BEIJING — I cannot think of another place I have traveled to that has surprised me as much as Beijing. I came here with no extraordinary expectations, and whatever notions I had about a Communist city were based on what I’d read of Chairman Mao in the ’70s, and what I had experienced three years earlier when I visited Fidel Castro’s Havana, a place stuck in the late 1950s.

Havana was old, rundown, tired. Beijing proved a stark contrast.

While leaders here have embraced modernization with vigor, to hint that Beijing is an “emerging” city — actually, I prefer the out-of-vogue term “Third World” — is to not have visited the place; it is to ignore the cranes that sprout like wheat on Kansas farmlands. Any notions to the contrary would be based on rumors, mythology. None of these would leave you in good stead if you let them shape your perspective.

Now, like too many Americans, I thought I would find a country a step or two behind us in how everything works. I was mostly wrong.

I came to soak up Chinese history. I had a visit to a “great” Wall on my bucket list, and its Wall was truly great. It was thousands of miles of brick and mortar that have withstood bad weather and roving bands of invaders. Beijing, a city rich in history, was a place that harbored global aspirations.

It would, of course, be flat lunacy to compare mammoth Beijing to tiny Havana. To do so would be akin to comparing an aircraft carrier to a dinghy. And Beijing was the former.

As I dissected all of it, I kept going back to the stone-faces of the Beijing locals. If they were happy, they masked it. Their happiness wasn’t put on display the way Americans tend to show theirs. We stew openly — and that is a good thing, now and again — but the Chinese forged ahead without much regard for the things that frustrate us.

Their politics was unrolled for them. They might have corruption at the top, but people seemed to enjoy the hard tranquility that came with having Big Brother everywhere, and he was. You couldn’t walk around the block and not spot a camera aimed at your face. Head into the subway system in Beijing — New York City, take lessons on how to do a subway well — and you’d find video cameras overhead, filming your actions and, perhaps too, listening to your words.

For a moment, I found the cameras unsettling. Then I thought: Aren’t we, Americans, in the recording-of-mankind-business as well? Indeed we are, because those traffic cams in big cities weren’t there merely to trap speeders.

I would be misguided or an outright fool to heap too much praise on Beijing, which isn’t my intent. I wanted to say that perhaps we, if we ditched our belief in American exceptionalism, could learn from a culture that predated ours by centuries.

Maybe we should inhale deeply and then ask ourselves whether we ought to be more than what we are, a country where its people gripe too much about what we don’t have instead of accepting our plight. Yet acceptance should never mean our stepping aside, as the Chinese seem forced to do, and let the joys of living walk right past us.