Even after months of planning, guidebooks, and watching every old Chinese movie I could get my hands on, nothing could have prepared me for the real thing. Through a strange and complicated series of events, I ended up here at the behest of a dear friend and her family, native Beijingers, for a whirlwind visit to every living relative, restaurant, and teahouse in Beijing and Shanghai.
No other place I have ever visited has such a sense of vitality; of endless, uncontrollable growth; of past and present, history and modernity intertwined. This overflowing life permeates Beijing's distinct sense of style: from how people speak to how they drive, from what they eat to what they put on in the morning.
Before ever setting foot in the country, I had a few competing notions of what China was. There's the idea of the "Old" China; for me (a hopeless romantic), this is the land of imperialist intrigue and poisoned tea, gilded emperors and elegant women in chignons playing mah jongg.
Then, at odds with the rose-tinted past I've gleaned from stories, is what I saw on the news: "Modern" China. A boomtown of gleaming metropolises and new money, choked with smog yet pulsing with possibility. I knew deep down that neither of these could really be the truth. Convenient narratives are convenient for a reason - no country on earth could ever fit the comfortable reductions assigned to it by outsiders grasping for meaning.
What I didn't expect, however, was that everything I believed--the old, the new, the stereotypes, the facts-- was true, in one sense or another. As I settled into my new home, I realized that instead of a handful of truths about China, there were 1.3 billion.
China is immense in every way. Its population and area numbers alone have dominated world statistics for centuries; this phenomenon seems new, probably because we actually pay attention now that the country is becoming very rich, very quickly.
This wealth, and the mania of modernization and development that rushes alongside it, is everywhere. There is a shopping center on every block in Beijing, with another one being constructed alongside it. The drive to become bigger, better, smarter, more beautiful, has led China to push the limits of consumption, education, economic growth, plastic surgery.
Yet "old" China is everywhere as well--it is the longest continuous civilization in the world, after all. A civilization that builds a wall, brick by brick, that stretches on for 13,000 miles, winding through arduous mountain passes and thickened with human causalties, does not die out easily. Even when threatening by military invasion, political turmoil, and Western cultural incursion, China endures.
Old China shows up in the most unexpected places: old women practicing tai chi in the shadow of a skyscraper, ancient cloth mills a stone's throw from Beijing, family knowledge of calligraphy passed down for generations, and television shows that choose the ancient dramas of empire over today's political controversies every time.
What complicates this even more is that there is no one "new" China or "old" China - the stories of each are constantly rewritten each and every day. Here, there are no true distinctions between old and new (or even a true understanding of what either means). In a country home to dozens of climates and countless ethnic groups, languages, and traditions, there's nothing you can ever single out as ineffably Chinese. China's beauty is as overwhelming as its ugliness; paradoxes appear so often to Western eyes that if you blink you might miss one.
I will never wrap my mind around this place, and I shouldn't bother trying. I probably should've just picked up a "Black and White Burger" at a Chinese McDonald's and hopped on the next flight out of Peking International. But God, I'm sure glad I didn't. I've never been happier to be so confused.