Beijing: My home away from home

December 8, 2008

By Ben Blanchard

I never thought I’d ever go to China. This may not sound strange, except that from the age of 16 I knew I wanted to study Chinese at university.

It was the early 1990s, and memories of what happened around Tiananmen Square a few years ago were still fresh in everybody’s minds.

I’d just read a biography of Chiang Kai-shek, the man who “lost” China to the Communists and was forced to retreat to Taiwan with his rump Nationalist government.

It was not China that fascinated me then, but Taiwan. China was this strange, closed place with apparently no respect for human rights or democracy, while Taiwan was busy lifting martial law and having free and open elections.

After graduating from university with a degree in Chinese, I returned to Taiwan to live, having studied there as an undergraduate. And I still had no desire to go to China.

It was not until 2000 that I finally set foot on the mainland, visiting a friend who had moved to Beijing from Taipei.

The prospect of going scared me. Would I be able to bring in foreign magazines? Would I be able to understand the simplified Chinese characters used in China? Would I be totally confused by the guttural Mandarin Beijingers are renowned for?

Looking back on these concerns I wonder what on earth could I have been thinking. I have now lived in China, in both Beijing and Shanghai, for the past eight years, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

What it comes down to is the people. Beijingers are incredible. Noisy, in your face and sometimes just downright rude. Yet also willing to meet you face on, not afraid to tell you exactly what they think, and endlessly generous.

As a journalist, you also could not ask for a better place to be. There’s never a dull moment, and it’s now China I find endlessly fascinating.

I still love Taiwan, and go back regularly. But today Beijing is home.

Ben Blanchard is a Reuters correspondent based in Beijing, continuing a long tradition the news agency has had in covering China. Jonathan Sharp also reported on China for Reuters, beginning in the early 1970s.  The bike-crowded streets he saw then are a stark contrast to traffic jams and the glass and steel buildings of Beijing today.

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