Out of all the cities I have lived and worked in, Beijing has proven itself to be the most interesting and – at times – most surprising. Of course, the language is fascinating (as is the culture), the food is delicious, the city is enormous, and more. However, the most surprising thing about Beijing (and China in general) has been how it balances the ‘old’ with the ‘new’ across two of these areas – language and architecture.
When you arrive in China, you will notice that almost every sign has both Chinese characters and an English translation. Starbucks, for example, is both ‘Starbucks’ and ‘星巴克’. This is very helpful for us foreigners, and reflective in general of China’s push to make itself more international. Meanwhile, countless millions of Chinese citizens have been reaching high levels of English fluency, and English has itself started to seep into the Chinese language. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are the new ‘loan words': Chinese words which are made to sound like an English word. Some of these are for new ideas or products to China – bacon, for example, is 培根 (pinyin: péigēn), and guitar is 吉他 (pinyin: jítā). Others are just for high-frequency words in English that many Chinese people know – bus, for example, is 巴士 (pinyin: bāshì).
My favourite example, however, of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ is how Beijing places old-style and modern architecture side-by-side. Head to the very centre of Beijing, and you will find numerous temples, tea shops, and historic streets (called ‘hutongs’) sitting beside modern apartment blocks and shopping malls. So, you can walk out of a shopping mall, having bought a new pair of shoes and holding a cup of your favourite 星巴克 coffee, and explore a nearby temple or hutong should you feel like something more authentic. If you go at the right time, or find the right spot, these really are oases of calm in what is otherwise an extremely modern, dynamic, and exciting city. I’m not sure about you but, for me, having a coffee in the Confucius Temple is a pretty good way to pass the time before dinner.