Friday, December 26, 2008

Letter From Beijing

By Susan Chen

Ni men hao~

Greetings from Beijing! As I write this update on my life abroad, away from the comforts of Stanford University, I cannot help but comment on the white "snow" floating outside my window: pollen from the nearby poplar and willow trees. Welcome to Spring in Beijing!

I arrived here on March 30th, greeted warmly by faces familiar and new in a dorm that could easily be mistaken as a hotel. Over the next few days, I gradually adjusted to the unique Beijing way of life: weaving through speeding cars in a cars-before-passengers traffic system, always carrying napkins with me as these seem to be luxury items hardly available anywhere, applying never-too-much lotion to counter the dry and dusty weather. Speaking of dusty, Beijing's reputation as an ultra-polluted city is far from fiction.

Still, Beijing University (Bei Da) and the city itself have a lot to offer. Over the last couple of weeks, I have taken a variety of classes from outstanding Bei Da professors. The native students are extremely bright, hard-working, and modest in behavior and thought. Their educational careers are strict as it is very difficult to change majors and exams are frequent; some even take place on weekends. Student dorms are crowded and unpleasant. Outside the harsh academic environment, Bei Da is dotted by gorgeous magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms, and filled with historical and modern architecture alike. Small rivers and bridges weave through the city, which is animated by thesounds of students and frequent notable visitors.

Supposedly, the Prime Minister of Sweden presented a talk yesterday. Outside the campus, I have had the wonderful opportunity to explore the city in all its magnificence: I took Stanford-sponsored trips to the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, enjoyed a Peking Opera, and spoiled myself with a wealth of delicious cuisine and frequent trips to shopping districts. The 7-to-1 currency exchange rate can render one easily tempted to take out the wallet again and again, and again.

Certainly, Beijing (and most of China) is modernizing. The "New Beijing" is a hallmark of skyscrapers and materialism. The architecture is indeed aesthetically interesting but living in this city has made me more concerned with its psychological effects on people, in how modernizing efforts shape individual behavior and society. Whether urban development should be embraced is not a question with a simple answer. There is massive construction going up on every corner of Beijing (some were in preparation for the Olympics) but most for urbanization within the greater context. It is difficult to stare at brick ruins and hear the sounds of motors running without questioning what was there and what will be there. The displacement of innocent civilians and the overtime labor of construction workers are heavy prices to pay for the sake of a lofty goal to "modernize."

Beijing is changing the course of its history, for better or for worse. China is no longer the weak nation of the past but falls short of "greatness" as is commonly conceptualized. I am fortunate to be a part of this important historical era, knowing that what I see and hear today may not be here five or ten years from now. Conversely, I am very pleased to experience the source of China's pride in its rich history and culture. I eagerly anticipate my planned trips to the Great Wall, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Hong Kong. A lot has changed since I left China more than a decade ago, and I am excited to reacquaint myself with my homeland, and get to know its priceless Chinese culture better!

Zai Jian!

Susan Chen is a junior at Stanford University, double majoring in International Relations and Asian American Studies. She immigrated to the U.S. from China at the age of seven and is very interested in US-China relations. This piece, written in April, 2008, is part of her "China Blog."

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