I am a New York City high school student who just spent the summer studying in China. If you’re like most people, you’re probably impressed, thinking I’m brave to spend nine weeks living in a city so far from home, a place so exotic. Yes, Beijing is far from home (so far that the time is exactly twelve hours ahead- when it’s Monday here, it’s Tuesday there) but the truth is, the idea that it is an exotic “third world” city is an outmoded idea. These days Beijing is a lot like New York.
Many Americans have the idea that China (or any country outside Europe. actually) is a behind-the-times country very different from our own. I thought this myself until I got there in June. We like to think of New York as the cultural center of the world, but I know that Beijing can now make the same claim. From restaurants to museums to galleries to clubs– Beijing has it all.
What first surprised me when I got there is that fashion in Beijing is similar to that in New York. Girls wear mini-skirts, jeans, t-shirts, even leggings. Vintage clothing is “in”. Guys wear jeans and T-shirts, just like they do here, the onlydifference is guys here wouldn’t wear T-shirts that say “Abercrombie and Glitch” or “Shopping Boy.”
On Wanfujing Avenue, Big Macs and Frappacinos are as easy to order as dumplings and duck. Starbucks is everywhere–even inside the Forbidden City. (So much for the idea that Chinese drink only tea.) There’s a McDonalds, KFC or Pizza Hut on almost every corner. But these aren’t just places to grab a quick bite. The menu items are expensive by Chinese standards, and they’re considered fancy restaurants, a place to meet a date or to host a family gathering. On holidays, Pizza Hut requires reservations for dinner and a dress code. On New Years Day, people line up around the block, waiting to get in.
Back in New York, the reading sections of my Chinese textbooks focused on innocuous topics like the weather, holidays and travel. So, I was surprised when I got to Peking University to be reading chapters on speed dating, teenage pregnancy, the advantages and disadvantages of internet relationships. Our class had discussions about whether it was right to beat your kids. We talked about who would take care of “kong chao lao ren” (empty nest old people) now that children were living far from their parents. Other chapters discussed crime, suicide in colleges and the social impact of the growing phenomenon of “din ke”, a direct translation from the American acronymn for double income, no kids.
Yes, I am happy to be back in New York. I am glad not to have to use squat toilets anymore, glad to brush my teeth without bottled water. But my summer abroad has made me see home as it looks from the other side of the world, where things aren’t nearly so different as I thought they would be.
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