Beijing > Shanghai
We’d initially planned on moving to Shanghai — a dynamic, international city like my hometown of New York. I’d been to the Chinese colossus in 2007 and remembered the sense of familiarity I’d experienced there. Going out at night on the Bund reminded me of Manhattan, whose rents in the years I’d lived in Los Angeles had skyrocketed beyond what a teacher could expect to afford. The thought of devoting most of my salary to a shoebox beneath an elevated train filled me with dread. Hence, the idea of Shanghai — the Former French Concession, to be specific — with its restaurants, émigrés, and tree-lined streets; a 21st century Greenwich Village, I told myself. China had the energy and sense of the possibility of rising power, with Shanghai its most user-friendly point of entry.
Nevertheless, that dream was not to be. The offers we received from schools in Shanghai were much less appealing than those from Beijing, about which my girlfriend had her doubts. “Isn’t it really polluted?” she asked. “What about the air quality?” We did some research and found that the pollution was not nearly as bad we’d imagined and, in any case, was soon to be overtaken by Shanghai’s. Additionally, we learned that Beijing was the cultural capital of the country, with more artists, musicians, and filmmakers here than anyplace else in the country. The more we learned about Beijing, the more we realized that that was where we wanted to be.
This 3000-year-old metropolis, with its myriad hutong and alleyways, historical sites (e.g. the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace), art and music scenes, restaurants and proximity to the Great Wall, began to take on a profound level of fascination for us both. “We could live in the hutong?!” The thought of actually residing in a preserved medieval village filled us with excitement. “But what about the plumbing? Will there be heat and electricity?” Yes, of course.
We found our dream home in Dongcheng — deep in the alleyways established 750 years ago with the arrival of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) and the birth of the Yuan Dynasty. Surrounded by inexpensive restaurants and a short distance to Beijing’s sparkling subway system, we were happier than we could have imagined.
We can walk to the Drum and Bell Towers, first built in 1272AD, as well as the Temple of Confucius (1302) and Lama Temple (1694), which houses a 25m tall statue of Buddhist deity, Maitreya, carved from a single sandalwood tree.
Living in the hutong is enchanting. It is like inhabiting a children’s book with a perpetual state of wonder. We are learning about Chinese history while serving as ambassadors to China’s future, teaching and connecting with some of its beautiful youth, for whom we both have great affection. At this point, neither of us could imagine not living in Beijing. On a recent visit to Shanghai, we were taken with a sense of relief at circumstances having deposited us exactly where we’d like to be.
by: Rob Sussman