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Sep 02 - Peking Purgatory

Sep 02 - Peking Purgatory

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Published by kaiser-kuo-1371

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Published by: kaiser-kuo-1371 on Dec 17, 2009
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12/17/2009

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Peking Purgatory
September 2002I heard an estimate recently claiming there are now a whopping 200,000 foreigners in residencein Beijing. I don’t doubt it: New expat-oriented businesses are popping up like mushrooms, a newinternational school seems to open every year, new dui wai apartment complexes and suburbandevelopments break ground practically every week, and the bars and clubs are overflowing withyoung folk from every corner of the globe. Twenty years ago, besides a cliquish diplomatic corpsand a handful of hardened journalists, there just weren’t that many long-term laowais here. NowI’m constantly running into young people who come here just to visit, fall in love with the city, andthen scheme on some way to stay on. Some never leave.Beijing, after all, has much to recommend it in these heady days. Possibilities abound.Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirkycharacters doing interesting things. Change is the one insistent, all-pervasive constant. TheBeijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’simpossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town—that sense of community thatmany of us found missing back home.Beijing’s attractions and comforts are indeed many. But so too are its pitfalls. Young expats heregrow complacent easily, convincing themselves that they’ve “made it” when really it’s just that thebar, like the cost of living, is much lower than it would be back home. They manage to find workdespite an appalling lack of tangible skills—witness the untold thousands of untrained Englishteachers whose only qualification is native fluency in the language, or all those people who founddotcom jobs here back before the bubble burst. They settle for dead-end jobs that don’t teachthem any new skills, believing erroneously that time spent in China is itself a qualification.Mediocrity somehow cuts it. Meanwhile, they enjoy a lifestyle that would be untenable on their income back home: Eating out in restaurants every night, going out to the bars four or five nightsa week, getting foot massages and riding around everywhere in taxis. And there are worse formsof decadent temptation.Beijing, in the words of a dear friend of mine, can be a black hole for smart slackers. Peoplespend a couple of years here and feel inexorably compelled to write a screenplay, or a novel:Thousands of them lie there, unfinished, in hard drives all over Chaoyang. Something about theplace brings out the dilettante in many a young expat; and while there’s nothing at all wrong withdabbling in the arts, the absence of reality checks leads too many to take things too far on toolittle talent. Far from home, they just don’t have the dear old friends and the family members whowill tell them, with their own best interests firmly in mind, “Don’t quit your day job.”It’s easy to see how this happens. We’re flattered by the celebrity who occasionally comesthrough town—the writer, the odd filmmaker, or the TV personality who finds us impressive simplybecause we live here, speak the language, and know a few hip party spots. We’re right in thinkingthat it’s a cool town, but we do get carried away. I suppose it’s the same way with all cities thathave become “the place” to slack for a few years after college—Prague in the early 1990s comesto mind. I confess that I’ve been party to a few late-night, wine-fueled conversations in which I’ve joined other young expats in comparing our Beijing, with shameless exuberance, to Paris in the‘20s. We are, after all, living in China in a time of genuinely momentous change, and I think wecan be excused for our mistaken assumption that just by being here we’re playing an active rolein all the change swirling about us.The truth is that the foreigners come and go from here, and many can’t be bothered to lay thefoundations for a real life here. The impermanence, the rootlessness of expat life in Beijingcreates the sense of unreality so many feel, and it’s this insubstantiality that breeds the escapismand decadence, the complacency and dilettantism.

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