A woman in a four-door Mini Cooper picked me up at the airport. The sky was clear blue. “So much for the infamous Beijing smog,” I thought.
The roads looked brand new. Not a pothole to be seen. Everything was clean and sharp. It was as if the city had just been built. Which is pretty much the case.
She dropped me off at a hotel, where I immediately went to sleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night. The clock said it was just after 2 a.m. That put my body at 2 p.m. I ventured outside and smoked a cigar, having no idea where I was, other than it was probably in east Beijing.
Before leaving the US, I looked at maps of the city to get a sense of where I’d be. The human resources info I’d been sent said I’d be put in the “Media Center Hotel” near the CCTV headquarters. But maps online showed two locations for CCTV, on opposite ends of the city center. The hotel’s address indicated it was near the location in the west. But the HR info also said I’d be working in the city’s Central Business District, which is in the east, where the other CCTV building is. This eastern one is a distinctive and famous building. I recognized it and assumed that’s where I would not be, as it was probably too important for anything I’d ever be asked to do.*
The picture was thoroughly confused. Would there be a long commute to work? Would I have to learn the ways of the city subway system on the first day?
I sent in a message to check. The response:
“NO MEDIA HOTEL anymore, as we moved to east side of Beijing, so we find the nearly fancy hotel for you. You don’t need to pay, only provide your information, so I can forward your details to reception for room reservation.” I figured she meant to say “nearby hotel”, and that this probably meant I would be working at the new building in the east after all.
It didn’t matter. The HR people had taken good care of me. They’d been on top of everything, and that’s a lot when it concerns a move from the US to Communist China to work at the country’s biggest TV channel, run by the government.
And now I was here, at my nearly fancy hotel. We’d seen the new CCTV headquarters building on the way in. It was very close by. We’d seen a lot of glossy new buildings. But this right now didn’t feel like I was in the city. I didn’t even feel like I was in China yet. I’d flown in, been driven from the airport through new city streets, deposited at a hotel, then woke up hours later and came out here. It felt like a protective enclave for foreigners. A hotel made to accommodate foreign travelers. An extension of the airports and airplanes of international travel.
I was in some kind of garden courtyard. A muggy but comfortable night. It was surprisingly dark outside for such a huge city. I could see stars. I walked around the darkness. Shapes of trees, shrubs, and architectural structures came into view. There were benches and sidewalks. A mini park. It all was encircled by tall buildings. Sparks fell from the high up one of them, still being constructed. Workers were way up there welding at this hour.
I smoked half my cigar and headed back inside. A woman on the sidewalk offered her services. I declined.
The next day’s order of business was to get a medical check. This was yet another step in the visa process, which wasn’t over yet. You have to get checked out after you arrive, to make sure you don’t have HIV and who knows what else.
A different woman picked me up this time. She carted me to a medical center far in the city’s north. Workers there shuffled me through an assembly line of tests. One room does blood, another does a heart check, another does an X-ray, another gives you a damn ultrasound.
About ten skyscrapers have been under construction across the street from CCTV headquarters since before I arrived in August 2016. That block is all construction zone and looks like it will continue to be for some years to come. It is a modern Chinese equivalent to how I imagine downtown New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other American cities were in the 1920s.
Then we had to get a SIM card. My only memories of this are the searing heat and everyone looking at me with hostility. Glowering faces everywhere. In my jet-lagged, upheaved brain, it felt like the whole country had been notified of my arrival and no one was happy about it. When they realized this offensive arrival was passing them by on the street, they were sure to get in a good hard look at it.
I remember walking over a pedestrian bridge to get to the China Unicom shop. The sun pressed aggressively, as hostile as the humorless faces all around us. The sun felt like it was on my eyeball. It felt like the sun of an alien planet.
