By David Pfohl, NorCap Staff Intern
Kyle Freeman, a 2011 George Mason University graduate, is currently working as a Commercial Service Sector intern at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Kyle, an Economics and Global Affairs double major, first came to Beijing in 2009 to study abroad through George Mason University. Following this time abroad, Kyle continued studying Mandarin in Beijing with the Confucius Institute Scholarship. His experience in China was instrumental in acquiring an internship at the international trade department of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Following that internship and graduation, Kyle returned to China to work for the U.S. Embassy. He plans on living in Beijing for the next few years and working as a business consultant, helping U.S. companies enter the Chinese market.
What is a typical weekend like for you in Beijing?
When the weather is warmer, I like to go out and visit the different imperial gardens and temples around the city. When the weather turns cold, I usually head to the museums. Beijing ranks second internationally, trailing only London, in its number of museums. I think there are more than 3000 museums and more than half of them are free.
One of my favorite things to do in Beijing is spend a day eating my way across the city. China has one of the richest food cultures in the world and Beijing holds some of its best treats. Traditional Beijing snacks range anywhere from Beijing roast duck, to spicy Sichuan food, tropical seafood delicacies from the south, or Muslim dishes from the west; Beijing has it all. This food is everywhere you turn, from street vendors and small shops to some of the most elegant restaurants in Asia.
What was the craziest thing that ever happened to you/you witnessed in Beijing?
Perhaps not the craziest but … I once saw a business meeting being conducted at McDonalds. There were four men in suits and a secretary. The secretary served them coffee and super-sized meals as they watched a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop. Ultimately, they ended up signing contracts right there in the McDonalds. The whole time this was going on, there was a homeless man sleeping at a table not far from them.
I once saw a man fixing his air conditioning unit. Not in itself a weird thing, until you realize it was an external unit on the 14th floor of an apartment building and he was standing on the unit, no bigger than a TV, beating it with a hammer.
A friend and I once got held up by a farmer with a pitchfork. We were hiking out to a remote part of the Great Wall and as we approached, a man came running at us shouting. It turns out local farmers guard this part of the wall and usually require hikers to pay a small fee. Needless to say, we were more than happy to pay the 10 kuai fee (about $1.50) rather than argue with him. He then went on to show us around The Wall and actually treated us to lunch the next day after we camped there.
What do you like most about this city and why?
I like the mix of old and new. One minute you can be strolling through imperial gardens and palaces and minutes later be amongst the towering and impressive architecture of office buildings in Chaoyang District. I think Beijing is unique in this respect in that it was able to retain more traditional Chinese aspects while modernizing at a rapid pace.
In my opinion, many other large Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong lack this quality and appear to have torn down the old in favor of the new.
Actually, one of China’s most famous comedians, Mr. Zhou, has a pretty good joke about this phenomenon. In Chinese, the character for tearing down a building is 拆 (chaī). The joke goes, “In China we are always tearing this down or tearing that down to make room for something new. Everywhere you turn it is “chaī” this or “chaī” that. This is why foreigners call our country China.”
Thankfully, Beijing has largely avoided this craze and retained much of its cultural heart.
If you could give advice to new interns or people interested in coming to this city, what would you say?
I don’t want to sound cliché, but whenever I’m asked this question I always say the same thing: “Expect the unexpected”. Whatever preconceived notions you have about living in China (Beijing), be they from things you have read or heard somewhere, they will likely change once you arrive. China is literally on the other side of the world from the U.S., and in many aspects I would say we are a world apart culturally. While that can sometimes be daunting, it can also be a very good thing.
I have lived here for 2 years and still learn or see something new on a daily basis. For me, it is almost like being a kid again, where everything is fresh and exciting. It definitely keeps life interesting.
What was your favorite experience in Beijing so far?
My favorite experience in Beijing would have to be the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is China’s largest holiday and many people travel hundreds of miles to return home, much like Christmas in the U.S. The best part of the Chinese New Year, by far, is the fireworks. I have never seen so many fireworks. At midnight we went to the roof of an apartment building and there were literally fireworks going off in every direction as far as the eye could see. I imagine if you were to fly over in a plane it would look like a colorful war zone.
What is something unique about this city that not many people know?
Beijing is not only the capital of China, but also the bicycle capital of the world. If you have
never been to Beijing, this may be a little hard to imagine, but once you arrive I think it is something you notice quite quickly. They even have parking lots just for bikes. I had never seen this before coming to China.
Beijing has sandstorms in the spring. As fearsome as they sound, they are actually not too bad. They typically occur two or three times per year and only last for a few hours. The first time I experienced one I had no idea what was happening and wondered why the sky was orange and the streets were covered in sand.
Beijing locals refer to the China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters building, one of Beijing’s most famous architectural landmarks, as “the big underpants” … because it looks like a pair of boxers when viewed from the front.