Monday, October 17, 2011

Beijing: Real impressions

Either I am getting old or I have read too much fiction set in the years of the Cultural Revolution. When I imagined China, sitting in my apartment in Paris, I imagined streets dense with people on bikes wearing Chairman Mao suits, I imagined truck loads of dead rats, children urinating in the streets, public announcements on PA systems flooding the air, blaring indecipherable instructions. I imagined the hawking and spitting on the street. In short, I imagined a cold, strange world full of  unfriendly and distant people. How wrong I was.

The Chinese are warm and friendly, always ready to help when they can, though most don’t speak much English. There’s nothing cold or distant about most Chinese people, and on the contrary, they are emotional, warm, they yell when they need to, speak loudly if necessary and even when it is not. In my first days here I kept wanting to compare China to Japan, especially as Japan is meant to be the wealthier country, the one that is supposedly closer to the West, both economically and metaphorically speaking. But the two countries could not be more different, especially in terms of the mentality. And strangely enough, here in China, it seems to be more relaxed. Behavior does not appear to be coded in the same way as it is in Japan, or even France for that matter. There is a freedom and a vivacity to the interactions between people – between me and them, between each other. For a country that still functions under a dictatorship, even if a somewhat more relaxed one, there is a very keen sense of individual identity. The young especially are all out and about with their fabulous haircuts, tattoos, wild clothes and heels where to express oneself in these ways in Tokyo means being on the edge, alternative. Here, it is de rigeur to be expressive and alive with one’s own sense of individuality. 

There's not much Communism left on Jianguomenwai Avenue

Even more surprising, though I shouldn’t be surprised, is the equality between men and women in seemingly every walk of life. Being in China reminds me that there were advantages of Communism that we are too quick to forget in our efforts to do away with all of its ruinous and scandalous dealings. Communism was a system that had equal place for men and women, and this filters into, and keeps the city of Beijing alive today. This, and the whole lane on the roads given over to bicycles make a city in which neither women nor bikers are second class citizens – now there’s a liveable city. 
Scallops. This was served under a bell jar that was lifted and the dry ice 
underneath wafted with the smell of the flowers

The sign indicating the way home
And when I went running, Beijing came alive in a different way. As I ran in the bike lane, very peacefully, down past the worker’s stadium and the voice of the PA system blared out at top note, I was reminded of the old days, the image I had of how Beijing was meant to be. In a short distance, I felt as though I had run from the present through the early twentieth century and into the twenty-second. The conglomeration of architectural styles, modes of life and transport, storefront lighting in all possible variants, were from different eras, different political regimes, different cultural beliefs. It’s a city of the vastest contradictions that I could not have begun to imagine prior to arrival. And there are many beautiful things about a city characterized by its air thick with pollution, its dazzling skyline filled with searing sometimes gawdy towers. For example, always, wherever I go I am greeted by orchids, in full flower, in the most elaborate of arrangements. Even on the 12 lane highways someone has taken the care to arrange the flowers as exquisitely as the Parisian patisserie owner dresses her window. And the service culture is first rate: even when they don’t speak English they are obliging and friendly – unless of course you stop bargaining before buying at the market.

The flower arrangement in the lobby of China World Hotel

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