Now, I’m not going to say that life in Beijing or any other part of China doesn’t involve plenty of radical differences compared to American living on the day to day. As I’m sure you’ve probably always heard, it is indeed a particularly foreign-feeling environment to find oneself in, especially after having spent 90% of one’s formative years in the ceaseless sprawl of Texan suburbia.
That being said, rather than expound upon all the innumerable and strange little discrepancies to be found, like hundreds of hemp-shod hipsters having coffee before me, trying oh-so-originally to capture the “old meets new” hodge-podge of ancient history and stark modernism that is Beijing’s vibration and present day reality – I’d really rather discuss that which has proven much more impactful during my month and a week spent in this city.
The ways in which things are exactly the same.
My coworker’s favorite show is Suits, and she knows all about the family Meghan Markle is marrying into.
Bike lanes abound.
Rideshares are just as common if not altogether more ubiquitous here than back home.
Smartphone-based food delivery puts Favor to total shame.
I live the exact same distance from an honest-to-God 7-11 here in Beijing as I do back in Austin AND in my family’s place in Dallas.
The Incredibles 2 wasn’t even dubbed in Chinese.
Enter Wang HongPeng (王宏鹏), my roommate (that’s him on the left). A good student, generous host, and altogether groovy guy. He’s not from Beijing originally, much in the same way that I’m not from Austin. Both of us grew up in mostly suburban, but also partially rural areas. Both of us had just finished our third year of college, both of us have business aspirations for after graduation, but neither of us are one hundred percent certain what that will mean for us in the years to come.
We also listen to the same music, and further discovered that we had played the exact same video games since youth. We appreciate the same sports, enjoy the same beverages, and fall victim to the same penchant for sweets, a little too often. As I discovered to no small sense of amazement, we were both devoted fans to my absolute favorite TV show, Bojack Horseman (which I didn’t even think was available beyond the Great Firewall). Also, his English is totally solid.
It was kind of a surreal, if otherwise delightful first meeting. In all fairness, I hadn’t had many expectations for who my roommate would be and was ready to be surprised- but I couldn’t help but be completely shocked over the sheer volume of things we had in common.
Later, after having had the chance to explore more of the bustling nervous center that is China’s capital city, I was further struck by the sneaking thought, that it was as though I had never left Austin at all and had merely changed the language settings.
Strolling down one of the many hip and revitalized “Hutong” alleyways in Beijing, I witnessed something like 6 artisan cafes, 3 “brew and brew” coffee and beer shops, 4 indie art stores, 2 craft microbreweries, and no less than 5 vintage clothing boutiques. This is to say nothing of the hip young residents themselves milling about and interacting with shop keeps and alley cats alike while very delicately milking their Friday afternoon for the benefit of their social media presence (which is quite possibly taken more seriously over here than even back home). I might as well have taken a stroll from Rainey to South Congress but in about half the normal time. I eventually settled on entering a single coffee shop that was hidden almost too well, speakeasy style, and found that their offerings were nigh indistinguishable from its Austin counterparts. Not only did they have a fun kitschy gimmick that allowed guests to earn discounts (from practicing traditional, as opposed to simplified Chinese characters), but the cashier spoke surprisingly polished English and the whole of the interior was practically a transplant of several shops I knew from back home in multiple respects.
In addition to these familiar hipster-y Hutongs, the whole of Beijing’s commercial downtown is equally hard to tell apart from, say, downtown Dallas. Spacious, sprawled, and chock-full of banks, broadways, chain restaurants, and botanic features wherever urban constraints allow. Beijing is even plagued with the same unending road construction and refurbishment of my hometown (not city-wide but just present enough to be frustrating to motorists). Granted, the local flora is visibly dissimilar in some spots but if it weren’t for that and a few architectural exceptions, you’d think this was the same as any given American metropolis’s commercial district. Many of these areas may be the product of relatively recent investments and state construction projects, however this in no way lessens the striking nature of their familiarity.
Beijing has a robust, simple to navigate, and ever-expanding subway system. Having commuted via public transportation for work in the past, I can say honestly that from day one, the only aspect of the journey to work that was in any way different from the experiences I’ve had back home was my initial struggle to track down the correct office building (fortunately my Mandarin isn’t so broken that I can’t ask for directions). This is all to say nothing about the various shopping malls that are alike to their American counterparts in almost every single way, with the sole exception that some (not even all) of the stores are Chinese and not Western.
Perhaps it’s only me that finds all these similarities between two points on opposite ends of the globe so fascinating, but in my opinion it’s what makes the things that are so radically dissimilar all the more pronounced. You can go half the day almost able to convince yourself that things are totally normal and then you are suddenly slapped with an accidental faux pas, alien smell-scape, sea of local’s stares, or indecipherable restaurant sign. The familiarity really makes the impact sting a little more, and not necessarily in a bad way, if you’re a traveler used to almost masochistically challenging travel experiences like myself.
In any case, I hope I’ll have another opportunity before long to share with you all, in more detail, some of these vast but subtle differences, and thereby complete the retelling of the experience three Longhorns and I are having at present.
I also hope that Taco Joint is still intact when I return. I’m hardly homesick with all the fun there is to be had here, but even in a cosmopolitan city like this, there are some things you just can’t find.
Max C. Malone – 马梦龙
Senior Marketing Major
Desperate Chinese Student
This post was contributed by Max Malone, a 2018 Global Ambassador.
Don’t get left behind. Find your study abroad adventure>>
Jeanette Krzewinski-Malone says
Thank you for this wonderful story and for sharing with all of us. I am a little biased since this is my son, but I cannot help but express my enthusiasm over this outstanding piece.
Thank you UT Austin Study abroad for providing the experience of a lifetime for our Max Calvin.
People are people the world around, Max. I’m glad that you are sharing that. We need to be more aware of our similarities and get over our differences if we are going to continue to share this world.
I certainly enjoyed my travel in China and hope more American students have that opportunity. We have to get out of our surroundings to appreciate what we have and the joys of other cultures.