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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Where the old and the new collide

Beijing. Bei mothafuckin’ jing. Where the streets don’t smell like sewage and the subway has English just below those gibrishy characters I can’t understand.  Where the streets are filled with the flashy and familiar KFC and Micky D’s signs, where Chinese bakeries put ketchup on a croissant and Smoothie stores sell grapefruit sense ice tea, where both noodles and rice are a constant staple, and where baozi and mantou are sold from every street corner. And grilled scorpion on a skewer, of course (which apparently is not really a Chinese dish, but rather something you sell to stupid Orientalist foreigners who think that’s what Chinese eat). Sichuan, Yunan, or Tibeten, Jamaican, Korean or German food are all just around the corner.  You name it, it’s here.  Where the skyscrapers collide with the Houtongs, and the cranes are no longer a looming presence upon us, reminding us that everywhere in the west is still growing and growing but Beijing has hit its development peak. Coming back to the east coast after a month in the western Chinese frontier, I can finally see what the west will look like in the near future, only the western version is, as Daft Punk would put it - harder better faster stronger. 

In Beijing, the first thing we did was shopping, of course.  The students had longed for a stint of plain western consumerism from the moment we landed in Guangzhou, on our first day in China.  Reluctantly, we allowed for it to happen at the grandiose Silk Market, which is definitely not silky and not really a market.  They went bargaining for western knock-offs for ridiculous prices, while I enjoyed a nice cold beer in the ally below.  We continued for a night in the touristy night market, where they sell kitschy touristy bullshit for outrageous prices selling you a Chinese experience that is probably foreign to most Chinese people.  But it’s a staple in Beijing, so we gots to do, what we gots to do. The high rises ceased to be the kind of hastily built, monotonous, buildings we had seen out west, but rather the skyscrapers in Beijing merged together into a cohesive assortment of well zoned areas and buildings.  The order of the buildings made sense, the roads were wide, the sidewalks existed and the shopping malls weren’t shoved vicariously underground, but rather placed with some intention to promote the pure essence of the area – consumerism. 

The next day I had the chance to wander off by myself again.  The area we are in is the older part of Beijing with many Houtongs, which are small, narrow alley ways.  The zoning restrictions declared the area to be of historical value, and forbade the building of high rises here.  Every other alley has a public bathroom because they don’t have running water in their houses.  Twenty minutes away from that center of grotesque lavishness, there was also an appreciation towards a historical way of living.  Whether that’s good or not is irrelevant (at least for this post), but that a city with such history cherishes not only the emperors’ palaces and gardens, but the lowers classes current lifestyles was something I had not seen until now.

The development in Western China we had seen for the past three weeks was beyond colossal.  I wish I had counted the amount of cranes I had seen on this trip, but the statistics I had seen stated that around 45,000 skyscrapers will be built in China by 2025. Beijing seems to be beyond that point.  With a western GDP per capita, and infinite amounts of consumer choices, but also a deep sense of history and antiquity it allows the deeper tensions we had experienced in the western regions to dissipate.  The Han vs. Tibetan and Hui, the modernity vs. tradition, the individualism vs, collectivism, all of which we struggled with to find balance between no longer exist in Beijing.  Here one side has been declared victorious already, and we can just enjoy the ride from here on out. 

And maybe it’s because of the Israeli blood that runs through my veins, but I sure do love them tensions.  And although I love the city, and the consumerism and the comfort, I would choose the west of China over the east in a heartbeat.  I’d take a vivid, clashing contrast of a dynamic frontier over a placid, decadent, flat lined city. Any day.

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