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from the April 2008 issue

Random Notes on Beijing

Beijing's cab drivers are the best in the world. They don't accept tips, and if the drive is at all less than direct, they always eat the loss themselves. They start the meter only after the cab has gotten to the main drag and before it pulls to a stop, the meter is already down.

The radio is often on in the cab. Most drivers are Beijing locals and they love xiangsheng, a traditional form of two-person stand-up comedy. One never gets tired of the old pieces; not only are they funny, you also stand to learn something. The new pieces are often cheeky and flat, with no resonance.

Chang'an Boulevard is forever getting wider and longer–how is anyone to walk there? If you'd like to stroll the vast squares next to the shops of Xidan and Wang Fujing Streets, are you prepared to roast in the sun?

On the way to the Summer Palace, you pass by high-rises like Electronic City. No longer would you have the slow progress along tree-lined avenues before approaching the palace. No more sense of mystery. What you do have are throngs of people at the Palace gate, stuffing Viagra pamphlets into car windows.

I remember as a kid riding my bike from Tile Street to Angler's Terrace Park. You always got this great sense of adventure because you had to wind through many small lanes, and once inside the park, there was quite a forest of trees with many tiny paths to navigate. Bumping along on the bike, you were always finding new shores you hadn't visited before. I once had a dream while abroad that I was biking through the park again. And there in front of me was an ocean and an iced-over river, even some gulls. I remember wondering, how come I hadn't found this corner before?! This is how much mystery is associated with Angler's Terrace in my mind. But now the park has been renovated, and that near wild romantic feeling is no longer. Nowadays, little kids ride around on their trikes, retirees do their exercises, tourists go boating on the lake. Lovers could only take a stroll–there are no more secret hide-outs for them.

Between Xidan and Xisi Streets, right around Tile Street you'd feel a bit like before. The area by Xisi hasn't changed too much. The small dairy shop is still there, where you can get the freshest butter that tastes much better than the stuff you get in the supermarket. They say the butter comes directly from the Muslim northwest. You'd better go there soon though, for the small shop is scheduled to be torn down, and then there won't be any place to buy bits of fresh butter.

If you were to climb a nearby hill and gaze down, you'd see that at night the West City District is pitch black–Beijing still doesn't have quite enough power supply. But if you look toward the East City District, there are lights everywhere–it is a bright pearl of Beijing. 1 Night lights are the symbol of a metropolis, and East City has the feel of a modern metropolis. Living in East City feels just like living abroad, except that stuff in the shops is more expensive than abroad.

For repatriates or expatriates, living in East City is just like living abroad. You can get food from just about anywhere in the world. Places like the post office and banks are very convenient. Except that it doesn't feel as if you are living in Beijing.

If you are in West City or South City, especially if you are within the second ring road, then you are living like a local. Strolling along the tree-lined streets, neighbors like to call out greetings to one another. Several generations tend to live under the same roof and family is the center of everything. Stuff in the shops is useful and not too expensive.

I once heard someone say in a shop in South City, "We're so poor that even SARS won't come here." It's true. South City dwellers had it good during SARS; only they were still able to go out to a hole-in-the wall restaurant and order a Mongolian hot-pot.

There are small shops in South City that sell export clothes meant for Scotland. Some old general stores are still stocked with merchandise from the era of Soviet-Chinese collaboration. With streets thickly lined with trees, parts of South City look as if they were rues in some old European town. Then a whiff of public bathrooms reminds you that we are still in South City.

Beijing is "internationalizing" itself. You can no longer tell the difference between dialects of different parts of the city. More and more people mix foreign words in their daily speech without much finesse. Let's say a Beijing person was calling for her cat; you'd hear her Shanghainese neighbor trying to help by calling "Pussy, pussy." The Beijing person might feel something was amiss, but then would feel it wasn't right to counter internationalism with localism.

The charm of Beijing dialect lies in its local vocabulary and that special twang. These days, children in good grade schools still speak it–the combination of old Beijingese ringing with kids' slang. Children, especially girls, from bad grade schools like to imitate Taiwan and Hong Kong dialects. It may be that they'd rather sound like Ah Fang or Ah Hui than facing their own linguistic deficits. (College students come from all over the country, and dialects are thus not a good yardstick. Grade school is where one gets one's foundation in speech habits.)

