Sunday, May 5, 2013
This is a mosaic of my first impressions of Beijing, viewed through the multicolored lenses of my own background: ethnically-Indian, naturalized-American, now a fresh expat in Beijing. I call it a mosaic because these are bits and pieces of observations that can only tell half-stories, but one thing reminds me of another and all of them kind of run into each other as you will see… I am writing these impressions down now before many of these start to seem so normal to me that I don’t even notice them anymore and others become understood in a completely new way. Let’s get back to this a year later and see where we got!
For now, remember those lenses I mentioned above? Reminds me of how often I’ve seen 70s-style glasses here in Beijing. Think Austin Powers! Behind those large oval-bottomed glasses, I’ve mostly found bright eyes with simple, toothy grins. And hard working people! From the parking attendant to the electrician, the bell boys in hotels to the taxi drivers, most folks seem alert and active. I don’t recall seeing ‘workers’ (as they are generally called here) working with such alacrity either in the US or in India, the two other countries I have lived in. Hardly anyone is overweight.
People do seem fond of eating out though. At home, people eat a fair amount of vegetables. But when eating out, their cuisine is quite daring. It’s not just a myth, or something reserved for the remote countryside. Right here in Beijing, you can get everything from ox tongue to donkey balls to monkey brains in restaurants. And eggs. Eggs come in all shapes and sizes in Beijing! And eggs seem to be an ingredient in everything from meat marinade to sweets. I think of my Chinese-American ex-colleague in the US who was allergic to eggs and wonder how he must have struggled to survive the cuisine of his parents’ homeland. Must’ve been especially hard to stay clear considering his parents owned a Chinese restaurant. Anyway, back to Beijing …
Restaurants abound in Beijing. At the fancier restaurants, a bevy of waitresses await in line at the entrance wearing fur vests (hopefully faux fur) in winter or slinky silk gowns in summer. If you walk in and drape your coat over the back of your chair, as most people do in winter, the wait staff will quietly come and slip a cover — a loose-fitting chair-back cover — on top of your coat, to maintain the color coordinated look of the place. This is true even at the relatively traditional Hot Pot places — the favorite type of restaurant in Beijing. In more traditional neighborhoods, every block seems to have a Hot Pot restaurant — the kind where you order raw food and cook it in broth simmering on a hot plate built right into your table. The other thing every block has … wait for it … is a foot massage parlor! What’s up with this fetish for foot massages in Beijing? Am yet to figure that one out. Another riddle that remains to be solved is the frequently seen store signs for “Massage by Blind Masseuse”. Hm. Sounds intriguing! Then, there are the frequently seen signs for public baths. I imagined Roman baths with lots of people in cotton togas, or bathhouses for poor staff who don’t have shower facilities in their own homes… until a local work friend enlightened us that these are actually communal hot water baths where you can get a good soak, and even get your back scrubbed with brushes and, of course, a shoulder massage from the staff. Plus, a big draw is the cheap all-you-eat buffet style food at most of these places. People are comfortable being in the buff at these places. But let’s not get too excited, the baths are segregated for the sexes. The real kicker piece of information for me though was this. Apparently, you can buy time in these baths from a few hours to an all-night session. So some people who are traveling through Beijing and just need a place for the night will come here instead of going to a hotel. Much cheaper and you can eat all you like, get a good bath, a massage, some rest, and be on your way the next day all refreshed!
Maybe it’s thanks to all the massages they are getting, but people look healthy and clean for the most part. I say ‘for the most part’ because it is not uncommon to see people digging their noses in public or working up a spit ball and spitting it right out onto the sidewalk — also referred to as ‘hocking a loogie’, a new phrase I have learned since landing here, all the while wishing it away. The nose cleaning can be quite vigorous too, with one finger pulling up the nose and a forcefully discharged motherlode being aimed at an innocent bush or sidewalk. I’ve seen a man in a formal suit do this more than once! Another unusual personal hygiene-related phenomenon — which is fascinating and somewhat upsetting at the same time because of the thought of the potential for abuse — is the relatively widespread use of ‘kaidangku‘ or crotchless pants for kids. Kids being toilet-trained wear these special pants that have a gaping slit that runs from front to back completely exposing them to the elements. The purpose is expeditious dispensing of pee and poop as and when the need strikes. A child is simply raised over a trash can, or a bush, or anywhere really, and whoosh! The snobbish rich will tell you that it’s usually the country cousins who are still doing it, not the more sophisticated urbanites, but in any case, you see it often enough at popular tourist spots.
