A good friend(Al) recently visited me in Beijing. He stayed for seven days and fell in love with the city and its people. Al is an astute observer of life and picked up on several differences between America and China. One night, we met with another American who’s lived in Beijing for two decades to share dinner and conversation. This second friend, Jeremiah, listened to Al’s and my observations about what we saw in Beijing and offered a quote he had heard about travelers in China. I think this is a wonderful insight into how people develop perspective/wisdom over time. He said, “If you live in Beijing for a week you can write a book, after a month you’ll be able to write an article, and by the time you’ve lived here for a year, you won’t write anything.”
Well, I’ve visited Beijing twelve times in the last twelve years. I’m currently in the midst of a five month stay here. So in honor of my friend’s quote, I’m limiting myself to a short collection of observations about China’s capital. Of course, my observations are based on partial understanding of what my eyes and ears are picking up. Be that as it may, I feel comfortable making some observations which you might contest, but may broaden your understanding of China. If you disagree, or care to offer a different perspective, please do so in comments.
First, Beijing is statistically one of the safest cities in the world. There is almost no petty crime. No muggings, no rapes, no stealing. Of course, some of you might say that this is due to the regime which controls the country and the presence of cameras everywhere. Almost every American, upon hearing I was going to live in China for a semester expressed concern that I would be watched by the government. And that is true, the government is watching me. They’re also watching the other 107,000 expats living in Beijing and the rest of the 600,000 expats living in China. They’re also watching the 1.3 billion people in China. Just like our government, the Chinese are watching the internet and public locations for potential problems. But for the most part they aren’t interested in me or anyone who’s leading quiet, ordinary lives.
But putting aside Americans’ fears of watchful governments, imagine a place where women feel safe walking down streets at night by themselves. Imagine a place where mothers don’t teach their daughters how to put keys between their fingers so they have a weapon in hand in case of an attack. Where girls haven’t been taught to cross the street because a man is walking behind them. What I’ve noticed in Beijing is that women and girls don’t feel like they have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and on the look out for potential threats. They just walk down streets going to their destinations. After the Mongols conquered most of Asia in the early 1200’s( and created a horrible devastation in the process) it was said of their empire that peace reigned. In fact, I read a quote which nicely summed up how law and order prevailed throughout the land: “It was said that a beautiful woman, carrying a bag of gold, could walk from one end of the empire to the other without being harmed.” And Beijing is that quote brought to life. Could the same be said of America? Not even close. In fact, I challenge any man who doubts me to ask young women about the precautions they have to take when walking out the door. Last year I sat down with a group of female students to talk about this very topic. We moved quickly through some of the things I’ve mentioned to their experiences taking Uber and Lift. The talked about not wanting to talk to their drivers for fear the men would think the girls were interested in them. Many of them had experienced situations where drivers commented on how pretty they looked, asked if they had boyfriends and wondered if they needed to be walked to the door. I’ve never heard a man have these same experiences.
People don’t talk about politics very much in China. I love this one. Yes, China is a one party state so it’s not like there are many competing parties to choose from. Think about the energy many Americans waste reading articles or watching talking heads explain the news which don’t accomplish much more than to raise our blood pressure. In the past, I was sometimes surprised at how people in China really didn’t care, or know, much about what was going on in America. After spending two months over here I can tell you what a relief it is to not talk about politics or to hear people talk about politics. In Daoism and related practices such as Qigong and Tai Chi, we believe that if one becomes emotionally involved in watching something or reading something, then the observer’s qi or energy is being stolen by those things. This leads to a decline in our health as qi energy is sapped from us by Fox News, political debates, ESPN, MSNBC, etc. I’m happy not to be losing my energy on the latest outrageous event.
When people retire here in China, they go to the parks. And they engage in an active life. They play Chinese Chess, they sing, dance, play a version of hacky-sack, work out, practice tai chi, etc. The fascinating thing is how people have broken out into specialized workout sub groups. Some of the more unusual ones include: the push-up guys, the gymnasts on parallel bars, the people who practice with whips, the guys pushing against trees. This is in addition to all the people doing activities which westerners might not consider so unusual including: tai chi, qigong, gongfu, singing, dancing, pushing hands. They even have competitions featuring dance groups of 30 or more people in every public space. All of them over 50 years old. Night time is especially busy. At least part of the reason for this is the government doesn’t allow Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime or any other streaming service or social media. Would the freedom to access all of this entertainment be of benefit to people. Is it an inherent right? Possibly, but leading active lives with positive social interaction certainly seems better than our splintered society where people retreat to their devices at night ignoring the real world outside.
There is an active understanding from everyone- government and individuals alike that saving the environment is important and necessary. And the government is doing something about it. According to a World Economic Forum article published in 2018, China has already implemented plans to significantly improve China’s air quality as well as worked to develop a greener economy. The government has even raised taxes so as to offer increased financial support for environmental iniatives. Technology has been used on a massive scale to make energy saving efforts. LED lights shut off in my apartment hallway when no one is around. I have to stamp my foot to turn those lights on so as to unlock my apartment door. Escalators slow down when no one is on them. Trees are being planted everywhere. It’s actually heartening to see a government which is taking steps both small and large to save or replenish the environment. Yes, China has a pollution problem and they also have made terrible offenses against the environment in the past. As did companies in the United States during Industrial Age up to the 1960’s. When Congress passed the Clean Air Acts of 1963 and 1967 and other acts which prevented dumping of waste and protecting endangered species they were acting in the best interest of our citizenry and our nation, and so it seems is the Chinese government today.
Finally, China is quickly in the process of transitioning to a new system of exchange with WeChat. It is already possible to go through life in Beijing and other large modern Chinese cities without using paper money at all. Young people buy most items on the Chinese version of Amazon. They pay for taxis with WeChat, groceries, apartment rent, food at restaurants, vacations, everything. For me as an American it took a while to get used to just showing the bar code on my phone for WeChat which would complete my transaction. It required a different mindset.
Some might say that I’ve fallen into the trap Jeremiah was referring to in his quote. That I’ve idealized what I’m seeing in China and lost perspective. I’m certainly limited by my own individual perspective. I don’t have the ability to raise myself above the world of humans to see what is real and true. But I do believe that travel opens the door to a greater reality just a pinch. That it does allow us to see over the first hill we’ve climbed to a mountain that rises even higher. To engage in endless travel isn’t the answer, but I’ve found that travel and talking with people outside of our own little worlds helps broaden our understanding of the world. Much more than watching TV or ingesting news from whatever platform we favor. As my master says, Ants on the back of an elephant are never aware they’re on an elephant. To them, that’s their entire world. So while I haven’t become a communist, and I don’t think that the Chinese government is perfect, I do think there are some things we as Americans can learn from China, it’s people and the government. That women can walk home alone at night without fear. That’s an idea which stays with me. While the U.S. is home to a very strong government, half of our population walks through the world aware that there are predators out there. Men don’t walk through life in the same way. Just as an example, have any of you men been asked by your uber driver if they could kiss you? So, yes, maybe, in the interest of making our country a safer place for women, we should consider looking further than the elephant’s back and find better solutions.