Hong Kong and Taiwan cultures are ever more fashionable in Beijing. Perhaps Beijing people feel that they are not modern enough. Young girls in Beijing are especially in love with Taiwanese male stars. In the days of SARS, a couple of businessmen got together to champion a movement of "Chinese spirit," mostly so that Beijing people wouldn't get cabin fever from staying in doors all the time. The main action of this movement was kite-flying. At the launching event, there was even a team of Chinese drummers there, together with lots of media people and a huge audience. Suddenly there appeared an unknown Taiwanese star, standing in front of the drummers, waving to the audience. The young Beijing girls went crazy, and the media cameras immediately turned to him, forgetting all about the drummers and kites. Only later did the organizers find out that this Taiwanese star was recently out of favor with the public, and was trying to grab some limelight in the SARS event. Then it is said that the young star wasn't just loved by the young girls of Beijing but by the old ladies as well. There are indeed tall and stout old ladies who are especially fond of collecting photographs of young Taiwanese stars. Can't quite get behind that.

A while back I was told by a Taiwanese lady that Taiwanese men were more "modern" than mainland men. But then on the other hand, if women of Beijing wanted to get the attention of Taiwanese men, the first thing they'd have to do is to shrink a size or two, otherwise their big butts might just squash the dainty stars. This is because Beijing women are usually taller and bigger than southern men–if not taller, at least thicker. And yet, these days, girls in Beijing have suddenly become tiny like girls in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Can't tell if it is because there was a nutritional deficiency in their childhood diet or perhaps they'd taken some pills, or is it simply because they are eager to match the size of Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars?

The girls in Beijing really come into their own in the summer. I remember when I was in England, men joked that they were afraid of the summer, because they were afraid of stout British girls in skimpy summer outfits, a punishment to the eye of the beholder. Looking at the girls of Beijing, every one of them a willowy waif, is a real pleasure even to me.

There are more and more foreigners in Beijing; most of them speak Chinese. This is not the case in Hong Kong or Taiwan, a sure sign that Beijing is an international city as opposed to a post-colonial city. Beijing people prefer themselves to be the subject of conversation, and are not inclined to pay much attention to outsiders. They speak loudly and in rapid fire, every one of them fancying himself a stand-up comic. So foreigners dig in and work hard on their Chinese, thus further indulging this self-centered habit of Beijing locals.

Beijing people are very fond of getting together. There are all kinds of dinner parties every night. If you've got a couple of talkers at the table, then dinner is never done. When the food is good, friends congenial, and the conversation goes well, then legs kick up, voices get louder, words spill out, nothing is taboo any more. Jokes are always welcome, even gossip is no longer shunned–especially gossip about those that nobody likes. Except during SARS, there are such dinner parties every night.

Had it not been for SARS, all those who like parties would have moved to Beijing from all over the world. You don't ever have to be on your own in Beijing.

During SARS, people didn't go out and meet others, except of course good friends and family. Among friends, the talk was: Let's get SARS together. That said, the party went on, as if otherwise there was no point in living. What Beijing people cherish is just this feeling of "sticking-togetherness."

When I was in Istanbul, I asked some film directors and professors why they prefer to come back to Turkey for low pay and work for low profit, rather than stay abroad for bigger reputation and better pay. They say that more than anything, it is important to hear the prayer bell ringing in the temples five times a day. So long as they can hear it, there is a sense of security for the rest of life. Although there is no bell and the city of Beijing has been reconstructed to the point of being unrecognizable, so long as there are Beijing locals, there is that sense of security.

1The city of Beijing is divided administratively into four districts; the East and West City Districts occupy the ground of the old Manchu Imperial City while the two districts to the south occupy the ground of what was called the Chinese City.

Translation of "Dui Beijing de zhiyan pianyu." Copyright Liu Sola. Translation copyright 2008 Hu Ying. All rights reserved.

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