I’ve been in Beijing for a little over a week. While Western media seems mostly intent on investigating nail-houses and Internet access in the Olympic media center, I’ve been playing tourist. But because I’ve been to Beijing numerous times, no pictures of the Great Wall or Forbidden Palace. Here are a few stories from every-day life that caught my eye:
First, the first day of what I hope are numerous days of blue skies. This picture comes from Friday afternoon, looking at the Beijing railway station:
In just about any Chinese city, the railway station is usually a good way to get society’s pulse. Here, people of most economic and social backgrounds are brought together by need. With heavy requirements on residency permits, I imagine many of the migrant workers who would normally be in Beijing have already left. Even so, there were still many carrying big parcels and suitcases both arriving and leaving the Beijing station.
My most memorable trip to a railway station is in 1997, when I was traveling through Guangzhou. The railway station, even at 5 in the morning, was an ocean of migrant workers. All had their shirts off because of the heat, and had squatted outside overnight. To me, they looked miserable. The station was a terrifying place, with fierce employees waving bamboo rods, screaming as they herded migrant workers from place to place.
In 2008, the railway station in Beijing is a very different place. There are numerous public bathroms, all tolerably clean. There’s a McDonalds and a KFC, as well as 10-20 other restaurants. There’s an Internet cafe next door. Although some people aren’t very enthusastic about “customer service”, everyone knew their jobs and seemed to do it well.
There wasn’t a single smoker in the station. Just as all other public buildings in Beijing, smoking is now completely banned. A few migrant workers were accommodating with the bathroom attendent when he reminded them of the policy; they crowded around one of the windows at the end of the toilets for their cigarettes.
All in all, it was a very comfortable place. My relatives traveling via the new ‘Z’ (zhitong, direct) city-to-city train found it very convenient and comfortable; 9 hours total from Nanjing to Beijing station. I’m going to try the new bullet train to Tianjin next week, a 30 minute trip that likely will eventually merge Beijing and Tianjin into a single de-facto “super city”.
It has been mostly a “harmonious” scene. For all of the descriptions of Chinese society as being “turbulent”, I’ve seen few public disputes. But one happened at the train station. An older man was infuriated that the food attendant refused to serve dinner into a plastic bag he had brought; she insisted it wasn’t hygenic. He screamed that he demanded justice. As is typical, a crowd gathered… but if there’s any public discontent, I couldn’t see it here. Numerous people tried to calm down the older man. I went and informed the police officers on duty; they walked over, and calmed down the situation with an apology. A few minutes later, the food attendant was back to laughing with her friends about the whole incident.
In a lot of ways, that anecdote is very different from the China of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s that I remember.
Another convenient place for getting the pulse of Chinese society: any open square or park. Chinese people of all ages are obsessed with sports and health… not to look more attractive, but merely to feel healthier and live longer.
Almost any park in a Chinese city is packed, especially with retired senior citizens on weekdays. Here’s a video I took at the park outside the Heavenly Temple (天坛).
Many Chinese have long said that the young should live in the West: the freedom, toys, lifestyle, and opportunities for a child are far better in the West. But many Chinese have also said that retired seniors should live in China, and these parks are an excellent explanation of why. Most Chinese grandparents living in the West see their lives as hardship duty, forced to live in a land where they’ll go through weeks without seeing a neighbor.
The video doesn’t really get across how crowded this park was at 8 in the morning. There were probably thousands of people in the eastern area of the park, doing what they do every morning: working out on the gymnastics equipment, playing the Chinese yoyo, taking dance classes (salsa, waltz, er-ren zhuan), working on martial arts (whip, sword, qigong)… or just banging into a tree. There were hundreds more playing cards, singing Beijing Opera, revolutionary songs, Western opera… and even a small group dressed up (for fun) as Uygur girls, singing well-known Xinjiang folk songs.
I also really relish this particular environent, where no one’s concerned they look short, fat, old, or hairy in their work-out clothes.
Here’s what a sign on 簋街 (“Ghost” Street, probably the most popular food-street for Beijing’ers) shows they’re paying for various basic jobs:
Just for reference: entry level white-collar jobs in Beijing might pay in the 4000-5000 RMB range, and a “well-paying” white-collar job in Beijing would probably pay in the 10,000 RMB/month range. (Mid-career software developers I know are making 20,000 RMB/month.)
(EugeneZ, you’ll want to drop by when you’re here… especially if you can handle spicy food!)
The number of non-Chinese seems to be growing by the day. Surprisingly few Americans (not including those here on business), and probably equal number French/Germans/Brits. Many speak excellent Chinese, and for those who don’t, there are “volunteer” tents staffed by bright-eyed college students at every subway station, and major tourist spot.
I saw a crew from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart filming on Wangfujing just now; some goofy looking Chinese man was moon-walking for the camera. I hope Jon Stewart goes easy on China… but you know, compared to the unintentional comedy from the NY Times, the segment from Comedy Central might be a truer slice of life. Those of you in the US, do me a favor, let me know if you see the story!