Experiencing traditional hutong life of Beijing’s working class in the shadows of the skyscrapers of the central business district.
An American Expat in China
Four years ago I was commuting daily to my web and graphic design job at a New York healthcare company in the Bronx. The commute was long and unpredictable, and the company’s recent move to the new corporate headquarters added an additional 15 – 20 minutes each way. While I generally liked the job I was looking for a change.
My iPhone was my only camera at the time. My photos (and videos) covered a range of subjects from daily life in New York City, weird or interesting stuff I came across (clouds, shadows, etc.), trips and the occasional food pic. Most of this ended up on Instagram and Facebook.
I originally got into photography as a visual arts student at Duke Ellington, School of the Arts in my hometown, Washington, DC. As with many photographers of a certain age, my first camera was the Pentax K1000. I learned to shoot black and white photos, learning to develop film and work with prints in the darkroom. I was always into comics and drawing, and eventually moved on to graphic design, but never stopped taking photos, eventually making the move to digital. The first digital camera I used was the Nikon E4500 flip camera that I occasionally borrowed from the job. Since then I have shot with an assortment of point and shoot cameras, the occasional DSLR, and every iPhone I’ve owned since the original, and now shoot photos with the Sony a6400.
My first trip outside of North American was to Japan, to visit the Nichiren Shoshu head temple Taiseki-ji with other members from Los Angeles’ Myohoji Temple for the 750th Anniversary of the Submission of the Rissho Ankoku-ron in 2009. I took a few extra days afterward to explore Tokyo. Before Japan the only country I’d been to outside of the United States was Canada for a day trip.
I traveled to Taiseki-ji two more times (2012, 2014), and Sado Island (2012) with members of New York’s Myosetsuji Temple. I hit Tokyo again, and Nikko and Kamakura in 2014.
In 2014 I went to Europe for the first time, celebrating Christmas with my Partner and her family in Copenhagen, and New Years with friends in the UK. We returned to Copenhagen the following year to ring in 2016.
A couple of weeks into the new year, I was on my way to work, when I get a text from my partner asking how much I liked Chinese food. I called her back and she told me that we were going to China for her job. Nine months later we were living in Beijing.
Beijing is a study in contrasts. The city is more vibrant and modern than I thought it would be, with so much landmark architecture, but it’s also the Communist era buildings and apartment blocks, and the hutongs.
I’ve seen more Teslas, Mercedes, Porsches, and other luxury and exotic cars in Beijing than in New York, Los Angeles and London combined. They share the roads with electric motorcycles that I’ve not seen anywhere else, countless e-bikes, bicycles, and ‘old school’ carts (tricycles) pedaled by foot.
It’s still news in the West when ApplePay or Android Pay are available in new cities. Meanwhile in Beijing (and the rest of China) a billion people are using WeChat and Alipay to pay for everything with their phone. Even street vendors and panhandlers have a QR code to accept cash on their mobile phones. I’ve met expats of all ages who have been here for years. Some have been here decades. I was speaking to a gentleman at one of the charity balls last year who said he had lived here for fifteen years, and how much he loved the frenetic energy and how the city was constantly changing. This vibrancy is not just in Beijing, but in cities all over China, and other countries in Asia. I can definitely see how people come here and want to stay.
Since moving to this side of the world, my partner and I have explored Beijing, China, and several other Asian countries. We have also visited several more countries in Europe, and I have circumnavigated the world at least twice since 2016. Not too bad for a guy whose first trip overseas was a little over ten years ago.
Exploring Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Working People’s Cultural Palace on a rare snow day in Beijing.
Dōngyuè Temple is a 14th century Taoist temple in Beijing that takes one on a tour of the Taoist afterlife.