Life in Beijing

I wake up in the morning, usually to the sounds of the daily dance about half a kilometre away. I really need to get a video of this, foreigners love this kind of thing. Under the bridge of the nearby junction, a three man band gathers every morning. One on drums, one with some kind of reed flute, with a much thinner, higher, well reedier sound than a clarinet, and a guy with some other instrument whose design escapes me. They play the same tune, upbeat, and maybe a dozen women, all middle aged, hold parasols in their right hand moving anti-clockwise in a squashed circle under this bridge, rhythmically thrusting the parasols in the air. They don’t sing but just shuffle in a strangely jaunty way if that is at all possible. From my humble  vantage point I can hear them more than I can see them and their reedy beat helps my brain start.

Watching them dance, underneath and amongst the rumbling rush hour traffic, defiantly oblivious to all of the ugliest symbols of modernity, is beauty itself; in a manner that is both ephemeral yet strangely eternal at the same time. Like grass sprouting up in cracks in the concrete slabs in the ground, the perky tune and the rotating perkily coloured umbrellas make a mockery of the filth and concreted ugliness that surrounds them. At least in this depressing corner of the metropolis, for half an hour every day, the human spirit triumphs; and in that triumph there seems to be a message, that they the dancers and musicians are the permanence and the greyness pressing down on them from all sides is that which is merely temporary.

The first thing I do every morning is check to see if I have any drinking water; I’ve been trying to train my housemate to use his initiative and buy when we are getting low. Today, I’m out of luck, he hasn’t. If I’m not too thirsty, I’ll just have a shower and pop down and buy some, if not I’ll have to boil some up.

My apartment is a couple of floors above tree level, it gives me a clear view of the traffic, which is useful. I’m lucky as mine is the only high rise in the immediate vicinity. This means I can walk around my bedroom stark naked in the morning without being able to see someone in another building walking around their bedroom stark naked. On second thoughts, maybe my luck could be better than it is… I’ll also, as a matter of course, check the pollution outside the window. If it is really bad, I’ll also ;check the American Embassy’s figures to check quite how bad. If it is too bad, I will close my window and turn my air purifier on, and also say a few words of encouragement to my pollution eating plants.

My apartment is better than the average Beijinger’s, each room has air con, i have a biggish living room and heating lamps in my bathroom for winter. Chinese bathrooms are great for lazy gits like me, there is no separator between the toilet and the shower, very easy to clean, but any “Bog Quotes” book will be lucky to last very long.

I wake up in the morning, usually to the sounds of the daily dance about half a kilometre away. I really need to get a video of this, foreigners love this kind of thing. Under the bridge of the nearby junction, a three man band gathers every morning. One on drums, one with some kind of reed flute, with a much thinner, higher, well reedier sound than a clarinet, and a guy with some other instrument whose design escapes me. They play the same tune, upbeat, and maybe a dozen women, all middle aged, hold parasols in their right hand moving anti-clockwise in a squashed circle under this bridge, rhythmically thrusting the parasols in the air. They don’t sing but just shuffle in a strangely jaunty way if that is at all possible. From my humble vantage point I can hear them more than I can see them and their reedy beat helps my brain start.

Watching them dance, underneath and amongst the rumbling rush hour traffic, defiantly oblivious to all of the ugliest symbols of modernity, is beauty itself; in a manner that is both ephemeral yet strangely eternal at the same time. Like grass sprouting up in cracks in the concrete slabs in the ground, the perky tune and the rotating perkily coloured umbrellas make a mockery of the filth and concreted ugliness that surrounds them. At least in this depressing corner of the metropolis, for half an hour every day, the human spirit triumphs; and in that triumph there seems to be a message, that they the dancers and musicians are the permanence and the greyness pressing down on them from all sides is that which is merely temporary.

The first thing I do every morning is check to see if I have any drinking water; I’ve been trying to train my housemate to use his initiative and buy when we are getting low. Today, I’m out of luck, he hasn’t. If I’m not too thirsty, I’ll just have a shower and pop down and buy some, if not I’ll have to boil some up.

My apartment is a couple of floors above tree level, it gives me a clear view of the traffic, which is useful. I’m lucky as mine is the only high rise in the immediate vicinity. This means I can walk around my bedroom stark naked in the morning without being able to see someone in another building walking around their bedroom stark naked. On second thoughts, maybe my luck could be better than it is… I’ll also, as a matter of course, check the pollution outside the window. If it is really bad, I’ll also ;check the American Embassy’s figures to check quite how bad. If it is too bad, I will close my window and turn my air purifier on, and also say a few words of encouragement to my pollution eating plants.

My apartment is better than the average Beijinger’s, each room has air con, i have a biggish living room and heating lamps in my bathroom for winter. Chinese bathrooms are great for lazy gits like me, there is no separator between the toilet and the shower, very easy to clean, but any “Bog Quotes” book will be lucky to last very long.

