Christopher Magoon's Fulbright studies in China

In years past, “Have you eaten?” was a common greeting in Beijing.

Recently, it’s fallen out of favor. 

After centuries of food scarcity, “Of course I’ve eaten.  This is modern China,” seems to be the implied response.   

I’ve been in Beijing for about month studying Mandarin before beginning a Fulbright grant.  I’ve been asked, “Have you eaten?” only once.  Questions I’ve been asked an equal number of times, all in Mandarin, include: Do you prefer pour-over coffee?  Did you know you can use your smart phone to pay your electric bill?  What did you buy at IKEA?

In 2017 Beijing, modernity has arrived in many apparent ways:  nearly everyone uses the internet, undernutrition is exceedingly rare, and educational opportunities are abundant. The benefits and challenges of rapid development define life here.  Many are obvious, while others remain bubbling under the surface.

Having been married all of three months, my wife, Alison, and I packed up our house, said goodbye to our family (and our dog!) and have been settling into a new life here.  We first met in Beijing in 2011, so this place carries significance for both of us.  We left over five years ago and have been hoping to come back ever since.

What we found returning to Beijing is both familiar and foreign.  We spend out days and nights studying Mandarin.  We have four hours of class a day and are expected to do eight hours of homework at night.  With an average class size of 1-on-2, any lapse in preparation brings immediate shame.  The workload feels similar to the throws of medical school, but we are reveling in the luxury of focusing on language skills fulltime.  Beyond the practical application of facilitating life here, Mandarin has beauty and depth that we are only begining to grasp.

We have found Beijing in an age of abundance.  Obesity rates are rising to alarming levels. According to official sources, greater than 25% of Beijingers are obese (BMI >30), a higher rate than New York City.  In response, there is now a blossoming fitness culture.  Gyms seem to be everywhere, with many dedicated clients.  The gym near our apartment is open 24-hours and packed with fitness buffs.  In 2011, people would scold Alison for recreational weightlifting, saying she would be ugly with too much muscle.  Now, they cheer her on at the pullup bar, “Wow your muscles are really awesome.  How long have you been working out?”

The pace of life, particularly work life, moves at a blitz.  Our apartment is next to a tech startup incubator.  The campus itself is a converted series of socialist-era factories which now hold offices that churn out apps, websites, and other techy marvels.  Work-life balance seem to be a luxury rarer than Prada.  In the research group with whom I will eventually work, it is normal for meetings to begin at 9pm and end at midnight.   In our language class, we learned a common phrase that people fear being “replaced” by harder working people.  “I’m used to it,” I am often told when people—across the socioeconomic spectrum—describe working months on end with only a day or two off.

Beyond the culture of hard work, many of the challenges feel familiar.  Obviously the language barrier is a constant.  More intrusive—and less studyable—is the pollution.  We purchased an air purifier (online, of course) which links with our iPhones to display current particulate levels both in our apartment and outside.  Still, pollution makes life outside difficult-to-impossible.  Before checking the weather when I wake up, I check the pollution levels.

With the widespread use of technology comes many headaches as many Western websites are banned in China.  It can take up to a half hour, or be outright impossible, for me to check my Gmail.  Internet speeds for domestic users are quite fast, but for anything beyond the Great Firewall, the internet is painfully slow, even with a VPN.  Access to blocked websites (like Google, The New York Times, and Twitter) is expected to become more difficult in the lead up to the 19th Party Congress next month and potentially be banned outright.  Among other problems, tightening the reigns on internet censorship could harm scientific collaboration, as many major research resources are banned in China.  The entire time I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been waiting for one email on my Gmail to send.

Beijing is a massive city in an unfathomably large country.  For now, we are mostly faced with the prosperous side of China’s development.  With an income inequality on par with Venezuela and Lesotho, the relative glamor of Beijing life contrasts with the grinding poverty in many areas of the country. 

The pollution, internet censorship, language barrier, and other hassles can swirl into a medley that feels overwhelming at times, but largely it just feels like life.  When we need to, we just strap on our face mask, wait for our VPN to load and remind ourselves it’s is a privilege to live, work, and study in this rapidly changing society.  It’s the price of admission to get to witness history, and one we are more than willing to pay.


Christopher Magoon is a current Fulbright Scholar in China and a rising 4th year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine.  He graduated from Yale with a degree in History in 2011 and was a 2011-12 Luce Scholar in Yunnan, China, where he worked for a rural schools NGO.  You can follow him on Twitter @cpdmagoon and he welcomes you to contact him through his website at www.christophermagoon.com.

The views expressed in contributed blog posts belong solely to the indicated author and do not necessarily respresent those of the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships or those of the University of Pennsylvania.