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August 01, 2008

Beijing, USA: The Changing Face of China

I arrived in Beijing only a month ago, and I’m already seeing the city change. China is welcoming the Western world with open arms -- or at least their economy is. Just five years ago, I imagine Beijing was in a much different state. I wouldn’t need to walk 15 minutes just to feel like I was in China, assuming I wasn’t trying to communicate with the locals.

But today, the Chinese capital is a hodgepodge of Western retailers, and, to a smaller extent, Western cultures. I lose count of the number of KFC and McDonalds restaurants I see each day, each bursting at the seams with Chinese loading up on fried chicken and hamburgers. “One World One Dream” -- is that the American dream? I visited a Cold Stone Creamery last night -- I couldn’t believe my eyes -- it was right next to an Auntie Anne’s pretzels, and both were within walking distance of my hotel. Prices at Cold Stone were comparable to the States, so I could have easily fed myself lunch for a week for the cost of my 50 Yuan (about $7.30) Love It creation. (Take subway line 10 to Haidianhuangzhuang if you feel compelled to see for yourself).

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The Olympics have also presented Beijing with an opportunity to “clean up” a lot of the city’s Hutongs, the alleyways often inhabited by the lower-middle class. But the city is losing a lot of its character in the process. A Hutong near Tiananmen Square was recently leveled to make room for a brand new commercial village, set to open just in time for the Olympics. Peering over the fence used to keep locals out until its official opening, I was reminded of the “traditional Chinese village” I visited in the Beijing suburbs a few weeks back.

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As much as Beijingers seem to be eating up Western fast food, many appear considerably less interested in Western people and languages. I keep hearing about how friendly the locals are, and I’ve witnessed it myself on several occasions, but the only people that seem interested in me are those trying to learn English. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t Europe -- there won’t usually be English menus, and the only locals who know any could be your concierge and the person trying to scam you out of $1,400 for Olympics tickets on Craigslist.

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