From the first time I stepped off the plane in India in 2004, my senses were immediately bombarded with information that constantly reminded me that this was not home. The wailing horns never ceased even at night, trash that the homeless burned to keep warm in the cooler winter months in Delhi left a strong burning clutch-smelling haze over the city, and the stream of brightly colored yet extremely filthy women with her hand out carrying a child or two begging for a portion of my extreme wealth never ceased.
This, or something similar, is what I was expecting of Beijing, and I was shocked to find a different country of comparison - the United States. Perhaps it is the threat of the upcoming Olympic games that has this city scrambling into the 21st century. Everywhere I turn I see a new park with sculptures of athletes made out of flowers, a countdown clock reminding everyone in English and Mandarin that there are 18 days left until the beginning of the games, or workers working overtime scrubbing the windows and aluminum tiling of modern-looking sky scrapers. I am surprised by the emptiness of the streets. I would expect the second biggest city of the most populated country in the world to at least feel as busy as Manhattan during rush hour, but I have not had to push my way through streams of people once this trip.
In order to accept the influx of droves of people into the city in two weeks, personal cars with odd-numbered license plates are only allowed on the roads on odd-numbered days, and vice versa. The entire city sits in buzzing anticipation. Tiananmen square, famous in the west for the massacre of 1989 that killed over 200 students when soldiers opened fire on a group of peaceful protesters, is getting a new face: Olympic statues and gardens are popping up on every side of this square that is analogous to the Mall in Washington, DC.
Perhaps it is not the Olympics that have driven Beijing toward Westernization, but instead a push for western societies to take them seriously as a global superpower. What separates this city from American cities is its history, the longest continuous history of any culture in the world. The layout of the city reflects the ancient city of Yen, which lay on this spot thousands of years ago. The center of the city is circled by ring roads that run in consecutive circles. These streets lay on the remnants of protective walls of ancient times when the Emperors were entrusted with protecting their kingdom from Mongol invaders. These walls served as the layers of protection, increasingly...