Every since the Yili scandal that exposed problems with Chinese milk products, every product I use, unless I’ve had it sent over from back home, a quick thought about its composition may enter my mind, but it leaves again fairly swiftly.

Owing to various disputes between the neighbours, the lift has been out of action for quite a while, so I take the stairs down. Chinese people never wait for you if you are coming down the stairs, they just come on up. Sometimes I’ll bump in to an old lady who lives on the top floor and must be approaching 80, I’ll stop and exchange a few pleasantries. She loves me, as I stop and let her climb the stairs before I go down, and offer assistance if she looks like she is struggling. She always refuses, but seems to really appreciate the offer.

The last few weeks every time I live the building, a flicker of annoyance will cross my face. Until very recently we had what must have been the only personal allotment within the city limits. I never ate what I grew, but it was quite nice to be able to attack the the ground with a spade every once in a while. Lots of people loved it, and spent all evening, as soon as they came back from work tending their tiny patch of soil, a few metres square at most. But those with cars who didn’t want to pay the monthly fee to use the under ground car-park were a bit upset, they had a dream. Where Mr Wang had his corn and undersized tomatoes, they could see their car. So they must have won whichever dispute I missed, and the diggers came, and in typical style took too much soil away, exposing the roots of the trees, and leaving the drains looking like volcanoes emerged from the sea. It’ll probably take them a couple of months to work out quite what to do.

I walk past the hotel and its beer gardens to my left, and the illegal taxis to my right. Every time I walk past, a chorus of something approaching cat-calls comes from these drivers. They don’t like me, and I don’t like them. I refuse to use their services not only because the time spent haggling could be used to find a haggle-less taxi, but also because these guys set their prices too high, they don’t get very customers and are very bored, and quite poor. Riding with them means answering every question under the sun, when I’d rather just sit there and compose myself for the day. I used to use them a lot, had agreements with a couple of them to be my driver, but after a while they just get too greedy.

Behind the these men is a river, or rather was, it was quite nice before, but it is undergoing some rather lengthy work. The floor and the sides are concreted, and the upper part is now dry, and people walk their dogs along it. In the lower part, the water has become stagnant, and a disgusting breeding ground for mosquitoes. Sometimes this part stinks.

Somebody’s not been doing their job properly recently, a refuse dump has grown up by the shop, when it is hot, and especially if I’ve yet to have something to drink, I make a conscious effort not to gag. It’s not so hot today, and has been raining a lot the last few days, so it’s bearable.

By the tip there is a door, usually open by this time, with several bunk beds in there, this is where the guards for the hotel sleep. Some of them are usually squatting on the ground between the door and some cars and the stinking rubbish, playing cards with the bored illegal taxi drivers.

So I go to the main road and find a real taxi, when I get one, I try to remember to sit in the back seat, most taxi drivers are lovely, but there is nothing worse than being bathed in halitosis at the start of a day. I tell the driver my destination, and usually tell him the route I want to take, not because I’m worried they’ll rip me off, they know as soon as I open my mouth that there is no point, but because recently every taxi driver seems to be on his first day, and I have to patiently tell him the how to get to where I want to go, how to get there, traffic dependent.

I deliberately set my travelling times and working hours outside of rush hour, too much bother otherwise. The roads here are big, especially for an Englishman, the main arteries being twelve lanes across, six either way, with many flyovers over major junctions. Taxis, much more comfortable than when I first arrived, are spartan. The drivers usually listen to some melodramatic story, or stand up comedy, or if they are thoughtful souls, will put the foreign music channel on for me.

My trip usually takes between twenty minutes and half an hour, more if some foreign dignitary has arrived, causing the closure of some of the roads, and at some point I’ll arrive at the financial sector of Beijing, a bit like Canary Wharf, but with squatter buildings, and more of them. I teach English at one of the firms here, it pays good, so it subsidizes every thing else I do. Outside the buildings are security guards that I wouldn’t trust to safeguard a hamster. They are usually young, with hats that don’t quite fit, and haven’t quite learnt how to stand in a manner that looks more formal than loitering. They like me, as I chat to them on my fag breaks, they like going fishing at artificial lakes on the city outskirts when they have a day off. The owner of these lakes fills them full to the brim with fish, then underfeeds them. This way, the guards assure me, you are never disappointed, as you always land loads of fish. My students are good, fairly high level managers, friendly and with a good sense of humour. I tend to get them to talk about Chinese issues, whilst I feign complete ignorance, it gives them time to talk about the issues while I think about the best way to find out this and that. Sometimes they try and get me involved in a debate about my perceptions of China, a long time ago, I realized that this can be a big mistake, and an easy way to lose a cushy job, if I say anything at all, it’ll be highly positive stuff, at almost empty platitudes, to reconfirm their self perceptions, sometimes I may say a vaguely negative truism, such as, I get the feeling there is too much corruption here at the moment, to which everyone vigorously nods their head.
Their building has a kind of empty airport feeling attached to it and my footsteps echo down the quiet air conditioned corridors. My blackboard is an extremely large touchscreen monitor, fantastic things, but the software doesn’t always know if I’m writing or rubbing out.

