Spring has arrived in Beijing and with it a transformation of the campus and the surrounding Wudaokou neighborhood. The 15 minute walk from the dorm to Foreign Policy and Sociology class or my favorite Muslim restaurant is much more pleasant with sunshine and lush green trees, even if I need to swat the occasional bug from landing in my mouth. Warmer weather, and the month countdown until my program ends, has also motivated me to explore the city in the little free time I seem to have.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited the 798 art gallery district, Lama Temple (home to Tibetan Buddhism) ancient drum and bell towers and the surrounding famous Hutong alleys. The Hutong’s of Beijing are the traditional neighborhoods that epitomize old Beijing. They’re frequently in the news for being torn down in an effort to modernize Beijing, making way for some new construction project. Even though this particular area of Hutong’s are largely for tourist, some local people still live there with their families. My visit was a welcome reminder of the reason I wanted to live in China in the first place. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the culture, history and everyday life of Chinese people.
Living in Wudaokou and attending a university composed of more foreigners than Chinese, it’s all too easy to live in the bubble of a program surrounded by Americans and a neighborhood that’s remarkably Western. It many ways the program tries to protect you and help you seamlessly adjust to life in a new country. However, one of the side-effects is losing out on the cultural aspects of study in a foreign country. Living with Americans can only bring with it much of American culture and drama. It’s difficult to focus on China when you are surrounded by classmates more interested in each other than learning the language. Additionally there are more places to buy pizza and hamburgers and coffee than to slurp a big bowl of beef noodles or eat freshly fried dumplings. That’s not to say you could ever, even for a moment, forget you were in China.
Life’s challenges are present on every corner. Not so much for foreign exchange students sipping overpriced coffee but for the local people living, working, striving to make tomorrow better than today. For my semester research project, I’ve started to investigate and document the living condition of migrant workers who come to Beijing in hopes of finding a better life. They are the vendors selling pineapple and sweet potatoes, the dishwashers of local restaurants, and the staffers of popular local bars. These migrant workers leave Beijing’s surrounding villages and come to the cities to find jobs and better education for their children but find hardships in part because of China’s population registration system, or Houkou. I recently learned that because they earn very little money, they sometimes choose to live in the cramped, unclean, and dangerously overcrowded basement areas of apartment complexes.
Hopefully with the help of my language partner and other Chinese friends, I’ll be able to speak with some of the people living there and document their experience which I feel is the darker side of China’s rapid development. basement areas of apartment complexes.