Living in a Megacity Showed Me the “Irrelevance” of My Existence
A megacity is defined as a metropolitan area with more than 10 million inhabitants. In 2012, China’s capital Beijing had over 17 million registered inhabitants. Counting an annual growth rate of 2.12%, this number is estimated at 20.9 million in 2021*. Then there are the unregistered masses. Coming from a small village counting eight thousand inhabitants in the northern part of the Netherlands, I was in for quite a shock.
Everything seemed so overwhelming. Not so weird when you’re navigating a megacity. Twenty story flat buildings lined up in rows that seemed to go on forever until they faded in the distant Beijing smog. The architecture overall. The number of people that fitted into the subway line 1 carriers during rush hour.
Having dark hair and eyes, I thought I wouldn’t stand out. By visiting the city as a foreigner, you will. On occasion, I heard a camera click and caught a sneaky smile while someone lowered their camera, or bumped into friendly locals asking to have their picture taken with me. Whichever of the two I encountered, I didn’t mind.
Before setting foot in China, I had heavily romanticized the experience. My intention was to take it all in, in whatever way the experience presented itself to me. The standard preparations were done. I had my visas and accommodation prepared well in time. I read one book to get an idea of life in Beijing but neglected to do further research. How so? I didn’t want to spoil the “surprise” or paint a picture before I even arrived. Without expectations, I also couldn’t get disappointed.
Neglecting to do research resulted in not being able to fuel my Social Media addiction since I hadn’t bought a VPN. You’ll need one, as the big tech platforms are blocked behind the Great Firewall. It also resulted in walking into a tourist scam with my eyes wide open. These incidents aside, it did allow me to go into the experience abroad with an open mind. No prejudices to confirm or reject. The experiences gathered were based on the there and then only, forming as I was going through them.
Not being able to stay up to date via Social Media, or posting anything myself gave me a sense of freedom. No worries about documenting everything. No pressure to make sure to “snap a picture, or it didn’t happen”. At first, this felt different, then more like a relief. I was present in the city itself, with the people who I spent time with. There was a disconnect from home. If I were to snap a picture, it was for my personal use. Not to get it online and brag about it as soon as possible.
I remember a random walk towards the metro. Some people turned their heads as I walked by. In a sea of Chinese people, you will stand out if you look different than them.
Curiosity is a human trait. The looks of bewilderment lasted for one second. After that, it was back to whatever they were doing. Several months in and I caught myself doing the same thing. A young black man entered the subway wagon. I remember my eyes widening and thinking, “Woah, a non-Chinese person”.
But, with 20+ million people in the city, there’s not enough attention to go around for every single human being. There’s too much going on and too much traffic on the crowded 6-way streets to not get hit by, especially when you’re busy dodging buses and cars while riding a children-sized bicycle.
During my short 5-month stay, I was in awe of the colossal feel of the city that hosted me. I didn’t mind the endless stream of honking cars, taxi drivers showing off their dangerously good alternating skills, my room getting extremely dusty if I opened the window for even 5 minutes, or how I bonded with the facilities after trying out foods my stomach wasn’t used to. The thousands and thousands of people in the city anywhere I went had their charm too.
My stay here was temporary. The part I played was probably irrelevant.
I was just one of the many semester exchange students, and I wouldn’t be the last. The day I move out of the student dorm, someone else will move in and start their adventure abroad.
I didn’t miss out by being absent from Social Media. To a small extent, it was replaced by WeChat. I learned that it didn’t really matter. Not posting updates made me realize I wasn’t missing out. No one was really missing out from my life either, or missing me, apart from selected family members and close friends. I learned that rest is all nice to have, but not essential.
Is it sad that I felt at my “free-est” when I was abroad alone, looking up at the 20-story buildings, thinking how I felt untouchable by social control I would have in my home town? What if the experience being amazing wasn’t just being on the other side of the world, but it had a lot to do with the fact that no one could get to me here? Does physical distance loosen the grip of mental influence you let others have over you? Through this writing, I realize these ideas need further thought, but that’s for another time.
Whether it’s in a foreign city and culture across the world, or as a human on this earth, we are just visiting. When we leave, the show will continue. What we do or leave doesn’t matter. In that sense, we are free, free to do as we please and explore what interests us.