Those couple of hours will whizz by, I head out of the building and past the water fountains. There is a gaggle of teenagers maybe even uni students, 7 or eight Chinese kids and two or three white kids, all there bored, occasionally they get up to do some half-hearted flip on their skateboards, but mostly they sit there with a tidy girl on their lap with some crappy music coming out of their car. They look at me with the same kind bored but slightly hostile expression I might have looked at present me a decade ago. These are a new breed. Nobody ever looked at foreigners like that a while ago, they just didn’t have the time or the money to be that bored. But, also, and I’m jealous of them, I came at a time when Chinese people really were boring compared to us more sophisticated Westerners. Going out clubbing and taking your Chinese friend along with you was more an act of sympathy, charity maybe than out of real desire for them to come along. Really nice people, but never going to be the life and soul of a party. Looking at this younger generation, things have moved on so fast in such a short space of time.

It’s hard to get taxis around that area for whatever reason, so I’ll walk to a for several minutes towards the mall and restaurants. This road could be anywhere, just your basic yuppy part of the city, found all over the world. I’ll try and eat at the Chinese restaurants, before I used to love them, but now, I’m finding the food a bit too oily, maybe it’s the heat; otherwise, I’ll just grab a Big Mac.

I head back afterwards, the roads have clogged up by this time, I should get the underground, but am just too lazy. The trip back takes longer than the way out, and I arrive back home. If it’s late enough and the beer gardens have opened I’ll go sit down there, but first I’ll head in to the hotel to go to the toilet.

Like passing the illegal taxi drivers each day, going to the toilet in the hotel is a bit of a gauntlet; but in a fundamentally different way. It’s a slightly down market hotel, with fake plastic trees outside, plastic palm trees, not that Radiohead song, and inside… well. As soon as I enter the door, I receive a big welcome from a cacophony of female voices to my right, each girl, young and dressed in the Chinese Qipau, stood on a different step of a staircase that gently, though not elegantly curves up to the second floor. (First floor to those on the English system.) I’ve gone through this ritual for a long time now, and still haven’t found a good way to deal with it. Some junior manager stands just by the door, ready to greet me, help me choose the girl of my choice and lead me upstairs to a room where we can sing karoke, or whatever. But I’m just here for the toilet, so I just shuffle past them, not knowing whether I should look straight ahead, or look at them and thank them all, or just stare resolutely at the polished tiles in the floor. I head on to the bathroom. Opposite the bathroom is a hairdressers, with some girls lolling around on the barbers chairs. I asked them for a haircut once, but they looked at me with a confused expression on their faces, before they told me that they didn’t know how to cut hair, but were fairly competent at private massage…

Eventually, moral dilemmas all safely behind me, I find a bench at the drinking area. I order some kebabs, usually lamb or chicken heart, some noodles or rice and ale that is just about passable. I think that Chinese people learnt how to brew beer from the Americans, so most of their beer tastes like a crappy rip off of Coors Lite.

There are lots of other kinds of kebabs on offer, some of my friends have a penchant for the goats penis, and testicles, good for virility they claim. I’ve had them a couple of times, chewier and crunchier than normal meat, but don’t eat them anymore. Someone told me that goats get STD’s too, I haven’t bothered to verify this, but as I was only eating them out of politeness before, it wasn’t a big decision to stop. I’ll sit there, reading a book, chatting with friends, or flirting with the waitresses, who have usually just come in from the provinces to earn a bit of money and are endearingly innocent, in contrast to those dead eyed girls lolling about on the barber’s chair inside. Families sit around me, I know some of them, so it can be quite pleasant. The men take their shirts off in the summer, all have skinny arms and pot bellies from too much forced downing of pints of beer. They are mostly very friendly, and they sit there drinking and, and shouting over the din of the cheesy soap opera that the waitresses are watching on the nearby flatscreen TV. Eventually the families head home, as do some of the men, whilst others will wander inside the hotel for a sing song.

5 thoughts on “Life in Beijing

  1. Welcome to the world of blogging.

    It seems the world has changed a bit recently.

    I enjoyed you commentary first time round and it still paints an interesting picture.

    I wish you much luck and hope your recent site problems are nothing to serious.

    I have some thoughts about the future and will compile an email over the next few days for you

    RGDS

    motm

  2. This is a lovely Website, Locusts. I really think it is a powerful tool, too.

    I think you could probably do with a few colour pieces to brighten the perspective a bit. That is what is nice about this article.

  3. A really nice site with a distinct Chinese flavour. I wish it and you lots of luck and hope to contribute often.

    Pointman

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