Observations on Observation

Today we headed to the Central University of Finance and Economics (CUFE). We recieved a lecture on the current state of the smartphone industry, ate another delicious multi-course meal, toured campus, and even skipped rope with our Chinese counterparts at the university. The purpose of this specific trip was clear: observation. As college students ourselves, a visit to a university calls on us to draw comparisons to what our univerity experience entails. This form of observation between us and the Chinese students allows us to mutually widen our perspectives concerning our educational system, culture, and values. This, I believe, is what studying abroad is all about.

Though the main focal point of our day, the trip to the university is not what spawned my daylong ponderings about observation. The source of these thoughts both came from transit to and from sites: the bus ride to CUFE and how the people of Beijing respond to us as westerners as we walk from place to place. I’ve always been one who genuinely enjoys people watching. Due to this, our hour long bus rides through Beijing’s bustling streets have been much more than just a means of transportation to me. Riding through a city has its perks when it comes to observation: the ability to cover large amounts of mileage in a relatively short period of time and anonymity. The latter of which I personally feel is the more impactful perk. From my bus window, I can freely observe what kinds of bikes the locals ride, how people spend time in the park, and how strangers meeting on the street interact (or don’t interact) with each other. This is something that I would not be comfortable doing without the distance the bus provides, as well as something arguably (in the U.S.) very rude. Is it insensitive of me to stare at citizens going about their daily business, even if they aren’t aware they’re being watched? Isn’t it human nature to be curious about something unfamiliar to us? In observing the Beijing citizens, I’ve noticed that without that distance between us, the observation becomes a mutual experience. As I walk through the streets of Beijing, especially crowded areas, I’ve been noticing that many people find me to be something unfamiliar to be observed as well. As a westerner, especially as an African American, just as I’m curious as to why there are outdoor exercise machines in parks, they’re curious as to why my hair curls and puffs. But, I’ve also noticed that many feel comfortable not only directly observing me without a layer of distance, but going so far as to blatantly photograph me. As someone who shies away from confrontation, their comfort in facing an unknown foreigner head-on without any level of distance has been startling, and a little off-putting. But, is it wrong of them? The prolonged stares and phone clicks make me feel slightly like a zoo animal, but aren’t I treating their city also as an environment for me to observe? I’m not quite sure the answers to these questions, but the moral and logistical implications of observation are something I will continue to consider.

Bringing this blog post back to a less serious note, today was a very fun day! I ended the day with a visit to Qianmen Street and the Lao She Teahouse. Here is a picture of me by the gate to lighten the mood.

Leave a Reply