A Tale of Two Cities: From Beijing to New York

Ellen Li | SIPA Class of 2018 | November 16, 2016

Hemingway once wrote in his book A Moveable Feast: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

I never had the luck to live in Paris, but his writing prompted me to think about the other two cities that I have lived in – Beijing and New York – and to reflect upon how each of them has influenced me. Growing up in China, I went to college in the U.S., worked in Beijing after graduating, and returned this fall to New York for my Master’s degree. As the freshness of relocation gradually faded after the first weeks, I became increasingly aware of the differences between the two cities, and the disorientation from traveling back and forth between Chinese and American cultures. This experience was different from cultural shock – mainly because I’ve known enough about both cultures. In its very essence, it is about defining myself and developing an identity to hold onto.

I realized that Beijing is a city where you can feel an invisible

When I think back on my days in Beijing, I often think of my time in the subway. For young inhabitants in a huge metropolis, subway is how we navigate the city. Every morning, I would join millions of commuters flooding into the underground, lining up at the platform, finding our ways to the Central Business District in subways. My first morning commute was nothing but humbling. As soon as the train arrived, I was pushed and shoved into the carriage without even having time to react. I tried to look for a pole to hold onto, but soon realized it was unnecessary because there was already a wall of humanity preventing me from falling over. When the train pulled over, I again felt a big momentum funnel me onto the platform, and found myself magically arriving at the exit by simply going with the flow.

Later on, I realized that Beijing is a city where you can feel an invisible, giant force that nudges and pushes you towards a certain direction. You might not be able to specify where it comes from, but you know it is there.

Working hard is one direction I was told to go. I vividly remember my boss’s speech at our first team meeting: “This business is like a battlefield. If you don’t fight damn hard, you die.” As an ambitious grad, I did try damn hard. I worked 90 hours per week, carried my work laptop wherever I go, and replied to my bosses’ emails the first moment I received them. But still I was constantly reminded to try harder, because everyone else in the industry is working equally hard.

Such momentum also exists outside professional environment

In fact, not only people in the finance industry, the entire city is hardworking. Almost all my friends – who are doctors, lawyers, journalists, web developers – are overworked some days of the week. Even my uncle, who holds a position at the central government, worked on weekends. Late night subways in Beijing were always filled up with overworked riders wearily staring at their phones and yawning. It almost seemed that a tacit agreement was formed among Beijingers, as if working hard is the only way to fit into the city.

Such momentum also exists outside professional environment. At family dinners, friends and relatives would often ask my age and whisper to my mom that I should start “paying attention” to get a boyfriend because “the age has arrived”. Similar lines also appeared in my conversations with my high school teacher, my bosses, even my Uber driver. A woman’s early twenties in China are considered her most attractive. Thus, even girls my age may experience marriage anxiety, for families and parents worry they’ll miss the chance of finding a suitable boy before they’re past their prime.

During my time in Beijing, I always felt the city is operated by a kind of regularity and uniformity. Consensus seemed easily formed among people on almost everything – from working ethics to dating age – and similar actions followed thereafter. I think this has roots in the Chinese culture. The average Chinese person will generally not attempt to make waves, or to make themselves stand out overtly when compared to others to be “modest” and “down to earth”, both of which are considered major virtues. While my job is attractive to a fresh grad by all means, the fact that I am working right after college instead of continue schooling, which is the common practice in China, always made my mom somewhat uncomfortable. “Being different” from other people was such an issue for my mom that even the choice itself seemed less important.

I realized … I was really in New York, together with the rest of the world

However, everything changed when I moved to New York a couple of months ago. If Beijing subway is all about crowds and flow, New York subway is all about sounds and noises of all kinds. Curved tile walls amplify every footfall and shout, not to mention the indecipherable blare of the PA. Eventually a train rumbles through at 94 decibels or more, announced by the whine of a motor, the screech of brakes, and the clack of wheels on steel. Unlike Beijing’s modern and sleek subway system, New York’s underground is much louder and rusty. Yet nobody seemed to be bothered or even pay any attention. These were the sounds of a place where things were done in a loud way, rather than “modest”.

While I’ve visited the city many times as a tourist, it was during my first ride this fall that I realized the variety of languages and accents present in the small space of a carriage. A man sitting on my right was talking in French. The woman sitting across to them was reading a book in Russian. A group standing in the middle was chatting in British. I could also hear Cantonese and Spanish remotely. In the blend of accents, I realized for the first time that I was really in New York, together with the rest of the world.

The only pattern is that there is no pattern at all

SIPA is like a miniature of the City. We come from all over the globe, with different paths and roots. Seeples were diplomats, NGO founders, world travelers, Fulbright scholars, financial consultants; and possess different agendas and goals. The only pattern is that there is no pattern at all. We surely work hard – libraries are commonly full at 11pm on Friday nights – but there is something larger than simply working hard itself. I am constantly struck by how people were driven by their passions, determined to make life choices, talking about their dreams without worrying about others’ perceptions.

Because of this great diversity, there is hardly any “invisible force” pointing you directions in New York. You can pop out of the underworld in Central Park, hail a taxi, head down Fifth Avenue with a giant hellhound loping along behind you, and nobody even looks at you funny. Sometimes when I would look out the window, I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest desert shops. And my heart does a little dance. They all possess unstoppable energy, which is why the city is incredibly frenetic but also inspiring.

I am Chinese but I am not. I am Americanized but I am not

Very often I am asked if I want to go back to Beijing or find a job in New York after SIPA. I always gloss it over by replying that I am open to all possibilities. But I know it is a question that needs to be settled ultimately, and it will be a hard decision. I like New York. Here, I feel free and light with my friends, young and reckless with my widest dreams. But Beijing always gives a sense of security – it’s where my families and people are, and I do not have to worry about visa issues.

But making a choice also requires peaceful resolution of my different selves. I am Chinese but I am not. I am Americanized but I am not. I know enough about both cultures, but I also don’t. My dad always says that to go back to Beijing I have to learn how to “do things in the Chinese way.” But to fully reap the benefits of my time at Columbia implies to embrace the “American” values. I realize that nothing was quite what it seemed, and that maybe this is how life will be like in these early days, everything uncertain and half a step off.

While the values represented by the two cities are different and sometimes even contradictory, I still appreciate that I had the privilege to live in two of greatest cities in the world. They foster personal growth in different ways. In Beijing, I learned the rewards of being hardworking and down-to-earth, and understood that we may need to reconcile ourselves with the society given our own limits. But New York encourages me to explore all possibilities and experiences, to live my life to the fullest potential, and to just be “me.” I know that these lessons from Beijing and New York offer priceless nourishment for a young person, and that as this journey goes on, I will continue to gain the taste of the “moveable feast” that Hemingway described in his book.

SIPA: StoriesEllen LiComment