Wudaokou: Beijing’s Multi-Cultural Milieu or a Foreign Student Fortress?
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Walking down Zhongguancun Dong Lu in Wudaokou (五道口) on a Thursday afternoon gives you a vivid sense of the cultural significance of the area. A bustling atmosphere of students rushing off to lectures, street vendors selling hot food, and endless traffic jams. Wudaokou is renowned throughout Beijing as a "Global Village" due to its high concentration of foreign students. Its name has become synonymous with the memories and experiences of most international students in Beijing. However, there are concerns as to whether or not this glittering reputation is simply a façade for the cohesive segregation between foreign students and locals that lies beneath the surface.

Western comforts, on the cheap

The presence of so many foreign students in the area has clearly helped shape the business environment of Wudaokou. The area features many Western franchises, such as KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Subway. In order to accurately determine the activities and habits of foreign students in Wudaokou, I undertook some interviews with foreign students and locals. When asked how the Western restaurants impacted the atmosphere, most foreign students appreciated the choice and variety that they contribute. James, a Sierra Leone-born Canadian citizen studying at Tsinghua University, describes it as an "excellent fusion of different cultures."

In addition, popular clubs such as Propaganda have special offers and are much cheaper than their Sanlitun counterparts. The foreign students I interviewed were thoroughly satisfied with the nightlife provided at Wudaokou, which has attained legendary status in many circles. However, it is also clear that such recreation and entertainment is not conducive to full and thorough engagement with the local Chinese people. This is a crucial point of contention, as such engagement with locals of a different culture is an indispensable aspect of any full and well-rounded student experience.

Don’t live in Wudaokou to study Chinese

It is clear that the high concentration of foreign students, and their strength in numbers, has lessened the need for foreign students to attempt to engage with the local Chinese population of Wudaokou. Ann Christine from London said: "Wudaokou is definitely the wrong place for a student to live if he or she wants to learn anything about Chinese culture." These sentiments echo the concerns of many in Wudaokou, who feel it has simply become a shelter in which foreign students can live in Beijing, without ever having to engage with language or culture of the Chinese people. In many restaurants and cafés throughout Wudaokou, there is evidence of some seclusion, with many foreign students preferring to stick within the social circles of other foreign students. One quickly discovers that the level of written and spoken Mandarin Chinese amongst those foreign students who aren’t enrolled in Mandarin Chinese courses or attend Beijing Language and Culture University is fairly basic and minimal at best.

Boutiques such as A-You Fashion, Queen Nu and Suren handmade reflect students’ need for cheap, Western-style fashions. The prices are clearly orientated towards a student budget. Although these businesses have, to an extent, been embraced by the local Chinese population, they are still clearly tailored and geared towards pleasing the foreign student population, a fact which is no doubt a source of alienation and dissatisfaction amongst many locals.

Chinese Westernization is not "cultural integration"

The only relative diversity of customers I spotted occurred in bars and cafes like La Dolce Vista and The Bridge Café, which are calm and serene places to unwind, and feature a strikingly open and integrated atmosphere. The presence of ultra-Western style music and refreshments also adds to the flavour. Kevin from Canada says that the Westernized nature of the Chinese people in Wudaokou makes them easy to engage with and they are more likely to speak to foreign students than other Chinese people. These views suggests that the social cohesion may not be a result of true engagement with Chinese culture on the part of locals, but simply the diluted version of Chinese culture that has emerged in Wudaokou. The foreign students I interviewed proposed many possible solutions to the lack of assimilation between foreign students and locals. Chinese students at some of these elite Universities may be able to bridge the gap between foreign students and Chinese locals. In addition, there can be more events and activities with themes of cultural exchange and engagement, as well as more opportunities for foreign students to attain a deeper understanding of the Chinese language and culture.

The foreign student identity has clearly been absorbed into the Wudaokou setting, becoming one of its most distinct and well-known features. This means that they have a presence and status that is an antidote to any feelings of isolation and seclusion that may be felt by foreigners in other parts of Beijing. However, established status is no substitute for genuine cultural integration, and the foreign student population has failed to meaningfully assimilate into local society. So, while Wudaokou can by no means be described as a segregated district, there is clearly a long way to go before it can achieve the status of a cultural milieu. 

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Keywords: Wudaokou in Beijing Wudaokou global village Beijing Foreign Students in Beijing expat areas in Beijing

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