Day 167: An American in China

05 Feb

Well, we’re now in Beijing and we were greeted with the best circumstances I can think of: blue skies. Monday morning we woke up (in a smoggy Baoding), hopped on the G train, and within the hour found ourselves, once more, in one of the largest cities in the world and the capital of the country we are currently calling home. With nothing planned but the seven nights we’re staying here, we set out to find our hostel (different than the one we stayed in a couple of weeks ago), settled in, grabbed some food, and spent the afternoon wandering through the hutong alley where our hostel lives. While wandering we also found a main road through town that leads directly to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Though paved and lined with trolley tracks, it’s easy to see the historical importance of that pathway.

Tuesday we slept in, grabbed our American breakfast and coffees, and headed out on an unplanned exploration of Beijing. Our hostel (365 Inn) is within walking distance of Tiananmen Square so we soon found ourselves strolling past the Mao Museum, the China History Museum, and, of course, the Forbidden City. We opted not to go into any of the surrounding buildings (there were too many people) and instead made our way over to one of the only main tourist things in Beijing we haven’t done yet – Beihai Park.

Including our pleasant walk through the park (uneventful except for the easy breathing and sunlight touching our faces for what feels like the first time in forever), we wandered around Beijing for almost six hours. After the park we found ourselves amidst the hutong alleys near the drum tower and back at the hamburger restaurant (Burger Counter) for dinner. We took the subway back and spent the evening resting peacefully in our room watching the fireworks directly outside our window.

If there’s one thing the Chinese know how to do right it’s celebrate with fireworks. Monday night we had a preview of Tuesday night’s show when we watched people in the street below our window play with sparklers and handheld fireworks but yesterday (starting at dusk and going well into the night) we heard the whistles, booms, and crackles of exploding fireworks as the green, red, and gold lights graced the tops of the roofs in the alley. Like on Spring Festival Eve, the pops and booms were constant and any direction we looked, we could see the flashes of light and smell the sulfuric smoke. I don’t know what it is about these (somewhat) controlled explosions, but I adore the light shows we’ve been seeing every night for the past week. Fireworks just will never seem the same after all of these!

Today, Wednesday, has been about as uneventful and lazy as a day could be. We did some wandering and window-shopping in the morning and then, once it became colder and overcast, we settled into our room and spent the afternoon reading and otherwise relaxing.

The book I’m currently reading, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”, has made me think more about how Chinese people might perceive us as Americans in China. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around because it wasn’t in my lifetime, but as recently as during my parents’ generation, China was a country closed off and isolated from the world at large. Combine that with politically propagated anti-American sentiment that lasted with ferocity until the late 1980’s (and undoubtedly continues in some places) and it’s no wonder members of the older generation gawk at foreigners and feel compelled to label us out loud with shouts, gasps, and pointed fingers. Within their lifetime they have been told by authority figures and expected to believe with equal assuredness (sometimes with their personal livelihood and well-being on the line) that Americans are the enemy (“you capitalist pig-dogs!”) and that Americans are good and should be welcomed into the country (specifically for their native English language abilities as teachers). The latter belief is still fairly recent and when I think about all of this, I immediately become more accepting and forgiving of the old woman staring me down in the middle of the street and telling everyone around us that I am a foreigner. Clearly (hopefully), she’s not so stupid as to really think other people don’t notice that I am not Chinese, but instead she is probably vocalizing a surprised and confused thought process on how to judge me as an American in China (a young, female at that) given the polar-opposite beliefs about Americans that have at different times in her life been dominant.

Though I can try to reasonably explain and empathize with the older generations’ reaction to me as a foreigner, I cannot (and probably will not) understand why Chinese people my own age react even more dramatically to seeing me (and other foreigners). They have grown up in an increasingly globalized world with “Western” culture becoming progressively their own and they are required to learn English throughout school. My generation of Chinese people is unlikely to be able to truthfully come up to me and say “you’re the first foreigner I’ve ever met” (this happened in the grocery store in Baoding to us the other day) and some of them (i.e. Johnson) know more about American pop culture than I have ever been aware of. Why they would ever be so startled to see a foreigner in China that they would blindly stop in the middle of a busy road to stare is absolutely beyond me.
Perhaps it is because of the homogeneity of China or the uniquely Han (majority Chinese ethnicity) ability to make non-Hans feel exceptionally alienated even under the best of intentions (more on this later), but either way, it’s infuriating and I would be so grateful for it to stop. (Note: There’s a difference between ogling and being excited and it’s very easy for us to tell which one is happening. For example, a girl that trips on the escalator because she was so busy staring open mouthed at us is different than the group of young men who were so excited to meet us and practice English with us in QLH on Sunday that they bought us coffee and kept saying “Welcome to China! Welcome to Baoding! We hope you have a great time in China! We’re glad you’re here!” We welcome the latter reaction – coffee not required – because it restores our faith in humanity through positive interactions with others and allows us to actually interact with Chinese people in a way that reminds us that we’re happy we’re here.)

The fireworks are slowly getting started again (it’s just 5pm) and the rest of the evening is bound to be as uneventful as the day. Tomorrow we are going to go in search of a movie theater with international movies, a massage place, and the pond we went ice skating on a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully, the weather will keep warming up and the smog will hold off until we can buy some more masks.

Thank you for reading and until next time,


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Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Travel


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