Everyday I come across the signposts that remind me I am about 5000 miles away everything familiar. I’ve written about these things before, some of which are quite small: checking the smog index the way you would check the weather, drinking watery beer and fake tequila, having to load a VPN in order to access good parts of the internet, the dusty air that sticks to your skin and the cotton fluff that’s all around and looks like snow. But just when you think you’ve seen it all, you walk past a mother with a child in her lap, holding up the boy’s legs while he empties his bowels onto a sheet of newspaper. This is the kind of thing that reminds me that I’m very much in China.
I’ve been to a fair few tourist sites in Beijing, and all over China, and I find I am more taken with the other tourists than with the place itself. Staged poses, leaning on trees, standing in front of painted walls, looking closely at the first of the blossom, these are the scenes that I live for. My favourites are: the two fingered Asian peace-sign gesture ( fairly common, nothing to write home about ); three or more people leaning into a selfie ( the more the better ); a large group of people jumping into the air in front of a historic monument ( Zhang Wei was out of time ); a boy laden with photography equipment and a “hello-kitty” backpack adjusting his lens in front of a lightly adorned girl who fusses over her seated posture ( a classic Asian date, and one of my personal favourite scenes ); couples in matching outfits ( much more common than you’d imagine ); him walking away from her, then strutting back while the shutter-sound snaps on her iPhone ( a recent spot ).
I’d also heard about the different standards of privacy but never realised quite how invasive Chinese culture can be. You won’t escape comments on your appearance from the lady from whom you have just bought a backpack, as she slips in a quick “你长得很帅”. Or my mother and sister who received numerous comments to the effect that they are very attractive. Something like “Yes, I’ll give you a discount. You are very pretty. Now buy the bag”. There’s no evading it in class either, where several of the texts centre on “love at first sight” or whatever, and the teacher insists on asking everyone if they are single or not. When she asked me if I have a girlfriend and I said no, she asked in no uncertain terms why. I don’t know, teacher, you tell me.
Parks are the centres of much “Chineseness” as well. Large groups of women occupy the shaded concrete spaces and dance in unison to music pumping from an amp. Another common site in parks ( and other public spaces ) is people napping on benches. While assuming the horizontal for a snooze may be an indicator of homelessness in the West, it is perfectly acceptable downtime on the China-side. I have been known to partake of the open-air nap. Sometimes you see market-like crowds browsing sheets of paper which are laid out on the paving stones. On the sheets are height, age, location, and I realised that it was public personals. “Beijing girl, 23, 150cm”. Men and women peruse as you might an array of fruit or selection of scarves. We didn’t hang around too long for fear of getting hitched through a miscommunication. And you wouldn’t be in China if the cool stillness of a well-trimmed public garden wasn’t punctuated with the throaty suck of someone projectile spitting for the fifth time.
In spite of the strangeness of the city, this place feels more like home everyday, although I don’t think I could ever get used to a kid defecating in the street. There’s only 8 weeks left in China before I return to the West and have to re-acclimatise. Apparently reverse culture-shock is a thing. Just last night I was talking to a British guy who has been here 3 years. He said that after a while, China turns “normal” and the UK becomes the unfamiliar. I will have only been here 10 moths in total, but I’ll probably come back to find that Britain is equally as weird as China, I just never noticed before.