As one of the perks of my job here in Japan, I had a month long vacation from mid July to mid August. I took advantage of that break and scheduled a trip with a friend of mine, calling it our ‘Girls’ Trip.’ Much to both of our husbands’ dismay, the trip was to Beijing, China. I don’t think I need to go into detail about why the idea didn’t sit well with them. It’s no secret that China isn’t considered a friend of the United States, nor is it considered a friendly place to live. No matter though, because it’s the home of the Great Wall, and that was all that mattered to us!
While it was a great experience and I’m happy to say that I’ve walked the Great Wall, seen the Forbidden City, and wandered the streets of Beijing – a lot of what people generally think of China turned out to be true. Beijing was a very dirty city, full of rude people who seemed to think we were rich simply because we were Americans. To add to the general unpleasantness, we also managed to be there during the biggest flood in sixty – one years. The first day of our trip was full of crazy rainstorms and ended with a drive home in water so deep that many cars’ engines were flooding. China later reported that around thirty people died from the flooding, but it’s estimated that it was closer to 300, based on accounts of tourists and foreign reporters.
The trip wasn’t all bad though. We were lucky in that we not only had our own personal tour guide, but a personal driver, too! They were both very friendly and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. Spending our time in China with a guide allowed us to learn more about what it’s like to live in China as a normal citizen. We learned quickly that even though our he had managed to move to Beijing from a poor suburb ; go to college in Beijing for English; and pass a very difficult exam on the language, he still wasn’t payed well and worked seven twelve (or more) hour days a week. We didn’t prod a lot into his personal life, but he made it very clear that he was unhappy with his career and didn’t make enough for a comfortable life.
This didn’t seem strange to us at all though, because everywhere we looked in Beijing, it seemed there was no such thing as quality in ‘quality of life.’ The parts of New York City that we consider to be low income housing look like five star hotels compared to what we saw in the city. Compared to what we saw in the suburbs, the ghettos of New York look like mansions. It led me to question whether these living situations were considered normal, or if many citizens made such little money that they were forced to live this way?
We weren’t quick to ask all the questions we had, though, because we knew that they were not simply answered. Our tour guide seemed excited to teach us about China, but it became very clear, very quickly that much of what he thought to be the truth was very affected by China’s control over information. There were several situations where he said something that was very inaccurate about the world outside of China, leaving us confused about how to react.
Beyond what we observed of the people in Beijing, we learned a lot about China through the sights we were able to see. Many of the places we visited were built during or before the Ming Dynasty, making them at least three-hundred-fifty years old. That’s older than the United States… by a lot! All of them left us wondering how they managed to build them back then. And of course, one of the sights we saw was actually one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
Our quick trip was the perfect amount of time. It was great seeing the Beijing, but we were more than ready to head back to the polite and orderly country of Japan.