We got the SIM card. The first critical step in setting up a life in a new country nowadays — getting mobile service — was done. We went to lunch at a fast food court. She recommended roujiamo (肉夹馍), a wonderful type of meat bun. She asked me about my life and why I came here. I gave straightforward answers, just making conversation. She gave me an enigmatic, wondering smile as I did so. “Why do you look at me like that?” I laughed. “You are so charming,” she said. That’s the whiplash you get here. Hostility swinging to flattery in the space of minutes.
By the time it came to go to work, on my second full day in Beijing, I still hadn’t fully grasped where I was, and what this area’s identity was within the greater city. It sports the glitzy trappings of luxury. But this is said to be a sprawling city, the size of a small US state. 21 million people. For all I knew, this area was just one of many like it, repeated throughout thousands of square kilometers. It could be representative of life in Beijing or just a particularly upscale part of the city. Either way, I was outside my element, economically as well as geographically.
After a few days my head started to clear up. Only then did I realize that I’d been put in the heart of new Beijing. This glitzy area is possibly the most upscale part of the whole city. It’s a brand new modern commercial center, offset from the traditional, physical city center and the national seat of power that is Tiananmen Square and the Palace Museum (Forbidden City), several kilometers to the west.
The hotel was owned by the international hotel chain, Shangri-La. It was in the middle of a mall complex, full of international luxury-brand shops, that goes several floors underground and connects to the subway station and the other skyscrapers in the block. A running promo on the TV in my room told me that I was in the China World Mall, which includes the China World Trade Center, a set of towers that, as best I can tell, kicked off the area’s development in the 1990s. All the gleaming buildings in this area are brand new, most of them opened within the past few years, many more still being built. This China World Mall area is in the heart of Beijing’s Central Business District, the global side of Beijing with all the shiny elements of 21st century commerce that mark major cities worldwide. Its subway station, Guomao, is said to be the busiest in the city.
I’d been put right in the thick of things. The building I work in, CCTV headquarters, is the symbol of modern Beijing and the defining feature of this area. It’s across the street from the China World Mall.
I looked out my window one day to see a wedding taking place, amid nearby skyscraper construction. It appears the workers stopped what they were doing so there would be quiet during the main part of the ceremony.
To get to work, I would simply walk across the small street, go through the dropoff-pickup parking area outside the entrance of two new skyscrapers, past an HSBC branch, out onto a larger street, turn right, go past another skyscraper being built, workers in hardhats looking at me, dirt and dust all over the sidewalk, arrive at the corner of the 3rd Ring Road. It has many lanes and a bridge running down the center, elevated in parallel with traffic to allow for express lanes that are nevertheless full of thick, slow traffic. Horns are honking, scooters and tiny vehicles of all configurations zip about. Pedestrians spit in such a way that you think they must be trying to sound as disgusting as possible on purpose, like it’s a badge of honor or a competition. At the southeast corner of this intersection are about ten more skyscrapers all being built in the same big block.
At the northeast corner is CCTV. I would cross over and wait for someone inside to come get me. That was the daily routine for the first month, until I got a work badge that allowed me to get past security.
A year later, I went back to that hotel courtyard to have a commemorative nighttime cigar. I’d been thinking since almost the beginning that I should do this. It would serve as a gratitude marker. A moment of satisfying reflection after making it a year here and, presumably, now living savvy and adept.
The hotel was already gone, turned into apartments for business travelers, as near as I could tell. The hotel operator, Shangri-La, opened a new hotel in the skyscraper whose construction dust I walked on in those first weeks. This, in a way, represents much of the experience of Beijing, and China in general. Something stamped as a definitive part of your experience here is gone the next time you look at it.
*As it turns out, the info was both right and wrong, in a way that would only happen in China. CCTV’s most important operations, that of the Mandarin-language news channel, declined to move to the new headquarters in the east after a perceived slight from the country’s president about the architecture. While the new building is considered the headquarters, the old one is still where the country’s main news show is produced. The president, who is also general secretary of the CPC, toured that building, not the new one, when he went on a media inspection tour in early 2016.
This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.