Back To Beijing, Chinese Reflections On Coming Home

A native of China's bustling capital who studied in the U.S. and UK felt more embraced as a local abroad than in a new Chinese city. Inside the native-foreigner divide.

Back in the streets of Beijing
Back in the streets of Beijing
Liu Yanchuan*


BEIJING — Since leaving home as a teenager and traveling through many places, my feelings about my home city become more and more blurred. I can't tell anymore whether what I missed were the family and friends I left behind, or the city full of memories. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. Yet peace of mind here doesn't seem so easy to find.

Two events I witnessed one summer when I returned home to Beijing are particularly memorable. The first was on a bus. One migrant worker mother was telling her friend about her child's schooling problem in the capital. "The teacher says that migrant children's level is low, and it will have a negative impact on the locals," she said.

Another time was on a very crowded subway. A local youth was arguing with a middle-aged man carrying heavy luggage. "Can you speak Mandarin?" the young man said, trying to provoke the older man with a typical Beijing accent. The middle-aged man vaguely mumbled a few words and looked dejected.

These events made me recalls the days I studied abroad in the United States and Britain, when being local or foreign didn't matter. Regardless of language or passport, I was embraced as long as I showed an interest in my community. Studying abroad helped me learn to participate actively in the world around me.

After attending an American high school for two years, I studied politics at a U.S. university, and I very often attracted attention from classmates who were particularly active in social affairs. They would encourage me to get involved and asked me to sign on to proposals they advocated — gay rights legislation, urban renewal or environmental issues.

Americans seem to have an inexhaustible supply of issues about which they care. No elder can possibly put the hat of "angry youth" on these young students. And parents don't tell their children, "You haven't experienced the Cultural Revolution" or "Stay away from politics."

Since returning home, I still, at nearly 30 years old, hear these words in China.

Not from around here

I studied in Minnesota, and most of my American classmates came from Illinois, Wisconsin or somewhere outside the state. Yet then and now they share something in common. They are all citizens of the United States of America. Wherever they are, they all think about how local policies might affect them, and how they can affect change with a vote or other political participation.

I used to think this was all about just standing up against injustice. But I discovered that they do it primarily for their own sakes. "Though I am here only for my studies, why shouldn't I support or oppose the noisy rail track repair going on right where I live?" one of my fellow students told me. Friends also advised me to get involved with what was happening around me, because this is how people in the United States protect their interests. If you don't participate in politics, no one else will speak for you.

After graduating from university, I went to Washington D.C. along with a classmate from Minnesota. Within just a few days my friend had already registered herself as a resident so that she could vote as a local. I sent my CV to a congressman from Minnesota and received an enthusiastic response. He didn't care about my nationality, only about the fact that I had lived in the United States for several years and had experience working for local Democrats in elections.

Years after, via Beijing, I moved to another Chinese city to start my first job back home. One morning a policewoman, sensing I was a newcomer, shouted at me. "Where are you from? Did you rent this place or did you buy it? Are you on your own? How long are you staying?" Passively, I wrote down my name and identity card number. I was clearly a stranger in this city. In the suspicious eyes of the police offer, I didn't merit protection but instead appeared to be a local threat.

Certainly Americans aren't immune to issues of national origin. The continuous congressional disputes over immigration prove that. But putting aside high-level politics, American society generally welcomes outsiders to their communities. At least that's been my experience.

China is a country going through a tumultuous migration process. Can't we put aside the confrontational emotion of the local and non-local and just think out how we can bring about changes for the better where we live instead?

*This is one of a series of articles published by WeThinker, a chat room forum gathering like-minded people. The author studied at Macalester College and the London School of Economics.

**An earlier photograph on this article was mistakenly identified as Beijing.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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