China with Polish Characteristics

December 2, 2007

Coming to terms with Beijing… again

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:35 pm

During my two years in China I have said and written a lot about Beijing but I always get the feeling this city eludes me, that it refuses to be described and understood. Each time I arrive here I feel as lost and stunned as ever. The first time I thought it’s normal, especially because of the language. But then, months later, the second and then the third encounter were just as difficult, full of stark, bland feeling of space with little warmth to it – the whole city oozing at you like winter sunshine. How the hell do you live in that? It’s a great city, but it wears so many faces that sometimes you get lost without knowing what to do – many people never really manage to tap into Beijing and to connect with China that lives under the surface. Many just do the necessary part and let everything else slide past their bubble and then they go home, or worse, they stay. It’s been couple of months since I came back from Sichuan and it hit me (gradually) that I don’t want this place to be a big shopping mall, big nightclub and a self-important, self-pitying cultural bubble. I have friends here who after several years still go to a restaurant and point at the pictures, with a triumphal 一碗米饭 to demonstrate their linguistic achievements. And others, who remarkably fit the descriptions of the Old China Hands like the one below: 

He has never been invited to Chinese homes, has sedulously avoided Chinese restaurants, and has never read a single line of Chinese newspapers. He goes to the longest bar in the world of an evening, sips his cocktail and picks up and imbibes and exchanges bits of sailors’ tales on the China coast handed down from the Portuguese sailors, and is sorry to find that Shanghai is not Sussex, and generally behaves as he would in England. He feels happy when he learns that the Chinese are beginning to observe Christmas and make progress, and feels amazed when he is not understood in English; he walks as if the whole lot of them did not exist for him, and does not say “sorry” even in English when he steps on a fellow-passenger’s toes; yes, he has not even learned the Chinese equivalents of “danke sehr” and “bitte schön” and “verzeihen Sie” the minimum moral obligations of even a passing tourist, and complains of anti-foreignism and despairs because even the pillaging of the Peking palaces after the Boxer Uprising has not taught the Chinese a lesson. There is your authority on China. Oh, for a common bond of humanity! 

Does some of it, perhaps, sound familiar? The truly frightening part is, that the above fragment from “My Country and My People” by Lin Yu Tang was written in 1935, but it reads more-less like what you see on the streets in Beijing today. I’m not sure if they had the word 老外 back then like they do today, but the whole phenomenon is rather depressing. Can we avoid it? Because even though life in Beijing at times seems like an uphill, perplexing battle, I sure as hell don’t want to end up as another foreign zombie. “To follow knowledge like a sinking star…” Easier said than done, but the old man Tennyson had a point there.

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