Dear Beijing

I have just returned to England! I will still be posting about China on this blog in the future , and probably writing about my impressions of returning to England too. First, a letter to Beijing:

Dear Beijing,

Although we weren’t together for long, I’m really happy to have spent time with you! Thank you for your bloody busy tourist attractions, your quiet hutongs, your beautiful parks and stunning gardens, ring roads, bicycles (so many bicycles) and hilarious cars. Thank you for your skyscrapers, alleyways, shops, cafes, cheap restaurants,and for your friendly residents.Thank you for always providing somebody to help me or to talk to me when I needed it.Tsinghua campus was a haven for me – I met so many lovely people and I had a place to relax when I wanted some time.

You may be noisy and dirty, but you really made me feel at home.I am fascinated walking your streets by day and feel secure walking by night. Thank you even for the sandstorms, the traffic and the mind-numbingly slow queues at the train station, where the train  always leaves on time but the tickets don’t.

I wasn’t always kind to you: sometimes I’d sigh, cry, feel angry or frustrated. I’d often be rude to your residents when I was feeling not-quite-awesome, and I didn’t always enjoy the sunny days that you offered! However, I will really miss you and I hope we can see each other again soon. I won’t forget you: we had too much fun!

Yours,

Grace Jackson (Jian Ge Run)

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What You See Is What We Get

What You See Is What We Get
In Sanlitun, business district and expat heaven of Beijing, you are bound to come across some BMWs, a Lamborghini or two. Most of the people who you’ll see at 6pm onwards will dress in sharp suits or even sharper dresses. They may have expensive watches or handbags. If they’re not expensive, they’ll seem expensive. This is just another example of the direct and sincere nature of Chinese people. Wealth is usually displayed.

Displaying one’s wealth has always been part of Chinese culture. The gates of the Forbidden City are huge and imposing, and the tall buildings in the Summer Palace and Beihai Park remind the onlooker that the ruler who built those beautiful imperial gardens was much more successful than them. In the Han Dynasty, kings and nobleman would be buried in a full-body shroud of precious jade to explain their wealth to the demons of the afterlife. In Qing courtyard houses, the height of the floor at the entrance determined the social status of the family. The larger the stride, the richer those who reside.

In the National Museum Of China, the Party and State Leaders Gift Show does a great job of displaying the wealth of China’s diplomatic relations. Here, a huge gallery exhibits treasures and masterpieces awarded to Chinese government officials by foreign representatives. The diversity of these treasures is incredible: Mongolian daggers, Buddhist statues, Nigerian wooden sculptures, replicas of Roman gods and art of the ancient Greeks, all have been presented as gifts to leaders of the PRC. To get lost in those paintings, potteries and pastiches is easy, as if all the culture of the world is present in that room. As if all the culture of the world is present in China.

The information boards describe the growing international success of the PRC over the last sixty years, leading us to believe that it all culminates with this. Just as a host of accessories can convince me that a stranger is a wealthy businessmen, a hall of trinkets can easily persuade me that China’s relationship with the rest of the world has always and will always flourish.

Porcelain swans presented to Mao Zedong by Richard Nixon in 1972
Porcelain swans presented to Mao Zedong by Richard Nixon in 1972
Wooden sculpture presented to Chinese president as a gift
Wooden sculpture presented to Chinese president as a gift

Sky Pot of Dashilar

Sky Pot of Dashilar

Many visitors to Beijing know of Dashilar, the bristling, bustling web of hutongs that dominate the area southwest of Tiananmen Square, I’ve just moved into a hostel here and, for me, this place reflects all the things I love about China.

It’s 9pm and the lights are on. I have walked from Tiananmen Square and I am standing at the crossroad of Meishijie (Food Street) and Dashilar (Business Street). To the left, a cheerful McDonalds welcomes tourists into the ancient Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) hutong. Every day, 150 000 or more tourists flock to this street to browse: restaurants, teahouses, silk shops, traditional Chinese pharmacies, Tibetan art galleries and Qing dynasty shoe shops are all on offer.

As the evening begins, I see a blind busker with a wonderful beard plucking on a traditional Chinese instrument (Unfortunately he stops to shake his tin bucket just as I take a picture. Music blares from every store, but he keeps at it).  I see people selling all manner of pointless things, from plastic opera masks to the old ball-on-a-string, and hear the ever-present honk of electric bikes. I sit down for beer and barbecue (classic Chinese culture) and am immediately invited to sit with a couple of travellers from Hunan Province. I try to teach them how to say ‘Cheers’ but all they hear is ‘Qie Zi’ (茄子) which is Mandarin for ‘Aubergine’. 

Now you can see that Dashilar has a great deal of interesting places. But it seems like the place that is attracting the most attention from Chinese tourists is neither a restaurant or a gallery – In fact, it’s just a tea shop with a fountain outside.A teapot pouring water into a cup, suspended at an angle by a pole in the middle. The so called ‘Sky Pot’ (Tian Hu).

Not that interesting, you may think, but the reactions of the people walking by was fantastic! Every single Chinese person that walks by first glances over at the teapot nonchalantly. A second later, their eyebrows draws inwards and a look of deep concentration appears. How possible? Is that teapot suspended in midair? First,each person stares hard at the bottom of the fountain. Next, they come round and stare at the side. Next, each person looks around the back. The confusion spreads comically across their face as they glance at the ceiling. Dejectedly, they stare at the spout of the teapot, and then… Revelation! Each person beams, gestures proudly to their friends and family to show they’ve solved the puzzle.  The phone flashes out like lightning, and they take a photo. Then the attraction is spent and they lose interest immediately. On their way! It happened like that every. Single. Time. Psychology in action!

This is so common in China. A pretty tree, an interesting statue, a rock carved with Chinese characters, a visual puzzle to solve, and the people come. This area, Dashilar, is a Chinese theme park attraction! And on that note I raise my beer and declare a hearty ‘Qie Zi’!

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Dashilar West – CrimsonChina
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Dashilar – CrimsonChina
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Dashilar – CrimsonChina
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Dashilar – CrimsonChina
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Dashilar – CrimsonChina

The Foreigner Card

Right now, I’m writing my first real travel article for an international newspaper, China Daily! (to be published). How is this possible, I hear you cry? How did a blogger with only a few followers come to be writing an article for China Daily? Could it be…the foreigner card?

It is very common in China for a foreigner to be chosen to publicise certain events, places, products and TV shows. Common examples would be  Kuaile Hanyu   , a TV show displaying foreigners who can speak Mandarin Chinese, and   If You Are The One  , a dating show with several foreign contestants. 

In China, blonde hair can attract film coverage, company visibility and a multitude of Chinese admirers. I’m saying this from personal experience, but anyone who has lived in China for a while will know it’s true.

In the workplace, the bias can be strong. Those recruiting teachers will often request ‘white Caucasian’, native speaker or not, to hire for summer camps, primary schools and even universities. In some cases, an American or Brit who has never taught a student may win over a  candidate from South Africa (native English speaker) with four years teaching experience, and take responsibility for a barrage of university students.

 In my time in China, I have been interviewed for   Sichuan TV   and invited to watch   A Date With Luyu   in the studio audience just because of my foreign face. Or, more commonly, because of my friend’s foreign face. I’m not blonde.

I am happy to share my experiences of Shanxi Province. China Daily gave me a fantastic opportunity to travel and to develop myself. To get foreigners to write about the trip will definitely boost publicity. Like any card, expat life in China has two sides.

What’s that? I’m not supposed to skip the exhaustingly long queue to buy train tickets? 不好意思,听不懂了! (Sorry, I don’t understand Chinese!).