Published: July 21st 2008July 21st 2008
Beijing has been invaded.
It began at the start of the traditional tourist season at the end of May. A couple of hopelessly lost Koreans here, a few scattered Westerners speaking Mandarin with horribly mangled tones there, and a smattering of hopelessly lost elderly Japanese. As the summer arrived and the weather heated up, along with Beijing's interminable humidity, the trickle became a stream, which turned into an all-out flood. Foreigners are descending upon Beijing in droves, reminiscent of a locust swarm. These lecherous parasites have infiltrated the poshest hotels, are hesitantly venturing down Beijing's most upscale shopping avenues and, to make matters even worse, I have been lumped into that horrible, generalized category of "foreigner".
Now, ask me how I really feel.
Truth be told, it's not all bad. Beijing tourism industry profit margins have skyrocketed and I feel as proud as my fellow Beijingers to show off our shiny, new, relatively clean city. What sets me apart, however, is that I will be leaving all of this behind in nine days. I'll miss out on the antics of foreigners struggling to function in a country and society 180 degrees separate from their own. I won't bear
Beijing's New Subway Map
The Magenta, Light Blue, and Gray-Colored Subway Lines are New
witness to history as this formally reclusive nation hosts athletes and dignitaries from around the world. I won't be around to welcome our foreign guests to one of the biggest, and most celebrated, summer Olympic games in Olympic history.
Actually, I'm kind of okay with that.
Beijing has gone into lockdown. Police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs roam Olympic venue grounds. Every single backpack and briefcase is searched as millions of Beijingers pass through the subway system each day. Lines stretch around the block as foreigners and non-Beijinger Chinese alike obligingly register at the local police stations. No one is allowed on any university campus without student I.D. Soldiers roam the airport with AK-47s strapped across their chests. Beijing is determined that Olympics 2008 will be the safest Olympic games on record and will be damned if any event or protest takes place that might tarnish the image of China or the government. All my favorite DVD haunts have been shut down by the government, although tiny, handwritten signs in English promise to return "soon", whenever that may be.
There are positive aspects to the impending Olympics games, aside from the obvious, which is the presentation of China
as a newly minted international force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most significant difference is in the air quality. The "shuang ri, shuang hao" system has just been put into effect. Vehicles with odd- and even-numbered plates will hit the streets of the city on alternate days, which effectively means that just half of Beijing's 3.29 million vehicles can run on the streets on any given day. More people are taking public transportation as a result of the traffic regulations, which will remain in place until after the Paraolympic games conclude on September 20. Three brand-new subway lines began running this past weekend, and I was privileged to be one of the historic first passengers on line 10, which connects the Wudaokou area (where I live) to GuoMao (the business center). Previously, I had to take three separate subway lines and transfer twice to get to the same place. With the lack of cars on the road, more than 95% of the buses were running on schedule, which is usually impossible on normal days of traffic congestion. Despite the awesome scale of these efforts to clean up the air in time for the Olympics, much still depends on wind
Tiananmen Square, 4 AM
The birds aren't even awake yet
direction. The five provinces surrounding Beijing have been ordered to monitor their own factory and other pollutant activities, but far-reaching winds still have the capability to carry pollution from other cities in China. After all, 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
As the air has improved, I've been spending more time outside. On Saturday, I hit the Dirt Market, which is an enormous outside market of Chinese antiques and eccentric collectibles. After browsing the stalls and buying some Tibetan incense, I happened upon a Chinese chop carving stand. In ancient China, all official documents were validated with the stamp of the appropriate official's name. This type of validation is still used today in formal transactions, such as at the bank, but these stamps also make wonderful souvenirs for tourists who visit China. The vendor, an older man, had just received a request for a stamp from a South Korean tourist, and I asked him if I could stay and watch him carve the stamp. He agreed. We spent over an hour chatting away, and by the time he'd finished the Korean's chop, he was insisting that he carve one for me- free of charge.
