It’s one of those things where the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. Learning a couple of new words in Chinese makes me painfully aware of how far I am from basic competency in the language. And even with some conversational skills, I can’t read a word. Not one. Well, except for 1, 2, 3, but that doesn’t count. I’m constantly impressed by the many expats here who speak, read and write Mandarin.
After a few clearer days, the pollution is back in the Very Unhealthy range. Somehow it always seeps into the flat. Dust settles so quickly in this city; sweeping is an everyday affair. Thinking about children and the elderly is especially sad. How much I whined about the haze in Singapore is now a bit embarrassing to think about; the worst of it would be a relatively clear day here. #perspective
One thing that the pollution has taught me is why spitting, nose-picking and other such unfavourable habits are so common here. I mean, your nose is always full of stuff. The dust that lines the floor is likely making itself comfortable in your throat. Obviously these things are still frowned upon in Singapore and many other cities, but I sort of understand it now. People have to breathe and all that. So when someone hacks up a nice load of phlegm, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Just go
away from with it.
So far I’ve managed to successfully order vegetarian meals most times, and tried to haggle with a tout for football tickets at the famed Worker’s Stadium. It ended abruptly when I said Wǔshí kwai (50 yuan, SGD5) and was met with Wǔbǎi kwai (500 yuan, SGD50) and much scorn. At least I made everyone laugh. Just go with it.
And, sex shops. Sex shops everywhere.
Meanwhile on the streets, in the music, and in the people, bits of rebellion are just around the corner, springing up like stubborn weeds in the Big Smoke that is Beijing.
It’s been a week in China and it feels like something I’ve known for a lot longer than this. There’s a certain freedom and pleasure that comes with knowing your way around, whether it’s giving taxi drivers directions or walking to the subway station. And I walk to the subway station a lot.
It’s almost expected of you to speak Mandarin though, and if I’d only listened to the Singapore government when they declared, Hua Yu COOL! (Speaking Mandarin, Cool!) things would be much easier. But, we learn. No Hokkien here either, so the little I know isn’t of any use. #BoPian
The stark differences between this city and everything I know are everywhere. I didn’t think I’d ever be this excited about grocery shopping, but there I was, in a very expaty and overpriced supermarket,
internally shrieking in the pasta aisle. It gets better: olive oil. And next thing you know, you’re that expat shopping at April’s Gourmet, the Beijing equivalent of Singapore’s Marketplace, instead of Giant or Sheng Siong.
Sometimes when you go to a public toilet, there are no doors. Sometimes when you think something is 20 minutes away, it’s really an hour. And sometimes when you order vegetarian, it comes with pork.
As much as these things can be frustrating and upsetting and just really annoying, there’s something to be said for a city that doesn’t bend itself backwards for foreigners. Beijing constantly reminds you, you’re welcome to stay, but this is how we do it here. I think that’s what I both love and hate about China so far, infantile as my experience thus far might be.
Something that feels familiar is the very cool punk scene here. It’s as exclusive as it is inclusive, which is perhaps the way it is everywhere else. This documentary talks about how youth in Beijing quite suddenly had access to all sorts of music at once, which has created its familiar but original mess of sound that I’m starting to love.
What’s also pretty punk is Beijing’s roller derby team, who I skated and brunched with over the weekend. Derby is the best thing because you immediately have friends, a sport, and a support network in any city that has a league. There isn’t a league in Xi’an (where I’m soon moving to) yet, but there’s a possibility of starting one up, which is also very exciting.
The pollution isn’t the worst, but it gets to you. I notice it most when the sun sets, and it’s just a blurry glow in the sky instead of the fiery ball that I’m used to. When you stand on bridges, the distance shows how murky the air is.
In any case, all one really needs in life is to keep calm and cook pasta.