Off to a Quick Start: My Arrival In Beijing

I wish that I could say that my first few hours in China, a country that I have studied from afar for over six years, were full of wonder and intellectual intrigue. That would fit more conveniently with my self-perception as an adventurous and eager academic, itching for new experiences. Instead, however, the moment that I landed in Beijing I found myself confused, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Star Group, the company for which I interned, had their driver, Liu, pick me up from the airport. Liu is a Beijing native with a strong Beijing accent. He does not speak a word of English and he does NOT mess around. I think I can best describe Liu’s personality as a cross between a disgruntled honey badger and a Pats fan after a loss.  Needless to say, he didn’t entertain my sleep deprived attempts at a greeting in Mandarin. Instead, he grabbed my bag and starting speed walking away leaving my outstretched hand in the air and my poorly executed greeting still on my lips. Over the course of the following two months Liu would become one of my best friends in Beijing.

The drive from the airport to the office was harrowing as it was entertaining. I quickly learned that the rules of the Beijing road are set by those who drive it, not those who created it. Anything goes as long as nobody gets hit. As it turns out, this philosophy applies to a good bit more than traffic laws.

Sunrise over Yuyuan Lake (right next to my office) during an early morning run

Eventually I arrived at the office (which conveniently doubled as a hotel and my home for the first three nights). I looked forward to dropping my bags in my room, taking a shower, and settling in. This was not to be. Within two hours of my plane landing in China I had taken a tour of the office facilities, met nearly all of the staff on site, had an individual meeting with my boss, and finally found myself sitting at a neon green desk with my first assignment. As I sat at that desk overlooking the Chines Military Museum and the Millennium Center I fully realized that I had not signed up for a 7 week cultural vacation to Beijing. I was here to work, and to work hard alongside a company full of people bent on getting ahead. I was here to learn from a culture that looked upon entitlement with contempt and that did not take off days. Most importantly I was here to observe the middle of a great transition in the Chinese sense of self and of the way that things should be.


Landmark Bridge by the far gate of the Summer Palace.

Over the course of the following week I helped facilitate an educator training for 30 Chinese graduate students who had just been hired by Song Qing Ling, the museum for which my company was contracting. Thankfully a group of Canadians were running the workshops and I was tasked with helping them get around Beijing. This gave me an opportunity to do some of the touristy things that I was worried would be pushed to the wayside by my work. During the first weekend we went to the Summer Palace and the Beijing Zoo. Admittedly, the Beijing Zoo was fairly depressing. The Summer Palace, on the other hand, totally blew me away. I was shocked by two things: first, the profound sense of meaning that was wrapped up in a frankly young (mid 1700’s) historical site. The second was the Chinese legacy of a decisive and powerful central government. This was, just as the malleability of traffic laws, to become an important theme in the weeks to come. At the very top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense, I and

View from the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense

the two Canadians educators that I was with paused to take in a breath-taking view of the Palace behind us. In that moment I had a realization that took me by surprise, I was in China. China, land of my dreams and aspirations. China, home to my unending curiosity. There it was, laid out in front of me waiting to be discovered and known. In that moment I knew that I had arrived.