Saturday, January 5, 2008

In The Details

After two full days here, I think I'm finding Beijing hard to get my arms around. Not that should be a surprise, given that the city has a population of 20 million people. (Take that, New York.)

But what I mean is, I think I expected the city to slap me in the face with its foreignness. I'm not sure what my image was -- a world of pagodas, perhaps, and temples. While some of that is there, most of what I notice is high rise apartment buildings which, though often of a plainer, almost Eastern European style than our own, seem visually pretty much the same. There's just a lot more of them.

Similarly, the subways I've been on are different in small ways -- they still have attendants who check your tickets. And they are vastly cleaner. Oh my God, are they clean. The floors shine. There is no graffiti to be seen anywhere. And there are people to be found on the platforms sweeping. In New York, Boston or Chicago, I guess I have seen people changing the trash. But sweeping? How about waxing the floor? Welcome to Beijing.

But even with the language barrier, they're very easy to navigate. Signs often use English as well as Pinyin, which is the Chinese characters translated into our Roman letters. Attendants, especially younger ones, usually know a little English, at least. Really, once you get over the fear that you will be lost and unable to communicate, it's quite fine.

Now, we're not talking the Forbidden City, Tian'amen Square, the Lama Temple -- there, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But the city as a whole -- well, it's not Disney's Small World. (And thank God.)

Where it becomes mysterious and foreign -- and also lovely -- for me is in the little details. Like, they don't lock their bikes. Yeah, you read that right. Check out that photo at the top again. At first I thought it was just at the school I'm staying, sort of an on-campus trust thing. Nope. You'll see the occasional lock, but not many. They're not exactly 12 speed racing bikes, mind you, but still.

Another thing -- the thermoses. My first day here, I took a very early walk and saw all these thermoses -- I mean, like 100s -- sitting outside a building on a college campus. And people both coming to get them and to drop them off. Again, the whole leaving things unattended is like a non sequitur. But so is the explanation: the students don't have access to hot water in their rooms. (Imagine an American college freshman putting up with that. It might actually be a darn good exercise to try and get them to.) They don't even have showers in their buildings. They have to go someplace else. The thermoses are the hot water they've gotten from that other place to use in their tea, etc., for the rest of the day. It's wild.

This is getting long. One last little detail. Everywhere I go, I find people strolling -- yes, strolling, that easy walk arm in arm from Gone with the Wind and movies today starring old people. Even by our school, which is not exactly a pretty part of town, the broad sidewalk, with trees somehow creates this intimate atmosphere where people take their time and go arm in arm. Most of the time, by the way, it's two women. Young students, arm in arm, talking quietly to each other. Or the other day, I saw these two young women, and when I got close enough, I found out, they weren't talking. The one was quietly singing to the other. It was really something.

(If you don't see the photo, be patient. There have been some glitches. I've found a way to do the writing part, but the photographs can't be done from here. My sister Jenny has agreed to help me with that, but with 14 hours of time difference, expect lags.)

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