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Beijing so far

It’s been a over week since I’ve come to Beijing and, sorry to say, fans of the city, but I think I was ready to go home days ago. This has been fueled, in large part, though not completely, by not feeling well. Over the weekend, I felt like a truck had run me over. No energy at all, tired and achy and just generally bleh. Which didn’t stop me from spending all of Saturday and Sunday sight-seeing, but did slow me down, considerably.

My first full day here, I had lunch with the COO, who’s been here for 10 years. Originally from Dallas, he went to school in London before coming to Beijing. And upon arriving here, he just knew this was home. He said he wasn’t sure I’d understand, but I assured him I did, completely. I don’t know at what point Japan became “Home” with a capital H to me. It wasn’t my first trip, and probably not the next few. But at some point, something clicked, and I just /knew/, after a lifetime of moving from place to place and never feeling as if I belonged to any one of them in particular, that Japan was where I needed to be. I could give you any number of concrete reasons why, but ultimately it boils down to something nebulous that I can’t really explain to anyone who doesn’t feel the same way about some place. It’s just that Japan makes me happy. Yes, it may frustrate me on occasion, but it also fills me with so much joy I often can’t contain it.

So, to find myself plunked down in a place that is, in many ways, the antithesis of my adopted home has upset the apple cart, so to speak. Those of you who know me well know that I take great delight in imposing order on chaos. It’s what I do. Professionally and personally. Now imagine a city of 21+ million people who seem to thrive on chaos. And imagine how exhausting it is to try and cope with that when you can speak precisely 1 word of Chinese (hey, at least I can greet people in a friendly manner) and read marginally more (I know what meat I’m getting in each meal). It’s worn me out, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the pollution and the unfamiliar (albeit amazingly tasty) food.

No one has been openly rude to me (though I get considerably more open stares than in Japan, which I find odd, given the number of blonde tourists running around). In fact, the touts here are the politest I’ve ever encountered anywhere. (And speak remarkably good English that I only wish my hotel staff did.) But the number of times I’ve had people cut in line ahead of me, nearly run me down with a motorized cart/bike/taxi, jostled me to get a look at something, ruined a photo op to get theirs in first … I’ve lost track. Cleanliness … well, I will ask for a different hotel next time, and remember to bring my own hand towel for the work bathroom (which doubles as the the work kitchen sink for the floor…). And yes, that pollution. It was so absurdly beautiful my first two days here – bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds – that I’d hoped to keep it that way for the duration of the trip. That was not to be, alas. Saturday was horrid; there’s no better way to describe it. Low hanging smog that made my eyes burn and created glare that made my head hurt. I tried wearing a high quality mask, but it was too large, made me overheat in about 60 seconds and fogged my glasses. I fared marginally better with a plain surgical mask on Sunday, but finally gave up. I could see using one in winter, where it would help to keep your face warm, though.

The area I’m in, just past Wangfujing in the Dongcheng District, has an interesting duality going. The shopping district is posh as posh can be. Prada, Tiffany and Cartier brush shoulders with famous Chinese brands. And yet, just across the street and back half a block are the food stalls, packed into the maze of the Wangfujing Snack Street, and along Donghuman Street with more down-to-earth fare (and sorely lacking in any ice for the meat and seafood they serve up, meaning I can only smell, not taste). My hotel, located behind St. Joseph’s Church, is on a progressively narrowing lane lined with aged hotels, apartments and tiny groceries. And go off any major street a block or so and you find yourself in the hutong, or alleys, which are generally too small for cars (if paved at all), and densely packed with groceries, restaurants and little stores. Ditto the area where my coworker took me for pizza (a short walk from very large Dongzhimen station). It’s like someone dropped a glittery façade on a small country town … and both decided to coexist and thrive in defiance of the other. I guess I’ve gotten too used to Tokyo or Osaka and even Fukuoka, so the mixture took me by surprise. My taxi brought me in via the financial district, which really is all skyscrapers and neon, so I assume modernity has encroached more there. I’ll be doing dim sum on Sunday in the LG Twin Towers (which do very much look like a pair of lipstick cases), so I’ll get to see that area a little bit.

I’ll save the sight-seeing write-up for later, after I’ve made it to the Summer Palace and Lama Temple this weekend. But for now a few thoughts….

  • There’s a lot of cigarette smoking here. Everywhere. In the hotel lobby and hall, restaurants (where it’s illegal, but no one enforces it), in the bathroom at work…

  • Things are absurdly cheap, unless they’re imported (I was desperate for oatmeal, found it to be almost $16 – ended up buying purple yam porridge for less than $3, which I’ll try out later). Good meals can be had for a couple of bucks. The trains are pennies . Buses are apparently even cheaper. Entrance fees to monuments are negligible. It would be easy to do Beijing on the cheap if you avoided expensive food, such as Japanese. Saboten, in the apm mall, which serves katsu (fried pork) has ridiculous prices for what it’s selling.

  • Every train station has a security check. Tiananmen Square had a security check. But neither the Forbidden City nor Temple of Heaven did.

  • Every night, when it’s not raining, someone brings a music player and speaker to the square in front of St. Joseph’s Church (just down the street) and blasts Canto-pop dance music. And everyone gets out there and dances. I’m told they do different ones (and it’s for exercise), but they all look like line dances to me.

  • BTV got me addicted to a drama last week, running like 8 of its 38 episodes. And this week they’ve deprived me of any more eps. How will I go on not knowing how the titular “hot mom” survives giving up her glamorous single girl life to raise a baby! (heh – so I see Chinese dramas are as addictive as Korean ones). I have also seen the Chinese Voice (they had some amazing male singers on) and the finale of Asia’s Next Top Model. I … kind of miss my music tv and anime.

  • The best English to be found in this area is by the young staffers at the Starbucks in the mall. They’re also exceedingly polite.

  • Monday is the mid-Autumn festival, and everywhere … and by everywhere, I mean the Dairy Queen, Hagen Daaz and Starbucks have moon cakes in addition to the traditional places. Interesting to see how the chains adapt to fit it. (I note that Mickey D’s has One Piece figures with its happy meals. And no, I haven’t eaten there, but they /are/ the closest coffee to work).

  • My coworkers don’t drink coffee. This seems to be true of the city at large. The part of me that needs that morning iced coffee doesn’t comprehend. I was pretty desperate for something by my second day or third day here.

  • My coworkers, mostly guys, told me they don’t like baseball. NBA is the sport of preference here.

  • Things are much more relaxed in this office. Late for work? No worries. Hour and a half for lunch? Not a problem! It’s nice and frustrating at the same time.

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One thought on “Beijing so far

  1. I had a feeling that Beijing would be both awesome and awful. Take it easy and get some rest, you’ll make yourself really sick.
    Oh how I hate disorganization! I want things done NOW and I want them done my way.

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