kind of like a hangover after a night out drinking.
When you’re coming from China, that’s a pretty big hangover. The first thing I notice upon being home is the silence. The Bay Area might be one of the denser parts of the US, but it’s got nothing on Beijing. The lack of foot traffic on the sidewalks and car horns were noticeable even in San Francisco. People speak quietly on cell phones, queue properly, and drive mostly sensibly. There’s a tidyness to life in the West that just doesn’t exist in China.
This trip marked the first time I based myself in a so-called “first tier” city. Prior to this summer I had visited Beijing numerous times but had never stayed more than a few days. For the first time, I had an apartment, a commute, a routine, and regular haunts. Being a resident in the city- even if just for a few months- totally changed my perspective for both better and worse.
Being this way inclined, let’s start with the negative. Beijing’s physical environment is worse than any city I’ve ever lived in. The air pollution is as bad as advertised, with blue sky days a real rarity. Some days the sky was so thick that it felt like the city was engulfed in a forest fire. The sun shone red more than it did yellow, and this non-smoker woke up many a morning coughing from the foul particulates one can’t avoid. Combined with the miles of concrete in all directions, the pedestrian-unfriendly neighborhoods, and the decided lack of sufficient green space, Beijing often felt like a hazardous waste site more than a city.
Furthermore, Beijing is expanding in a way that belies the government’s rhetorical support for environmentally sustainable growth. The city is sprawling outward in neighborhoods framed by the concentric ring roads, whose traffic jams have already become a major quality-of-life issue. Many of the newer streets in Beijing are too wide in deference to the emerging middle class keen to purchase cars. Very few neighborhoods are walkable, even if the weather were nice enough to allow for much strolling. Getting anywhere requires a series of unpalatable transportation options: there’s the spotty and unreliable taxi system, the clogged and uncomfortable subway and bus networks, and the death-defying trips on bicycle.
Yet for all of these flaws, Beijing retains a considerable charm. The people are among my favorite in China; they’re gruff, friendly, and likable in contrast to their cousins in Shanghai. Within a few weeks of my arrival I had made friends with several of the local shopkeepers and proprietors in my neighborhood, many of whom were happy to sit and chat with a curious foreigner. During the summer, Beijing-ren are fond of sitting outside and playing cards, strolling hand-in-hand, or sipping beers at barbeque stands dotting the entire city. I loved the hutongs at night- these long alleys, attached to main roads like spokes on a bicycle wheel, were full of enough local color to compensate for all the soulless construction projects I saw everywhere.
And the food! Beijing’s cuisine ought to please even the staunchest foodie. In second-tier cities finding a good range of foreign food is difficult. Not so in Beijing, where the burgers taste like real burgers and the pizza is as good as you’ll get it almost anywhere. For Chinese food virtually every type of regional cuisine can be found in the capital, typically in establishments opened by natives. It’s also possible to have a nice, enjoyable meal in Beijing without spending a fortune, something that cannot be easily said in either Hong Kong or Shanghai.
Beijing feels like a city on the rise; there’s an irrepressible energy there despite the best efforts of the increasingly recalcitrant Communist Party. The people I spoke to and hung out with all felt optimistic about their country and spoke about all the positive changes in their lives. This wasn’t an endorsement of the government so much as an acknowledgement that dynamism trumps stagnation. The attitude I found among the Chinese contrasted sharply with the gloomy news coming out of the West, indicating that the trend of foreigners coming to China to seek their fortune is likely to continue. Does this mean China is immune from its own downturn? Certainly not. But the general upbeat mood among the people was noticeable.
Even still, China remains a poor, undeveloped country growing up in a closed society. The internet is slow, unreliable, and subject to mindless censorship. The terrible train accident in Wenzhou followed by an awkward cover-up served as a key reminder that the government remains unaccountable to its people. A huge segment of the population still lives in appalling conditions, with many operating on the fringes of society as migrant workers in big cities. You can argue that things were worse before and yes- this is true. But when are we going to stop judging China by its own desultory past?
There’s a growing sense among certain thinkers that the Chinese have built an alternative system to those practiced in the West, one better able to deal with the modern world. Yet having spent these past three months in China, I couldn’t help but feel that the country’s political and economic structures were inherently fragile. Beijing has the feel of an eternal city, but something tells me its days of convulsion are far from over.
Chinasmack’s Diaspora blog has an interesting piece about how Chinese tourists fail to tip waiters in the US:
China’s economic boom has seen foreign tourism expand to unprecedented numbers; stereotypical peace-sign-waving Japanese no longer dominate the Asian tourist population. China’s rising middle class are young, educated and crave luxury goods, international travel and all the consumer amenities that “first-world” citizens enjoy. They are polite, refined, boast near-impeccable English…and do not tip. The ABC (American-Born Chinese) that frequent the restaurant as well as the Korean and Japanese customers all contribute their 15-20%. It is the increasing volume of tourists from the People’s Republic that are tipping the scales of understanding into the red.
I’ve met a number of non-Americans who have told me that the one thing they disliked most about traveling in the States was the culture of tipping. Americans in turn often vociferously defend the practice, arguing that our waiters provide superior service because they work for tips. I for one don’t buy this argument and would be happy to adopt a European-style system in which tax and tip are included in the list price, provided that we actually start paying waiters a decent wage.
The odds of that happening anytime soon are slim to none. In the meantime, the onus is on travelers to the United States to know that they’re expected to tip waiters at least 15% even if they’re not overly thrilled with the service. As the author of the piece says, it really is the only way that waiters can put together a living wage. Hopefully when the practice of mainland Chinese traveling to the US becomes more established, they’ll get the hang of it.…