Nostalgia for Beijing

Posted by on Aug 13, 2016 in Asia, China, Travel | 0 comments

Nostalgia for Beijing

It’s been a couple of months since I left Beijing after living in the big city for two years, and already it feels as though it was a lifetime ago.

Two cities rolled into one Beijing is historic, steeped with tradition and constantly reminiscing in the past, yet super-charged, growing rapidly and changing at lightning speed, full of high rise construction sites, fast cars and designer brands.

One of the truly ancient cities of the world, but also one of the most important in modern society.

There’s an an energetic chaos with so much going on, stepping onto the street you’re instantly overwhelmed by sights, sounds and smells.

It’s not to say there weren’t days where I would get frustrated, we used to joke that it was like getting your ‘Beijing period’ because about once a month you’d be so fed up with the unique challenges of living there like the spitting, dirty squat toilets or pollution.

When I look back on my time there I’m glad I got to experience an amazing culture so different to my own.  I want to remember the moments that made me giggle, cry or gape in shock, so here’s a collection of stories and observations that stick in my mind.




  • When there’s a car accident they leave the cars exactly where they are to wait for the police, even if that’s in the middle of a main road during peak hour.  I once saw two men sitting in the middle of the road in front of their car so no-one would hit it – the car obviously perceived as more valuable than their lives!
  • Western style etiquette and politeness does not exist.  They don’t say ‘please’ as that’s not considered being genuinely polite, rather your actions are how you show politeness.
    Pushing and shoving is totally normal, no need to say ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’ or hold doors open, with a population the size of Australia in one city that’s reality – it is expected and accepted.
    Also don’t apologise repeatedly, they want you to treat them like family and this makes them feel distanced.  In this regard they have zero boundaries and will tell you directly if you put on weight/look terrible/need to get married.  I remember asking to speak with someone and being told ‘he’s the fat one in the blue shirt’, but this wasn’t being rude, fat was simply a descriptor the same way blue shirt was.
  • OH&S has never been heard of.  It was common to see people hanging out of apartment ledges on the 30th floor repairing air conditioning units with no harness, occasionally another man standing inside with a rope around the man outside.
  • Daily sights included large groups of retired women dancing in public (parks, outside shopping centres, apartment compounds) with a boom box playing music, children getting Kung fu lessons, men doing swift and precise movements with large swords, kites in the sky, lanterns, employees standing to absolute attention while being spoken to by their manager and then partaking in a chant and dance, and groups of men huddled over intense games of Mahjong.mahjong


  • At the supermarket you can purchase chips/crisps in flavours like shrimp, cucumber and yoghurt, pick up some “childbirth millet”, buy your eggs out of large drums and select meat from a pile.
  • The extreme weather. Before moving I heard the weather was to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, this proved true with a stifling hot summer and bone chilling winter, both of which seem to last forever.  Coming from mild Sydney I was not prepared for -15 degree celsius days, the kind of cold where if any part of your skin is exposed you know about it.  I remember my eyes watering but no tears running down my face because they were freezing, and my plastic bike lock snapping in half.  During this weather the young kids are dressed in so many layers they can’t even bend their arms or legs, which is much cuter than in summer when the men wear their shirts pulled up to cool off their bellies.
  • Saving face is a big deal, if you forget someone’s name don’t ask them again as that would be embarrassing for them. If a child was running and knocked something over they would say they forgot to eat and were dizzy, because to admit they were just clumsy would be embarrassing for their parents.
  • Couples and families love to wear matching t-shirts, if it has Mickey Mouse on it even better!  Red is the lucky colour and used for everything, I remember watching two tour groups blend together and they had both used red hats to identify their groups so it was impossible to tell who was with who.
  • Their idea of beauty is big eyes, big nose, and they think westerners have a nice ‘3D face’ rather than the Chinese ‘surface face’.hutong


  • A fun outing was to the ‘knock knock shops’, hidden inside apartment buildings these apartments have been converted into secret ‘shops’, selling quality knock offs of your favourite brands at a big discount.  You’d never find them unless you knew they were there as there’s no signage, hence you have to know where to go and knock!
  • It is completely acceptable to leave your food/coat/receipt on a table in a foodcourt as a sign the seat is taken, and no-one will take it or touch it.
  • The subway is either busy or really busy with people crammed in, if you can’t feel another person’s breath on you it’s not really busy!
  • Road rules are a general suggestion, it is expected you will do whatever you want.  I would ride my bicycle daily which was an adventure in itself, the ‘bike lane’ for anything that could fit – usually electric scooters, tuk tuks, rickshaws, tricycles, tiny cars and pedestrians.  If there’s a green man to cross the road be warned there’s still a lane of traffic with a green light, this is just the suggested time to cross but no guarantee!
  • At restaurants it’s normal to order more food than you’ll eat, and to get a waitress to serve your table you’ll need to holler out ‘Fuwuyuan!’ to get their attention.  Leaving food on your plate is polite when visiting someone’s house as if you finish everything it implies they haven’t fed you enough.

Such a unique city, I’ve never been anywhere like it.

There are days when I miss it and I will always remember it fondly, but there’s still so much of the world for me to see…!



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