One big construction site

By Erin Zureick (
Updated: 2007-07-05 15:55

I often wonder what it would have been like to live in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. I imagine it would have been similar to living in Beijing at the beginning of the 21st century.

Six weeks into my stay in Beijing this summer, it's pretty easy to rattle off a list of things that I don't understand about the city or that I find troublesome. But when my mind starts heading that way, I try to think about what America's financial capital must have been like when it was developing a century ago.

One of my biggest frustrations - and one that I'm sure many Beijingers share - is the constant construction that has enveloped the city as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics. The extreme development is a problem that all large, industrial cities must face at some point. But the sheer magnitude of the work is something that most Americans can't fathom.

We get annoyed if part of the highway is blocked for a few weeks or if a subway line is inoperable for a few hours. In Beijing, much of this infrastructure is still being built.

One hundred years ago, I bet there were New Yorkers griping about how difficult it was to travel between destinations because of gridlocked traffic - though I'll grant they were probably stuck in American carriages and not Chinese cabs.

The infrastructure the construction is supporting - most notably several new subway lines - is going to be a big payoff soon.

But Beijing's construction and rapid development has had its tradeoff in the form of severe pollution. As a student from the American Midwest, I miss my clear, blue skies on a regular basis. I usually only get to see those now in Beijing on days after a good rain.

And while all of the above-perceived shortcomings can be chalked up to a city and a country's enormous economic development, I must admit there are some other things that make me scratch my head.

Most of these pet peeves are social habits that differ from those in America. For instance, one thing I've noticed is that Chinese people can have trouble forming an orderly, straight queue. It doesn't happen all the time, but if happens often enough that the American in me wants to put some organization to the mad scramble that occurs.

The final item on my list is probably something that won't go away anytime soon. Walking down the streets of Beijing can feel like walking a catwalk in New York City.

The stares from passers-by and the inevitable camera phone pictures are evidence of a fixation with Western women with which I'm still not completely comfortable. In the US, openly acknowledging a difference in a person's appearance can be embarrassing or uncomfortable for that person.

Here in Beijing, a non-Asian person sticks out like a sore thumb. But I'm sure that as the country continues to develop, Westerners like me will become less of an anomaly. Until then I'll just have to resign myself to strut the catwalk.


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