While on a flight to begin a new job in China’s capital I asked the person sitting next to me, “How do you like working in Beijing?” I was transitioning to Beijing after living and working in Suzhou, Jiangsu, and Shanghai for 10 years and was curious about what to expect. The response from my seatmate, who was a Shanghai native, was not encouraging: He gave Beijing a barely passing grade as a place to live and work.
China’s two major cities are quite different and have a long rivalry. For example, more Chinese speak English in Shanghai, and more foreigners speak Chinese in Beijing. Shanghai is a commerce and fashion center, while Beijing is the seat of government power and hosts a lively art scene. And while Shanghai can be hit by summer typhoons, Beijing is prone to spring sandstorms. Despite major differences between Beijing and Shanghai, I have learned to love living in both cities.
With more than 3,000 years of recorded history, Beijing is full of familiar tourist sites such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Temple of Heaven. These sites are interwoven with ultramodern architecture such as the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, built for the 2008 Olympics, and the National Grand Theater, an egg-shaped opera house near Tiananmen Square.
As a center of politics—with numerous government ministries, embassy license plates, and official cars—observers can find signs of power everywhere. Occasionally, traffic stops to allow a visiting dignitary’s motorcade to pass. Many high-rises have names of China’s large and prospering banks and state-owned enterprises. The city hosts representative offices from all the provinces and major cities. (One of my favorite places to eat is a Sichuan restaurant that is part of the Sichuan Province representative office in Beijing. Diners can order authentic, tasty food at amazingly low prices—though they should prepare to wait in line for a table.)
Beijing is also one of China’s most important commercial centers. With many Chinese and foreign companies headquartered in the city, I meet many Chinese and American corporate executives at work and at social events. These meetings provide a great opportunity to keep up on the latest business trends in China and abroad. The constant, rapid evolution of China’s economy and society forces me to keep learning and adjusting to stay competitive.
Beijing aspires to be a global city like New York or London. Foreigners now make up about 1 percent of Beijing’s more than 17 million residents and were included in the recently completed national census. Beijing hosts diverse cultural events from around China and around the world. Sometimes I find a bit of home in Beijing—such as when friends e-mailed that their sons were traveling with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, and my family was able to hear them perform in Beijing. Also, when my son volunteered as a ball boy for the China Open tennis tournament, I enjoyed watching world-class players compete in the tournament—while also keeping an eye on the ball kids.
My family lives in Beijing’s northeastern suburbs, near the airport, where my younger son attends an international school. When we first moved to Beijing in January 2007, we were surrounded by villages, farms, herds of sheep, and fish ponds. In the last three years, however, we have seen almost non-stop construction. The fields are rapidly disappearing and turning into convention centers, hotels, and new residential developments. Our Chinese friends in a nearby village were relocated after their entire village was razed. The “village” is now being rebuilt as China continues to urbanize its rural population. This year, a new subway line will run into town.
During my daily commute into the city’s Central Business District, I experience the impact of the 2,000 new cars that are added to Beijing’s roads each day. One of the favorite topics among Beijing residents—local and foreign—is new drivers and traffic. Some friends are bothered by drivers who do not check their mirrors and expect other drivers to stay out of their way. I am more concerned about drivers backing up on highways after making a wrong turn.
Beijing is a huge city, and foreign residents tend to cluster in certain areas and develop sub-communities because of the time it takes to get to the other side of town. A visiting friend once asked why I got a Chinese driver’s license. I explained that as one gets older it is important to keep one’s mind active and challenged. I don’t know a more challenging driving environment than the average Beijing street or intersection—swarming with people, bicycles, scooters, cars, and many other types of moving vehicles. With the right attitude, driving in Beijing can keep a person young. With the wrong attitude, it can give a person high blood pressure.
Though I enjoy the challenge of driving in Beijing, I am a big fan of the city’s expanding subway and rail system. The 2008 Olympics gave Beijing’s subway system a big boost. I often use my time in the subway system to do market research and gauge what Chinese consumers are buying, wearing, and using in their daily lives. On one subway ride I evaluated how many people were using iPhone and Blackberry smartphones. Walking through the subway station, I also saw the newest ski outfits offered by US sportswear companies for the winter season.
Many foreign residents’ attitudes toward Beijing seem to rise and fall with the air quality. We have some great days where mountains to the north and west make beautiful backdrops to Beijing’s high-rise buildings. On other days, school children cannot play outside during recess because of the bad pollution. A couple of handy tools make monitoring the problem easier: The US Embassy has linked their air monitoring station to Twitter, and an iPhone application gives air quality readings. In addition, families buy room air purifiers to provide a clean-air environment at home. I often check online or judge the visibility outside before playing a hard game of tennis or going for a run. We appreciate blue sky days when we get them.
Friends have asked how long I will stay in Beijing. My son is quick to jump into this conversation and say that we cannot leave until he finishes high school. After four years, I still feel I am just beginning to get to know this great city. I still have a lot more to explore and learn.
Author’s Favorite Places in Beijing
201 Tongli Studio, 43 Sanlitun Beilu
T: 86-10-6467-2961; E-mail: [email protected]
9 Wangjing Jie Xincheng
MegaBox Cinema-The Village
19 Sanlitun Lu
T: 86-10-6417-6118; E-mail: [email protected]
Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
20 Qianmendong Dajie
T: 86-10-6701-7074; E-mail: [email protected]
8 Zuojiazhuang Xijie
Chuan Ban (Sichuan Provincial office restaurant)
5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie
T: 86-10-6512-2277 x6101
Great Wall at Mutianyu
90 km northeast of Beijing, Huairou County
For a foot massage
Oriental Taipan Massage and Spa
Lido Place, 2F Block 9
2 Fangyuan Xilu
T: 86-10-6437-6299; E-mail: [email protected]
For the view
Capital Club (on a clear day)
Capital Mansion, 50th floor
6 Xinyuan Nanlu
E-mail: [email protected]
Highways headed north and west into the mountains outside Beijing
Unrestored Great Wall (start from the Mutianyu section)
To play tennis
Chaoyang Park Tennis Courts
1 Chaoyang Gongyuan Dongmennei
Chaoyang Gongyuan Nanlu
To ride a bike
Wenyu River levee west of the Airport Expressway through to the Jingcheng Expressway
Beijing Nanshan Ski Village
Henan Zhaizhen Shengshui Toucun
Miyun Qu (about 80 km from downtown Beijing)
[author] Michael Barbalas ([email protected]) is president of Goodrich Corp.’s China business. [/author]