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Being an ‘In-Betweener’

November, 2009
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Teenagers are often known as “in-betweeners”. A person who children look up to but parents roll their eyes at. Not yet accepted as an adult but no longer a child. A period in life where we start to shape our own ideas, try to distinguish ourselves in society, and find the aspects of life that excite us. A time where we realize that there is more to what our parents taught us; we realize our own beliefs and morals. It is a state of being where you are thrown into independence but have not yet been given all the control. Freedom but no freedom.

The injustice of life is that everyone must endure seven long years of this state of “middleness”. Purgatory, if you will. In a waiting room, you are yearning for your life to begin. Racing to grow up but always feeling like you’re being held back, nothing to be done but age and gain experience, working towards a title that doesn’t end with the word "teen". 

amelia-1sThen why is it then that most teenagers who grew up or are growing up in the context of Beijing find the experience of teenage-hood more sweet than bitter? Most look back on their years in Beijing fondly saying that there is no place like it. What is it about Beijing that maternally nurses the hearts of teens?

Spending my seven teenage years in Beijing has made me think of it as home. Now at university in Canada, I have begun realizing why my trips back home are so relaxing or why, when I am away I look forward to holidays in Beijing with my family and old friends.

"I think Beijing makes you grow up faster,” said Elisabeth Schuur, a Western Academy of Beijing alumnus. "I mean that Beijing gives you the freedom to experience and find yourself. It teaches you responsibility for yourself and for others”. Even though Elisabeth only spent her last two high school years in Beijing, she still looks forward to coming back for holidays.

Being in Beijing exposes you to a watered down Western culture. Your own country’s culture is still with you, but rather than it being forced on you from your peers, you get to pick and choose what you like and don’t like. You learn that to be materialistic is not a virtue. You learn that no matter where someone is from, they have the potential to be your friend.

"Have you heard Lady Gaga’s new song?” a friend asked me the first week of university in Canada. My first reaction was who is this Lady of Gaga? I soon found out that Lady Gaga was one of the many pop artists I did not know. Being in Beijing had cut me off from Western pop culture, and to be honest, I didn’t really mind. News in China is generally hard to come by for those of us who do not have cable or access to foreign channels. Therefore, the social trends and fashions of the West did not hinder my adolescence in Beijing. Phrases like “that is sick!” or “he is such a tool!” did not enter my vocabulary. Celebrity gossip was not prominent in my life and brand name merchandise did not really have value to me.

Beijing allows teens to experiment with their personalities. Teens in Beijing are not as confined to judgmental stereotypes and social restrictions. Beijing offers a safe environment to find yourself and this nurturing freedom causes teens to identify with the city and love it in return.

amelia-3sBeijing’s expat community is a small one where it is easy to make friends with both locals and foreigners. Your peers are not only your confidants but also your comrades. You are all from different countries living together in Beijing, and, sharing in this experience, stick together giving everyone a support team and a foundation to build on. This allows your personality to develop freely.

Making friends with local Chinese people is also easy, as they are friendly in nature and are usually willing to lend a helping hand. They offer teens a new perspective on life, teaching them to respect and even admire the differences in people from around the world.

But with all this sweetness comes bitterness. Even though growing up in Beijing is full of freedom, we must keep in mind that most other places are not like Beijing. Compared to most cities, Beijing is relatively safe and teens are mostly able to live a sheltered life.

"I walk the streets of Beijing at three in the morning and I am not worried or scared. In Beijing, you don’t grow up doubting or fearing your environment. This safety brings the freedom to be yourself and not be under constant supervision. This freedom lets you grow and mature into your own person. It allows you to realize your own morals and beliefs. Beijing offers a trialed independence in a safe environment,” Elisabeth says.

During my own first year of university, the laws and regulations in Canada overwhelmed me. Even simple things like crossing the street came with high fines. I had taken Beijing’s soothing safety for granted. Now in Canada I am forced to adjust, to put up walls of fear for the people around me.

One evening, I was walking home from a bus stop with a friend. On our way, a drunk who was yelling obscene slogans confronted us. He began running at us, yelling about all the horrible things he would do when he caught up to us. Thankfully, we were not far from home and once inside, were safe. But I had never been so petrified in my life. It was only 9:30 in the evening, a time in Beijing where you would sit down at a restaurant with friends in San Li Tun. However, the friend who was with me shrugged it off saying: “this is the fourth time this has happened to me this month”.

This incident really opened my eyes to the charmed life I led in Beijing where curfews were non-existent and girls walked alone at night. Now, living outside of Beijing, I am forced to be wary of the dark, no longer taking pleasure in its potential for adventure. We must shroud away from the dark and the people of the night, huddled in our homes behind locked doors. The night is not to be enjoyed.

Being a teenager is not easy. Parents blame your behavior on hormones and wave everything off as “just another phase”. But Beijing doesn’t underestimate its youth. It provides a safe environment for teens to find themselves and to test out the waters for adulthood. Beijing is filled with limitless possibilities, exposing youth to a life where they are in control. Beijing is liberating. Beijing is comforting. Beijing is home for the in-betweener.

By Amelia Yan

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