Beijing is an old city. Compared with the omnipresent bright, neon lights that adorn the mass of skyscrapers in Shanghai, Beijing did not immediately strike me as a thriving metropolis, home to 21 million citizens. Instead of highways elevated above the rest of the city, allowing cars to hurtle around the city four stories up, roads we traveled on in Beijing were close to the ground and lined by trees and bushes. Instead of a trademark skyline, none of Beijing’s notable buildings are skyscrapers. Monumental works of architecture, such as the Forbidden City, Great Hall of the People and “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, project authority from low to the ground.
Stepping onto Tiananmen Square encapsulated many of my feelings about Beijing. The square itself is absolutely massive, a marble behemoth, which is hard to appreciate by merely standing on it. I walked its length, marveling at the Forbidden City at the square’s end, flanked by the Great Hall of the People and National Museum on either side. The square was particularly busy today, I remarked to my professor. She responded that it was always this busy.
Despite the feeling of awe I felt stepping onto the square, I couldn’t help being reminded of the history associated with the very plaza I was walking across. Just as Tiananmen Square is located in the direct center of the city, so it has been in the middle of China’s troubled past. Protests in the square in both 1976 and 1989 were the extent of my education when studying China in high school. The tragedy of the 1989 protest defines the suppressive culture of the Chinese government to the outside world. No matter what games or international expos occur in China, the world’s focus remains on the Square.
The positive experiences during my trip to Beijing were mostly focused around China’s dynastic past. The Forbidden City and Summer Palace, leftovers from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, played host to our group’s tourism. In a sign of architectural dominance, the buildings within these landmark sites are painted in lavish royal hues of gold, green and red. Huge carvings of dragons sweep across awnings and magnificent arches hang over every pathway. In typical Chinese fashion, I was never alone in my visits: every single inch of space was filled with fellow tourists, most of whom were Chinese visiting from distant provinces to appreciate the culture and history.
In the Qing dynasty’s Summer Palace, the emperors of old oversaw the creation of a manmade lake nearly three times the size of the Forbidden City. As my friend and I sat on the beach enjoying the late afternoon on this lake, a group of Chinese kids around our age approached us. The young men, smiling at us with a combination of humor and genuine interest, asked me to snap a picture of them with my friend.
I practiced my Chinese for a while with our new friends as they posed for a ridiculous photo. I learned that they were from Hebei, a province close to Beijing, and that they had never been far from their home. What’s more, they told me they’d never seen a laowai (foreigner) with red hair, hence their interest in taking a photo with my friend. I learned that they were indeed around our age and that they were currently in the midst of China’s rigorous college entrance examination process. When I told them I hoped they did well, they told me they hoped so as well — they went on to describe to me the weight placed on the testing system in China. If they do not get an exemplary score on their exam, the rest of their life could hang in the balance. To me, they said their score on the entrance exam was the difference between getting into a college and working in a field for the rest of their life.
As I left Beijing, I felt an appreciation for the cultural history of the city as well as the opportunities afforded me as an American. I could run through a number of clichés at this point, but I’m content with saying that while my experiences growing up and going to school in the United States seemed to me inane and sometimes boring, there is always someone who you can talk to that will absolutely flip your perspective on the truths that define your existence.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.