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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: June 23, 2014 NO. 26 JUNE 26, 2014
China Is Not Beijing, Beijing Is China
By Aaron A. Vessup

INTERNATIONAL CITY: A foreign boy plays in the water at a fountain in Sanlitun, an area in east Beijing where foreigners like to reside (XINHUA)

A first-time visitor to Beijing could fall into a trap thinking the following:

1. All people in Beijing are Chinese.

2. You reside in Beijing.

3. You must be Chinese.

An expression like the one above would be called a syllogism, a way of arguing using two statements to prove that a third statement is true. These tools of Aristotelian logic are what Westerners have been trained to use in reasoning processes. We tend to simplify so-called "perceived reality" in this way.

However, the third statement—you must be Chinese—cannot be categorically applied to all residents of Beijing. Examining the above syllogism might reveal that it is flawed by what is known as a "faulty beginning premise." Using common sense, we know that all Beijingers are not Chinese despite being in China. Therefore, processing the notion of China not being Beijing may seem challenging at the onset.

Westerners staying in China as long-term residents are quite likely to have recognized the myriad complexities that exist in Chinese culture. Nothing is simple; most things should not be taken for granted or at face value.

For example, though a store or restaurant may celebrate its grand opening, there is absolutely no guarantee this same place of business will be open next week. Packaged dry goods in grocery stores labeled "red sugar" may not actually be red in color, and often look suspiciously similar to packages labeled "brown sugar." And just because a thriving international chain like Hard Rock Cafe generally does well in any big city with foreign residents, this does not mean such a place will be a permanent fixture in Beijing's growing roster of foreigner staples.

Remember, this is Beijing—not necessarily China, not the Red Middle Kingdom painted by foreign presses, and definitely not a far-north version of Hong Kong Disneyland.

Keeping in this vein, being in Beijing is not necessarily the same as being in China. Is this observation confusing? Perhaps.

China's mainland is home to 56 different ethnic groups. Many members of these vastly disparate groups, in addition to the influx of migrant workers, international embassies and their representatives, and Westerners like myself have—for the most part—congregated in the capital city of Beijing. No other Chinese city can claim this distinction.

In Beijing, almost every third or fourth person speaks "a little English." This certainly cannot be said linguistically of most other cities on the mainland. When it comes to costs of living, Hong Kong and Shanghai prices are not Beijing's; no other Chinese city has attracted over 80 million migrant workers seeking better livelihoods; social mobility in second-tier cities is nowhere close to that in Beijing.

While less-progressive areas of China's mainland might be labeled "rural" (and more akin to third-tier cities)—with the exceptions of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen—China's "northern capital" is clearly in a field by itself with regards to high competitiveness and cultural preservation. Hence, the costs physically and mentally may be much higher, simply because in Beijing's urbanized areas, global competition is extreme and more pronounced than in smaller, lesser developed metropolises.

Furthermore, in no other Chinese city will you find such a global variety in languages, foods, and cultural traditions as striking as that in Beijing. This city guarantees first-timers and locals alike a continual feast for the senses. Trends and subcultures from virtually every corner of the globe can be experienced here. You are more likely to find Beijing fashions running the gamut from the latest cutting-edge apparel to spectacularly questionable outfit choices here, which cannot be said for most of the smaller cities.

As for cuisines, it would take several lifetimes to partake in the vast array of edibles on offer here, a combination of everything from Hunan's "stinky tofu" to Qingdao beer to Sichuan hot pot and beyond. Having the convenience of banking and postal services seven days a week is quite a benefit to those with demanding schedules. In most Chinese cities, posted hours of business are rarely a rule to bet on. However, in Beijing, things are more predictable and it is easier to "go with the flow."

Despite all this, the logical syllogism from the beginning still reflects a simple truth: China offers a lot, all of which can be found in Beijing; however, the wonder, culture, fashion, tastes, and sights of Beijing cannot be found together elsewhere in China. Whether you're Chinese or not, living in Beijing is a unique experience you won't find anywhere else in the world.

The author is an American living in Beijing

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