Observations From Five Months in Beijing, China

Dec. 17, 2014
Day 153

You can't visit a new continent (let alone two new continents) every year. This year is special for me, my only multiple-new-continent year. After spending nearly five months in China, I'm due for a break. I'm heading to Australia.

Friends back home are always asking what I think of Beijing. To be honest, even after living there for nearly half a year, I still don't know how to respond. I've written about many amazing experiences in China (the best so far being my trip to Inner Mongolia). In fact, there are many more facets of China that I love and have yet to write about. But almost every day, I find myself in a situation that makes absolutely no sense to my Western eyes and ears.

I could go on and on about China, but for now, I'll give you 10 observations from my limited experience in the country:

1. The stereotypes about bathrooms, spitting and toilet-training are all true.

Picture of janitor.

Public bathrooms in Beijing.

Squat toilets are common. Bathrooms stink. People spit with no reservations. Toddlers wear crotchless pants and do their business on sidewalks, or wherever.

A lot of Westerners freak out when they see this stuff, but honestly, it hasn't been an issue for me. I'm not sure why it hasn't affected me as much as others, but I do know this: you're not going to change Chinese culture. If you plan to travel to China, you'll need to get used to this stuff quickly, or it'll be all you ever talk about.

2. The people are genuine and not aggressive.

Picture of smiling person.

Friends in Beijing.

Whenever I go for a walk, people say “hello” to me. I live in a suburb with a large expat community, and even there, many people get excited when they see foreigners. The language barrier is a real issue, but even if we can only communicate non-verbally, it always brightens my day to talk with the locals. And I have almost never been verbally harassed, which is very different from my experiences in Latin American cities, and even in bigger cities in the US. China has only recently opened its doors to the rest of the world, and the excitement is in the air. Meeting the locals has been one of my favorite things to do in China so far.

3. The websites you use every day won't work in China.


Credit: flickr.com/birgerking

Before I came to China, I knew that Facebook and Twitter were blocked. That wasn't a huge deal to me because I didn't use those websites very often. The thing I didn't realize was that Google is blocked. That's right, no Google Search, no Google Maps, no Google Drive, no Gmail! My own humble website isn't blocked, but because it uses some code that accesses a font from Google, it is painfully slow in China. The Android phone I bought in China doesn't even have the Google App Store, so I can't download any useful English-language apps. Google is like oxygen: you have no idea how important it is until it's gone.

The internet in China reminds me of a Ned Flanders quote about his cable television. “[I have] over 230 channels, locked out!”

4. The street food is amazing. International food is available at a price.

Picture of street food.

Dumplings (饺子) and steamed buns (包子) are my favorites. Beijing also has many nice restaurants that cater to those with international culinary preferences. They tend to cost a bit less than equivalent restaurants in the States. I go out to eat a lot in Beijing, and it's always an interesting experience. Even when I accidentally order intestines.

5. People smoke like it's the 1950s.

Picture of smoking man.

You can smoke just about anywhere, and cigarettes cost less than $2 per pack. This is a terrible place to live if you want to quit.

6. The beds are really hard.

Picture of tiles.

Softer than a Chinese bed.

If you laid sheet of plywood on top of a typical Chinese bed, it would become about 10% softer. This isn't a problem for everyone. If you sleep on your back, a hard bed probably is a good thing. If you sleep on your side and have plenty of “padding” on your hips, you'll still get a good night's sleep on a Chinese bed. But if, like me, you sleep on your side and you have bony hips, hard beds make you very, very ornery. After a couple days of waking up feeling like someone had hit me with a baseball bat across both hips, I broke down and started sleeping on my air mattress. People think I'm weird for bringing my own “bed” to a hotel room, but I consider it a necessity in China.

7. The pollution can be nonexistent or terrible on any given day.

Picture of pollution.

Air pollution.

Sometimes I wake up to a perfect blue sky. I can see the distant hills to Beijing's north and west. Other days, I can't even see the next building. There are so many factors at play – rain, wind, government mandated factory closings, and I'm sure many more – that it's impossible to guess tomorrow's pollution level. I don't know much about the long-term risks of living in such a polluted place, but if you're visiting Beijing for a short time, keep in mind that, depending on your luck, you might go home thinking I don't see what the big deal is, or I better make an appointment for a lung cancer screening.

8. The driving seems horrible, but there is a method to their madness.

Picture of traffic.

Beijing traffic.

Your biggest danger – by far – in China is getting hit by a car. I'm not the kind of person who blindly walks across the street, assuming that cars will stop. Even in the US, I look both ways before crossing. But in China, that's not good enough.

People do tend to stop at red lights, but stop signs, crosswalks and “green walking man” signs are meaningless. Cars are allowed to turn right on red, but they're not allowed to slow down and check if anyone's coming. There are so many more rules here, if you try to understand them all, you'll quickly start pulling your hair out. Instead, I've boiled the rules of the road down to their lowest common denominator.

Just for you, free of charge, I present my guide to driving and walking in China:

If you're on foot, here's when you have the right-of-way:

If you're on a bicycle, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot.

If you're on a motorcycle, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot or on a bicycle.

If you're in a car, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot, on a bicycle or on a motorcycle.

If you're in a bus, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot, on a bicycle, on a motorcycle or in a car.

If you're in a truck, here's when you have the right-of-way:

9. The public transportation is dirt cheap. The subway is easy to use, but buses are a huge challenge.

Picture of Dan in subway.

In Beijing, the subway costs thirty-three US cents per ride. There is plenty of English signage, so it's easy to figure out. Trains come every few minutes, so you never have to wait for long. My only issues with the subway are the long transfers (sometimes you have to walk through underground tunnels for fifteen minutes just to change trains) and the fact that the trains stop running at 11 p.m.

Buses in Beijing cost as little as seven US cents per ride, but they can be extremely difficult for foreigners to use. There is almost never a map, or anything written in English, at the bus stops. I have yet to meet a bus driver who speaks English, so if you get on a bus without a local who can translate for you, chances are you'll have no idea where you're going. Of course, this can be a fun adventure in itself.

10. There are tall people in Beijing. Seriously.

Overall, Beijing has been a great experience. I'm sure 2015 will bring more of the same. And in case you were wondering, here's when I first visited each new continent:

1. North America – 1978
2. Europe – 2001
3. South America – 2005
4. Antarctica – 2006
5. Asia – 2014
6. Australia – 2014
7. Africa – ???

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