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More on Beijing…

A few hours have passed and I have since been talking with colleagues at Renmin University about academic publishing, etc — and warned them they take my advice at their own risk. I forgot to mention that I was posting that entry from a Starbucks located near the hotel, which is probably another factor in making this city feel so much like any city in the US — except cannot take my “Starbucks card” for payment. (I was in Newcastle UK about two or three weeks ago and it was accepted at all the S-bucks — a fact that even surprised the baristas there. Here they won’t even try since the card swiping is set up so differently…)

Back to my point (if I had one), i.e. the familiar feel of this Beijing neighborhood…. As I read my last post again, I realized one of the countries I left out of my list of places traveled was Israel — perhaps the country I felt least comfortable in. It is tough to get use to walking streets where folks in civilian garb are carrying assault weapons over their shoulders, and where the level of suspicion is so think in the air that you cut sense it everywhere. Other countries I’ve been to also had somewhat of an “garrison state” feel to them — at minimum there was always a heavy sense of police presence and surveillance even in the UK (those CCTV cameras were everywhere, whether we are talking London or Belfast — and they weren’t just for the auto speeders…). I think I expected the same here — or perhaps even more so given the images we’ve had of protests in Chinese cities and the treatment of reporters, etc.

Coming back to the hotel, however, I realized that was what was missing — the only sign on any kind of police or military presence are the uniformed folks who guard the gates at the University or shopping mall parking lots. I may be under constant surveillance, no doubt, but there is a notable lack of authoritative presence in the streets here. (As I cross some wide streets where cars are indifferent to pedestrians and cyclists, I wished there was some authoritative figures out there enforcing some rules. Seems the taxi drivers might have trained in Manhattan, but the typical pedestrian has yet to develop the assertiveness of the New Yorker….)

Tomorrow is a free day — nothing scheduled until a lecture at 4PM on Friday — and I plan to do plenty of walking about. Will try to fit in the normal touristy things (Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, etc.), but really looking forward to heading around more neighborhoods aways from the University to see whether my impressions hold up….

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

The familiar “feel” of Beijing….

I was a late starter when it came to international travel, but since my first (non-Canadian) trip around 1994 I have accumulated quite a few passport notations: Panama, France, Brazil, South Korea, Japan (including Okinawa), Australia, Austria, the UK (esp two years in Northern Ireland), Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Mexico — and I might be missing a location or two.

The current trip to China (I am now in Beijing and will visit Xiamen and Wuhan before returning home) is perhaps among the most interesting not because it is the most exotic I’ve taken, but rather because it the most “familiar” (i.e., western; almost American). The architecture, cars, the fashions, the chatter (that which I can understand) — all seem very comfortable. I may be in a strange land, but I hardly feel like a stranger….

Maybe it is a matter of location (I am in what is called the “3rd ring” of Beijing — the 1st being the Forbidden City, etc, and the 2nd being major government offices), but this is by far the most visibly “middle class” setting I’ve visited outside the US. Yes, it is the location of a major university (I am staying across the road from Renmin University), but it is also residential and commercial — as in many modern and very familiar stores and shopping malls.

It is hard to describe, but even though there are as many bicyclists and street vendors I expected, they are part and parcel of a bustling urban dynamic the includes mass transit, major thoroughfares, neighborhoods lined with shops of every sort, and auto traffic that far exceeds what I expected. I cam expecting a Third World city in transition — but I entered a world class city that seems to be very comfortable with whatever changes have (and might) occur.

Maybe it was the “cleanup” for the 2008 Olympics that can account for the modernized and up-to-date Beijing that I am seeing, but in conversations with folks in their twenties and thirties it is clear that the social and economic transformation has been massive and quick. One noted that when she was a child, her family were constantly preoccupied with the price of basics — food and shelter — but that now her parents and she are more focused on the concern of all middle class folks on amenities, lifestyle and status. It is far more than a physical transformation — it is deeply social and cultural…..

Maybe a few more days of walking around will lead to a change of mind. But at the moment I have to say that I am very impressed….

(PS: This is also a terrific way to go cold turkey in re Twitter and Facebook — no access, and you can definitely sense that there are walls up all around the internet….)

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments