The real China

It's easy to fall into a comfortable routine while abroad, but I decided it was time to explore Beijing.

I knew, coming to China, that I’d meet people from completely different backgrounds than me. I have classmates from Mongolia, the Philippines, Sweden, Portugal, Australia, France, and the Netherlands. The international scene has been one of the best parts of studying abroad in Beijing, and is something you can’t really get anywhere else. 

It is easy to get caught up in the international student environment, and I sometimes forget that I’m living in China. While international students are housed in single rooms in some of the newest dorms at Tsinghua, Chinese students live in separate buildings, in different parts of campus. All of our classes are in the “C” building, where we socialize with other international students (and rarely Chinese students). We spend nearly every night in the neighborhood that borders campus, Wudaokou, studying or drinking at a café or nightspot that caters to a foreign clientele. 

I love having my own bathroom. I love eating Western food every chance I get. But I hate that I can count the number of my Chinese friends on one hand. 

I woke up this past weekend and realized that I needed to get in touch with the real China. I hopped on the subway and headed towards the center of the city. I made a few transfers and ended up at Tiananmen Square. I walked up the steps, out of the subway station with no plan and a vague idea of where I was. I waved goodbye to Chairman Mao, as he watched me wander further and further away from the enormous portrait hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City. I took a left somewhere, walked straight for a while and thirty minutes later, ended up at the entrance of a hutong.

Beijing is famous for ancient hutongs, which are a series of narrow alleyways and single-story homes that are joined together by common courtyards. The communal living style is considered an important element of Chinese culture. Many hutongs have disappeared from the city in the race of urbanization. I felt lucky to have stumbled upon one.

As I walked down the main alleyway, I was surrounded by street vendors trying to sell everything from pineapples to roasted duck It was obvious that the neighborhood doesn’t see many foreigners, as indicated by the long stares I received. I felt completely out of place. I walked quickly through the alley, trying to avoid attracting attention to myself, until a man shouted for me to take a picture of his friend in Chinese (luckily we had just finished the chapter covering the word for photograph, “zhaopian”, in class the week before). I laughed and instantly went from feeling like an outsider to feeling sort of at home. 

I found the real China. I was fascinated by the hustle in the streets, the street vendors shouting prices, and the sense of community that was even extended to me, an American tourist. It was basic, grassroots Chinese culture and something I hadn’t experienced in the two months I had been in the country.

The end of the alleyway came into sight and I dreaded it. The return to the cold, harsh urbanization outside the gate was inevitable though. I took one last glance back at the seemingly utopian community I was leaving behind.

A lot of people warned me that I’d fall in love with China, but that was always a little hard to believe. There are many reasons to hate China, especially when you live here, constantly subject to the hazy, pollution-filled air and the borderline life-threatening traffic. I can’t explain it, but the day I was stood at the gate of the hutong, China pulled me in. 

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