Meanwhile, the well heeled dress fashionably and travel in fancy cars. There are plenty of nice cars to be seen, at least in the district we happen to be in. As my more-than-me car-savvy husband pointed out, plenty of Maserati, Lamborghini, Bentley models mingle with the ‘poorer’ BMW, Merc, Jaguar, Volkswagen and Toyota cars. The rich folks also love to shop at fancy shopping malls that are all over the place. You feel transported to the first world, a very glitzy first world. Until … you have to use the restroom! In most malls, you follow signs to the restroom typically to be lead through the fire escape Exit doors, up or down service staircases and around corridors before you find the prize. The stalls are a mix of eastern style squatting toilets and western toilets. But in either, don’t expect toilet paper inside! If at all available, toilet paper is provided in a single big roll in a central area of the restroom. Many people carry their own toilet paper ‘napkins’ in their purse. I finally understand why my US colleague who often flew to China for work had toilet paper rolls in the China box under his desk! Soap is also a luxury that cannot be taken for granted. Best to carry your own paper soap. Once you make it back through the maze of service corridors back to the stores though, you are back in fancy town. Several malls feature expensive global brands like Prada and Armani and other high-end brands that you wouldn’t normally see in regular malls in the US. There is clearly a strong fascination for name brands. Somewhat sad but there is also a strong fascination for fair skin and Caucasians. Billboards, even in local stores, prominently feature Caucasian models rather than Chinese ones. And pharmacy store aisles are lined with creams selling ‘youth’ and ‘fairness’, the global standard for beauty.
For a newbie not interested in shopping, Beijing has plenty of amazing stuff to see from the awe-inspiring Forbidden Palace and the Summer Palace within the city to the serene old temples you discover in layer upon layer of courtyards and pagodas set into the surrounding hills. Getting to these amazing spots is an adventure in itself considering the hair-raising traffic. The only rule that the traffic in Beijing follows is that there are no rules. Might is right; the bigger beast gets the way. A pedestrian waits for a bicycle, that waits for a motorcycle, that can get swiped by a car at any moment that, in turn, is trying to dodge a bus. You will not see a police car enforcing traffic rules. A police car coming behind you with lights on doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. It is the normal way police cars drive on the road. And they just seem to be driving around in no particular rush and with no particular objective. There are plenty of traffic cameras to keep people in line. At important crossings, multiple policemen on foot keep the order. That abundance of workforce can incidentally be seen in every staff position. If you are paying for groceries, there is one person to ring you up, another to bag your stuff, yet another one to walk you to the door, and a fourth one holding the door open. Of course, communicating with them is another matter. Hardly anyone speaks English. If you ask a question in English, they will reply in Chinese. If you don’t understand, they will start talking louder, still in Chinese. If you still don’t understand, they will sometimes start writing it down, also in Chinese! Using body language does not seem to be a natural talent for most folks here. It’s best to be armed with the Google Translate app unless you are a pantomime expert.
Broadly speaking, my impression before landing here, from US news sources mostly, was that China is now a developed, first world country. So I was expecting a modern city. And there are certainly elements of that here in the tall skyscrapers, the wide tree-lined boulevards, and the good public transport system. However, scratch the surface and Beijing certainly reminds me much more of the still-developing Delhi. The ubiquitous grandiose marble and granite facades covered with dust with the imperfect joints clearly visible, doormen in fancy uniforms outside shopping plazas, gold and silver metal signage on buildings, glamorized McDonalds and Pizza Huts with upper middle class patrons drinking cool drinks without ice, tree lined boulevards near important government buildings, roads replete with the sounds of honking from cars mixed with the musical horns of two-wheelers and bicycles, paved but chipping and dusty sidewalks, developed showcase city streets quickly giving way to small, unpaved back alleys with dilapidated shacks with clothes hanging out to dry, the smell of urine near walls at tourist sights, crowds of people pushing and shoving with no sense of physical space, people coughing and spitting in public to a lesser extent than India but still noticeably so; all these sights and smells … they reminded me of Delhi.
Where Beijing is not like Delhi: It’s cleaner. There’s not as much dirt on the roads and there’s always someone cleaning. It’s safe. As a woman, you feel relaxed moving around by yourself at any time of the day or night, there are no gangsters or hooligans hanging around leering or eve-teasing on roads and in subways, and plenty of women can be seen walking around smartly in short skirts. Another difference: Taxi drivers are honest. It is not easy to find or flag down a cab here, but once you’ve got one, there’s no driving around in circles to jack up fares or cheating and bargaining when it comes to taxis. One driver even turned off his meter when he got a little lost trying to find a restaurant for us!
One thing I haven’t mentioned: the air quality of the city. How can I not talk about that? But that deserves a post all its own. Let me just say that April has been a good month, with plenty of blue skies and fresh wind. May, not so great so far, but I’ll take it over February and March.
Time to step out and explore those foot massage parlors!