BEIJING, China—We were standing outside of the crowded Mexican restaurant in the college district when he approached us, making a direct beeline for the only blonde in our group while ignoring the rest of us.
“Hey, brother, you seem like a chill guy,” he said in a distinctly Californian drawl, handing my friend a flyer. “I want to invite you to the party I’m throwing at my club this Saturday, right across the street. It’s going to be off the hook.”
With the swagger in his stride, the monogrammed fitted cap, and baggy blue jeans with the florescent Nikes underneath, the club promoter was a better fit for the streets of my hometown of Oakland than the Beijing boulevard where we had rendezvoused.
During the Summer Olympics hype of 2008, Beijing tried to rebrand itself as an international metropolis that could cater to the foreign crowds that had arrived en-masse for the games. Nowadays, the Bird’s Nest is empty and regular primetime TV shows have returned to the airwaves, but a part of that glorious summer’s dream still lives on in the vibrant expat population of the city.
Expat, short for expatriate, refers to the growing band of international dissenters who have flocked here to make Beijing their home while still retaining the passports of their respective motherlands. Mostly American or European, the stereotypical expat is a flaxen, middle-aged, mid-to-higher-level executive with only enough Chinese in his arsenal to direct his taxi driver. If you can speak English without a heavy accent, know a few of the right people, and have access to several English websites stationed in the capitol city, you will be able to find the niches in Beijing where this new lost generation, and the rising class of Chinese natives that want to rub elbows with them, have carved out their own separate world.
Several weekends ago, I was dining at a French restaurant where the Chinese waitresses wouldn’t even look at me till I started ordering in English instead of Mandarin. During a night out on the town, we ran into a huge guerrilla campaign pushing tickets for the upcoming Usher concert. I have seen at least four separate branches of Coach located in one region of the city alone. Pizza Hut here is the type of classy sit-down dining experience where you might take a first date. The hottest clubs in the city do not blast Jay Chou or Wang Leehom but the Black-Eyed Peas and 3OH!3.
However, the Sanlitun district still reigns as Beijing’s expat capitol. In the daytime, it is a neighborhood marked by the presence of most of the city’s embassies and consulates, but at night, the area is aglow with the neon Heineken signs of its infamous bar scene that caters specifically to expats and foreign-exchange students. During this World Cup season, a group of us Harvard students hit up sports bars in the area after work to feast on slider burgers and pizza while listening to the English commentary above the never-ceasing buzz of the vuvuzela.
Welcome to the imperial city of Beijing—I’m 9,727 miles away from home but it feels like I’ve never left.