Tiananmen Square, 4:15 AM
Look how many other crazy people there are in Beijing!
I protested, and we went back and forth for awhile, as is traditional in Chinese business transactions, but when when all was said and done, I went home with a beautifully carved stamp of my Chinese name, Lin Ya-Hui.
Unlike Western culture, Chinese place great importance on the meaning of a name, in addition to the way it sounds. The name I was given by my Chinese T.A. in college sounded pretty, but was just a transliteration of my English name, thus clearly identifying me as a foreigner. Last year, I asked a Chinese friend to give me a new name, and she did just that, based on her first impression of me. Ya-Hui, my given name, means elegant and intelligent. Lin, my family name, is quite unusual in China, as Svalestuen is in the United States. Additionally, 'lin' can also mean "woods", which is appropriate because my parents live in a wooded area.
This past weekend, I also had the opportunity to visit my Chinese family. I lived with this father, mother and daughter in 2005 for three months, and we've stayed in touch. It truly is amazing, and I feel so lucky, to have a family
Tiananmen Square, 5:03 AM
Here come the soldiers, bearing the Chinese national flag
structure that I can spend time with while I'm in China. They've truly become my "family away from home". I arrived in time for lunch, and wound up staying for dinner as well, for which we made "jiaozi", or Chinese dumplings, my favorite Beijing food. They raved over the improvement in my Chinese, and I was unbelievably flattered later that afternoon, when my host father's sister arrived and, not seeing me at first, assumed I was also Chinese based on my pronunciation.
I don't always blend in as easily. This morning, I arose at the ungodly hour of 3:30 AM to arrive at Tiananmen Square by 5:03 AM to watch the flag raising ceremony. Every morning, just after sunrise, and every evening, just before dusk, the Chinese national flag is ceremoniously raised and lowered in the Square, accompanied by stiff-legged Chinese soldiers and an unnecessarily loud rendition of the Chinese national anthem that blasts over the loudspeakers. When I arrived at Tiananmen, it was still dark outside and so I sat down to read while I waited for the soldiers to arrive. As hundreds of tourists poured into the square (keep in mind, this is just after 4 AM),
Tiananmen Square, 5:05 AM
Raising the Flag.
The national anthem is playing over the loudspeakers at this point
I realized I would have to act fast to get a good vantage point. I began walking behind the crowd already assembled directly in front of the flagpole, searching for the best position, when something unusual began to happen. First one person turned to look at me, then another, and soon, the hundreds already assembled had turned en masse to watch me skulk along in the dark. I've been stared at many times before, but this was unreal. I realized that every person in that square, save for the soldiers and security guards, was a Chinese citizen from outside of the big cities, and I was obviously just as much of an attraction as the event we'd all come to witness. I felt like a movie star, and began prancing back and forth along the line of gaping jaws, flinging my arms in the air and attempting to riverdance. I figured it didn't matter how foolish I looked; they were going to watch me and I might as well put on a show. It was only when I found a satisfactory spot to stand and was studiously ignoring everyone around me that they lost interest and allowed me to read
in peace. After all the excitement prior to the big event, it was a miracle that anyone was able to concentrate on the actual flag-raising portion of the morning.
One hilarious aspect of modern Chinese culture is the obsession with English wording on T-shirts. It's everywhere, and usually doesn't make sense. I've even pointed out obvious grammatical errors or non sequiturs to shopkeepers, but they shrug it off; it's the roman alphabet shapes that they're interested in. I'd like to close this blog entry with some of my favorite T-shirt sightings:
* As seen on a teenage girl: "Skinny boys, baggy girls"
* As seen on a baby: "Fat buddha"
* As seen on a young mother: "I'm a b*tch"
* As seen on a teenage boy: "Tomorrow is peace. Tomorrow is yesterday"
And, perhaps my favorite to date:
* As seen on an elderly man: "Hell Cat Punk"
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