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Mapping the city

Jeffrey Bilik, Public Health in China, Summer 2014

Where to start. It’s been almost two weeks now since I’ve arrived in Beijing, and there’s been so much packed into the last few days. Friends back home are asking me to describe the city to them, and it seems to possess so many contradictory characteristics all at once; sprawling and spread out in low-rise “hutongs” (alleys), but tall and imposing with massive malls and ‘hyper’ markets. A city that preserves its traditional culture in places such as the central Forbidden City, but features modern subway systems, diverse neighborhoods, and growing ex-pat hotspots. Some nights awe-inspiring in the sheer magnitude of lights, images, screens – and sometimes just glazed over with deep smog. Even in wealthier and more Westernized areas such as Wudaoko, you can find dozens of local street vendors setting up makeshift shops under an elevated road. Another aspect that sticks out is how many people here (especially older adults) do outdoor activities – morning Tai Chi, or just moving to the radio in parks, playing music, and singing.

So far the program itself has been great. Our Politics and Economic Development class went to the National Museum, where some of these contradictions could be even seen in Beijing’s official account of its history, moving so quickly from Maoism to the much vaguer ideas of a ‘harmonious’ and ‘moderately prosperous’ society. All of us visited Tiananmen this weekend too. It was so clear that you could see the entirety of the city from the nearby park’s hill, a huge conglomeration between the mountains.

There’s so much more to say – and I’m still taking the city in, but so far I’m really impressed and hope to get more chances to explore and meet a few locals. (The food’s not bad too! Family style hotpot might be a little much for a hot Beijing summer, but it’ll be the best meal you’ve shared with friends.) Can’t wait to see what the next few days here will bring!

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