Beijing, As I Like It

Sunday to Sunday, it’s been a week since I arrived. It’s been a happy time, a busy time, and a reflective time.

Every time I come to Beijing after being away it takes me a while to get my bearings. Fresh off the plane, I never know where to eat, how to meet up with friends, or navigate my way to the best quality fake DVDs. Life in China happens at a 100-meter dash pace. It’s a big change from my recent life in Paris where, twelve years after my first visit, my pocket maps are still current and my favorite restaurants haven’t even changed the upholstery on their chairs.

At the start of this week, I had no idea where to go to eat mao xue wang (a frightening but irresistible spicy stew of tripe, blood, and other animal parts), how to buy a new SIM card for my phone, or what price to pay for a good foot rub. With a bit of help from friends, old and new, I’ve now worked out my basic needs. I’ve managed to overcome internet censorship (thanks to Witopia), settle into a comfy couch to read and drink smoothies (Bookworm), and get my daily dose of yoga (Yoga Yard).

Basics aside, on the whole I find Beijing a much more pleasant (and more foreign-husband-friendly) city this time around. The infrastructure that was built up to welcome millions of Olympics tourists in 2008 still functions and now serves the needs of Beijingers well. Instead of rickety and sweltering hot 1980’s era buses I can hop onto a still-shiny vehicle, swipe my city transportation card, and sit in relatively cool comfort to wait for my stop.

Even more significant than the physical infrastructure is the “cultural infrastructure.” Leading up to the Olympics I saw the impressive public campaign to make Beijingers tourist-ready – at every bus station government workers wearing the ubiquitous and authoritative red armbands waved small flags to herd commuters into queues. Everywhere I turned, some celebrity was smiling from a TV screen or colored poster and reminding people not to spit in public or push in a crowd. A year after the Olympics, people are still lining up, of their own accord and without the aid of armbanded enforcers. It’s easier than ever to love Beijing.

In my week here I’ve also been reminded of the vibrancy of the city. China is really its own universe. From London to New York, everywhere I went this summer my acquaintances were talking in dull tones about the recession, losing their jobs, or cutting back on shopping. Here, locals and expats alike are optimistic about the opportunities out there.

It’s not that they’ve all drunk the government Cool-Aid and believe in the mighty Chinese foreign reserves. It’s just that people who have chosen to make their life here seem to be bigger risk-takers, more creative, and somewhat relaxed about what shape their “success” can take. Instead of the usual two-year stint at an investment bank or consultancy, followed by business school, then followed by I-don’t-know-what (eternal happiness?), the people I meet here mostly got here by packing a bag and getting on a plane. Many arrived without significant Chinese language skills nor a job lined up. But over time they’ve found interesting gigs, started small companies, and developed amazing fluency in Mandarin.

I’m a believer in “do what makes you happy” and can’t judge anyone’s life choices beyond my own (HBS friends should take no offence at my above observation). All I want to say is that being here has made me extremely happy and wonderfully inspired. For now, it’s the perfect place to reconnect with my past and think about my choices for the future.

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