Thursday, March 03, 2005

Beijing Through the Eyes of The Haggis: Part One

Ni Hao, friends!

(As a program note, please pardon any errors in layout or appearance of the blog; I cannot access it from here to see what it looks like; I can only post to it via the back way, so if the spacing or whatnot is messed up, I will not know.)

Hello from Beijing, where it is in the arctic 20's right now. How do I know this? Because I just walked about 2 miles each way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Was going to walk further but gave up because of the bitter cold wind. What did I learn on my first full day in Beijing? Let's see:

1) Whatever you think you know about China and the Chinese people, assume it's wrong. More on this later.

2) Americans tend to believe that Capitalism (an economic system) is interchangeable with Democracy (a political system); that they are the same thing. No city more illustrates the seeming chasm between the two--or perhaps the slightly unnerving way that Capitalism and a lack of Democracy seem to coexist comfortably--than Beijing. On one major street there are major malls, stores, many Western brands--and outside every 40 yards there is a policeman/military officer standing sentry. Just standing there, no doubt to "maintain order." I'll leave it at that till I get home.

Some other less-heavy findings:

3) Everyone spits in the street. Get used to it, and jump fast if you are too close.

4) Being the only platinum-blond haired person in a hotel makes you feel funny. Like, when you are in the cafĂ© having some tea, or in a line, or at a monument and you look up, people who were staring at you avert their eyes very quickly—but not fast enough for you to miss the fact that you were being studied while you weren’t paying attention. And you wonder, are they trying to figure out which planet I’m from?

5) Although my hair color is pretty close to freak territory here, my skin tone, considered very fair in the US, is about average here. It’s like a freakin’ dream come true, y’all! Entire STREETS of people with my skin color! It’s AWESOME! I feel like if I dyed my hair black, I would almost fit in better here than I do at home.

6) But then there’s the d**n hair color again. For the purposes of telling a tall tale to the rubes back home, I will say this: I obviously resemble an ancient Empress named Badaling, who must have been very blond with a very Roman nose. Because while on the street, as soon as some people get within 10 feet of me coming towards them, they start yelling, “Badaling! Badaling! Badaling!” and start running over to me. Now, the other less-plausible explanation is that Badaling is the location at which The Great Wall is viewed by tourists, and these people see a blond walking toward them (= tourist = money) and start trying to sell me a car ride to The Great Wall. I only offer this tiny wisp of a possible explanation because Badaling might also have had a sister named “youneedmap?”

7) Do NOT under any circumstances engage the Beijing University art students. They are the squeegee men of Beijing. They follow you and harangue you to buy their art; they start out by saying, “You from America?! Beautiful! Do you like art?” And god forbid you say yes because then it is 45 minutes of this person following you along the street trying to get you to look at their calligraphy. Avoid the art students like your day depends on it. And if anyone knows how to write, “I am not interested in your art” in Chinese, please send it so I can wear a sign.

8) Traffic laws? We don’t need no stinking traffic laws! If you are in a car, it’s pretty much always “go.” Pedestrians are monitored by men in brown suits and red flags who tell you when you can cross. But just because you are crossing on a red light, don’t assume that cars will stop for you. Seriously. I had a thought this AM on my way to the Forbidden City that it won’t be giardia or SARS that takes me out on this trip; it will be a VW Passat, which seems to be the car of choice careening through crosswalks. Unless your car of choice is a bicycle, which is about 10 times faster and more cutthroat. By the end of the day, I pretty much started just walking one pace behind a Chinese person crossing the street, standing way too close to them by Western standards, and assumed that if they were crossing that they were pretty sure they could make it across, and therefore so would I, the Empress Badaling.

9) Don’t duck into a store to escape the cold weather and catch your breath. Every retail situation except in the very nice malls is a Sino-American running of the gauntlet: “Halloo! You like pandas? You like scarf? You like penguin? Hallo! Scarf! Panda! Penguin!” till you run out of the store to escape the cacophony.

10) Don’t get lost in Beijing. Seriously. This weekend is apparently a very important meeting of the National People’s Congress, which meets in the building in Tiananmen Square. If you happen to, say, get lost on your way to the other side of the Square and decide to amble down a side street that seems to go back in the direction that you came, DON’T. Corollary to “Don’t Get Lost in Beijing:” If a soldier with a gun puts his hand up at you from 15 feet away and looks at you like he’s daring you to take a step forward or back, stop immediately, stand very still, nod and smile at him energetically for as long as it takes for him to find someone who speaks English. Then assure the nice man that you are just a dumb blonde, took a wrong turn, trying to find someplace out of the cold, thought you’d take a short cut, so sorry to have gone down the alley where the National People’s Congress members park their cars. Say “thank you sir” and walk away. Remind yourself once again that capitalism and democracy are not the same thing. Remind self as you walk past the 15th McDonalds and the 30th soldier “keeping order” on the street, that if the US wants to live up to its ideals, we ought to be exporting a little less of the former, a whole lot more of the latter.

And with that, I'm off to the cafe downstairs for a green tea and my daily "stare fest."

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