In 2007, while on a whirlwind world tour, I spent four days in Beijing. I found that I didn’t like the city all that much. I was nearing the end of my trip, and I’d already been to a dozen other countries, so I chalked it up to fatigue and decided that, someday, I’d go back and give Beijing a second chance. I was 20 years old, at my idealistic peak, and I believed there was no place on Earth that wasn’t for me. It was a belief that was almost universal among my traveling friends: All places were wonderful, we thought, if you could just open yourself up to them.
This turned out to be bullshit. Two years later, I got the opportunity to return to Beijing to work as an intern for a Chinese newspaper. It was a nightmare. The people I worked with clearly didn’t like me — and neither did practically everyone I met in Beijing.
“Holy shit,” I remember thinking, “It’s an entire city full of assholes.” Looking back, it strikes me as being slightly more probable that I was the asshole, and that Beijingers were merely responding to me in the way one would normally respond to an asshole, but it took several years’ distance for me to reach that conclusion. While I was there, I was miserable.
I hated the food. I always seemed to order the wrong thing — one time I’m fairly certain I ate a dog spine. I had not wanted dog spine. I’m not that adventurous. My mis-ordering of food was likely due to the language being totally impenetrable to me. The only words I knew were nihau, (hello), xie xie (thank you), pijiu (beer), and Huixinxijienankou (the subway station I lived near); and I usually mispronounced all of them. I couldn’t get cabs to pick me up, and the air pollution made my phlegm and ear wax turn an alarming shade of ash black. I drank Pepto-Bismol by the bottle and learned how to properly mime “diarrhea” to a pharmacist.
The internship ended when I quit in a huff and fled to Tibet, seeking spiritual enlightenment, but instead got severe altitude sickness and a bad case of the shits. I returned to Beijing for the final two weeks and curled up on my subletted apartment’s couch, where I watched the only English-language movie I could find: a horrible B-movie remake of a much better Korean romcom called My Sassy Girl. It played on a loop, and I wept every single time the couple ended up together at the end. When I finally left Beijing, I knew I’d never come back.
Hardcore travelers are turd-polishers by nature. If they hate a place, they don’t say, “I’d rather be sodomized by a pineapple than go back.” Instead, they say, “It was so unique! So different from home! And the food! Wow! I didn’t know you could cook armadillo into a stew, or that rat tail was so gamey!”
When I got back from Beijing, though, I couldn’t find anything pleasant to say. “How was Beijing?” people would ask. It was the most I could do to not take advantage of my newly discovered miming skills. I certainly couldn’t say anything nice about it, but I didn’t want to come across as a shitty, close-minded tourist.
A few years later, I was at my office job when a coworker started ripping on London. “What a shithole,” she said. “It’s cloudy and gray and dirty and everyone is rude and has bad teeth.” I immediately jumped to my favorite city’s defense, and was taken aback when she said, “It just wasn’t for me.”
It was as if a door opened. Of course there was nothing objectively “wrong” with Beijing. Thousands, even millions have loved that city. It just “wasn’t for me.” A preference for certain cities or locales suddenly became a matter of taste, not of closed-mindedness. It was the same thing as having a preference for a certain type of music. Granted, disliking London was kinda like disliking the Beatles, whereas not being into Beijing was more like hating Nickelback, but still — neither position was right or wrong. It was a matter of taste.
And it still allowed me to be a decent world traveler. Because it’s not a sign of open-mindedness to love everything. That’s a sign of being a non-discriminating fool. As long as I was willing to go anywhere at least once, and as long I was willing to give every place I visited a fair chance, I could still think of myself as open-minded.
But I no longer allow myself to talk trash about Beijing. It is an objectively cool city. The Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Night Market — they’re all pretty awesome travel destinations, and I can conceive of a traveler having a much better set of experiences there than those that I had. It’s simply a matter of taste. And to my totally subjective palette, Beijing will always taste pretty fucking gross.
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