I first came to Beijing in 2005 as part of an exchange semester in my Master's Program, attending Peking University for the second half of the year. I remember coming into the city via the airport through the smoggy night, the yellow lights illuminating dark trees along the airport expressway. The smog then was nothing like it is now, but first impressions are first impressions. The car took me to the Wudaokou neighborhood, to an apartment in the Huaqingjiayuan complex, towards the late evening. I remember the streets seeming empty and being disoriented, but this area would become the center of all my future Beijing experiences.
I had lived in China before, specifically Shanghai, and that global city was my experiential reference. Beijing and Shanghai are very different. Shanghai is the city of the East and West meeting, of dense urbanity, skyscrapers, and showy economic power. It is regarded as being superficial, money and fashion focused, with only a comparatively shallow history (at most 200 years, compared to Beijing's 1000+). In the time I had spent in Shanghai I had become familiar with its culture and history, tying those back to my family history in the city in the 1920's and 1930's. Shanghai circa 2000 was remerging in spectacular ways with its monumental skyline (the Pearl Tower, the Jinmao building), wealth, and decadence. And I was fully swept up in Shanghai fever. . .
Beijing was something else, and harder for me to understand. In contrast to Shanghai it didn't seem as exciting. More physically extreme, with its spread out-ness and lack of traditional urban center, as well as the weather. I didn't know as much about, or appreciate, traditional Chinese culture, as I do now, so my windows into the city were more difficult. I remember being slightly alienated in those first weeks. . . but slowly Beijing started growing on me.
I remember taking Subway Line 13 into the center of the city. There were only 3 subway lines then, as compared to over 10 now. I would take 13 and then change to Line 2 at the epic Xizhimen interchange, get off in one of the stops surrounding the old city, and then walk through the Hutongs. This was my cultural introduction to Beijing, and an activity I have continued since. There is a way you can map the space of the city through the maze of alleys, sucking in history and culture through movement and exploration. Beijing's ancient dust captured me. . . I would get lost and emerge out into a familiar street. The red smog-filtered sun would set over the Fragrant Hills in the west and on the ancient trees over tiled roofs.
Now there were two urban frames of reference in China, the contrasting Beijing/Shanghai each with their own cultures, working in some dialectic. People ask me which one I love more, and I cannot say. Or I say, "it depends which one I am in", which map I have loaded into my brain. Which historical and spatial context. Both are global in their own way, and in combination they represent major parts of global China.
The first exposures to Beijing left me wanting more. That first time I was only there for 6 months and the disorientation continued. I think Beijing was in flux at that time, ready for the boom of the coming Olympics, its modern unveiling of global-ness and global power. With that came big changes that continue to this day, the construction and expansion, the growing traffic problems, the worsening air.
I came back to Beijing in 2010 for a much longer time. Three years this time. As a teacher at Tsinghua University, China's premier science and engineering institution. Three years is a long time to be in one place and I continue my explorations of the city, now post-Olympics, and changed in some ways from my first time there. The limits of the city were farther out. There were more subway lines, more ring roads, more cars, more wealth. The city seemed to stretch out further every six months, but also to fill itself in. What once seemed far from the center, such as the Wudaokou neighborhood just outside the Fourth Ring Road, now seemed much closer.
But less of other things. Some of the hutongs had been destroyed. People had been moved out to the suburbs. Some things had change. Space was contested. But new areas also emerged, full of local culture mixed with global culture, different people coming to the city from other parts of China or other parts of the world, and filling the city with art and music. Those were there before, but had been expanded.
In my three years I moved through all parts of the Beijing of the early 21st Century. From the hutongs to the luxury hotels to the art spaces to migrant enclaves and unfinished developments at the edges of the city. I moved through smog and snow, and autumnal light, and cool spring breezes, and humid summers. Through neon streets and shopping malls. I met students and politicians and people from all over China. I met artists and foreigners who had set up business. I met people lower in Chinese society, trash collectors, workers. I found more historical spaces, ancient temples, interesting museums, but also other things, remnants of Communist history, giant unused factories, haunted houses. . . and on and on.
And what about me as a global migrant? What was I looking for in Beijing? Some of it had to do with being in China, being deeper tied to that civilizational history, which intersects with family (one of my relatives was an early provost at Tsinghua). There was also the feeling that something important was happening in China (obviously), but that being in Beijing (a particular ontological state), being at Tsinghua, being in the city with all its issues (pollution, politics, rising prices, etc.), would. I migrated to this place to work, to see, to be, to connect, and to commune with the future (or a particular future), as well as to draw back deeper into the past, into that civilizational history and the history of the 20th Century.
In the three years I think those things were accomplished. This is a record of some of that knowledge; of the author as migrant observing the global city, engaged with it critically in its hyper-totality.
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