August 21, 2000
Deborah Stone (center) with students at Behai Park in Beijing.
by Deborah Stone, features writer
Beijing, home to over twelve million people, bustles with intense activity from early morning until late at night. The streets overflow with a mix of cars, buses, bicycles, pedicabs, and pedestrians, all jostling one another for space.
Hideous traffic jams clog the thoroughfares, horns blast, and tempers flare, as people try to make their way each day. Chinese policemen stand watch at every corner, their presence an always-constant reminder that some sort of order must be maintained amid the apparent chaos that gridlocks the city.
With its tall buildings, constant construction, and urban flavor, along with an influx of American fast food joints, Beijing deceives foreigners into thinking it is just another big city. Look closely, though, and you will find the contradictions that belie this misconception.
Down narrow hutongs (winding old alleys), people squat on the stoops of shops, old men in their rolled-up undershirts play the Chinese version of chess, women gather to gossip while picking their teeth, barbers cut hair outside doorways, and roadside repairmen with their portable kits fix broken bikes.
Much of life is lived on the steamy summer streets in this sprawling metropolis, which harbors architecture of a medieval flavor. You can pass by women frying dough in great vats of oil; groups clustered outside an electronics store, all watching a television which faces the street; stalls offering a wide array of food and goods; senior citizens in a small park doing a form of tai chi for their morning exercise; and the old man walking with his caged birds, out for his daily constitutional. The smells of exotic Chinese spices and food combine with the pungent sewage odors from nearby public toilets to assault a Westerner's delicate sensibilities.
For two weeks this summer, Beijing was my home. I went there to teach English to college students at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. My pupils, all in their second year of a five-year program, were studying acupuncture and the use of traditional Chinese medicine.
In an old classroom on campus, I would spend my mornings conversing with the students about various interesting topics and teaching them everyday English conversation. For most of these nineteen-year-old women and men, I was the first foreigner they had ever met, so I was definitely a novelty, as well as a prime source of information about the U.S.
In the beginning, it was difficult to pry English from their mouths, as they were very shy and also worried about making mistakes. This concern caused them to choose silence unless directly called upon to answer a question or to express an opinion. However, after a few days, their reluctance and timidity disappeared and they seemed to loosen up and feel more comfortable with me.
I peppered my lessons with idioms, teaching them fun expressions to use in day-to-day conversation. I showed them glimpses of life in America, and provided a flesh and blood window to the world for them. The information they knew about the States had come to them via the media, and they often had distorted images of Americans, which I quickly corrected.
Each afternoon, several students took turns guiding me to various places of interest and we trekked through all of Beijing's highlights and the surrounding countryside. I marveled at the ancient history of this country and the monuments attributing to its tumultuous past. The Chinese are proud of their long history and of the temples and palaces that still stand today.
They are also very curious about life in other developed countries and are eager for their country to hasten its own development. The students I taught ached with longings and dreams about their futures, hoping that one day these dreams would become realities.
For them, education is the ticket to success and studying is their duty and a necessity. Many of them wish to go abroad, but the cost is so prohibitive that there are few opportunities or outlets to assist them in their goals. These students opened their hearts and minds to me and I was able to understand more about their culture and thus appreciate its many facets.
Living and working in Beijing allowed me to see a part of the "real China" in a way that many tourists rarely can do. This type of travel experience, I have discovered, is very gratifying, although in China, it is not without challenges. Poor sanitation, lackadaisical service standards, a double pricing system (one for the Chinese and one for foreigners), intense air and noise pollution, crowds beyond comprehension, and oppressive heat can be overwhelming for many Westerners who are not accustomed to such conditions. However, if one can go beyond these obstacles, the rewards will be numerous and definitely outweigh the difficulties.
I continually find through my travel experiences that despite the many differences among cultures, people can find common bonds. We are all curious and we desire to learn about others around the world. We seek understanding and peace and enjoy the basic core of life: family, friendship, and food. The people I met gave me so much of themselves with their gifts of hospitality, kindness, advice, and companionship, along with some pretty terrific dumplings!
China is an experience that will stay with me for years to come and the friends I made will certainly continue to open my mind and enrich my life.