Beijing, China. I started writing this article when I first got back a few months ago, never finished it. But since then,in spite of the normalcy that begins to take place when you come back from a trip, Beijing has always been in the background of my mind. I’ve been lucky enough to travel some parts of the world, Central America and Europe most notably, but none have urged me to write about them as resolutely as Beijing has. The truth is when I think about my trip, I get a feeling in my stomach that’s something between butterflies and homesickness. It didn’t take much for Beijing to steal my heart: Was it the porcelain toilets nestled in the ground that I had to squat over to use, making sure to have a firm grip of my shoes so as not to slip? The savory, soupy dumplings I ate at Din Tai Fung? The smog that half the time was ten times over the healthy limit? Or maybe it was the elders (At least 70 years old and up) who would congregate in parks and play Jianzi (we know it as hacky sack) with a limberness that would put most of our American adults to shame. Those make for nice conversation starters, but they’re not nearly as thought provoking as some other things I discovered about Beijing…
**Disclaimer: This is not a history of Beijing, but rather a small collection of cultural anecdotes that pertain to my adventures in the city. This is also not a political article bashing the Chinese government or people in any way. This is however, about how much love I got for Beijing.
On Haggling: I had read about how if you go shopping at a market in Beijing to come prepared to bargain, as the sellers would be starting at very high prices. But more than that, bargaining at the markets is like sport in Beijing, as I was soon to find out at the Panjiayuan antique market. You want a pocket locket of Tsar Nicolas the Second? They got twenty. You want a leather-crafted pair of vintage binoculars? They got ‘em (For like 7,000 U.S. dollars). Mini elephants carved from green jade, delicately painted plum-sized vials for your poison, teapots that fit together like puzzles; these are just a few of the treasures tucked away at the Panjiayuan market. After awhile I finally settled on a lovely bronze cylindrical incense holder, etched with lilies and dragonflies.
Knowing basically no Mandarin, we devised a way to communicate our bargaining by using the calculator on our phones to input our starting offer. The buyer, a middle aged man with smiling eyes started with 650 Yuan, which is 99 U.S. dollars. I had no idea what the conversion was at the time, so I decided to blindly play the haggle game by in-putting 500 into my calculator. The man thought about it for a quick second, then nodded his head yes, wrapping my trinket in newspaper. Suddenly my cousin showed me how much I would actually be paying. 500 Yuan is almost $80. For once in my life I realized I was being hoodwinked and gave the trinket back to the man, shaking my head.
The man was ready to get back into the game almost immediately. “Friend!” he had started to call me. Would he still have the same sentiments after our game? I confidently typed in the number 200. He looked at me, eyes wide in a shocked delight. No way, he shook his head. I began to walk away, and he quickly typed in 400 (or something like that) to which I firmly typed 200. By now we were in the middle of the market stalls, and a crowd of curious locals were watching our interaction. He typed in 350, I typed in 250(around $38). “You’re not my friend!” the man told me, but there wasn’t a look of anger in his eyes; only amused defeat. And with a shake of hands, that was how my first proper bargain went down. I realized that much of this process was more than a simple transaction of goods; it was a source of entertainment, of gambling if you will. I had felt a rush of excitement as I typed in my offers, and I’m sure the man had too, as there were no vibes of animosity throughout the procedure, only good-natured amusement . What’s more, this game transcended language barriers; The man and I didn’t need to know each others’ language to get by, and the crowd watching our spectacle didn’t need to know any language to get a kick out of it.
On Standards of Beauty:
My sister, cousin and I were looking for a taxi one night to take us to Sanlitun, the nightlife district. Taxis were almost non-existent, so luckily a woman found us and offered a ride since we were “beautiful ladies” (Her words exactly). She wasn’t driving an ordinary car either; the best way I can describe it is a miniature tram-like car. Smaller than a tram, smaller than a car, with no turn signals. Our driver had to honk the horn ferociously to be seen and heard while crossing busy intersections. This woman knew more English than we knew Mandarin, and she especially wanted to use the words “beautiful women”. At one point she turned to tell us how we were beautiful because our eyes are “so big”, and specifically how hers were smaller and not beautiful.
My sister and I exchanged looks, raised eyebrows and all. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. “All eyes are beautiful, it doesn’t matter the shape or size!” I tried telling her. She didn’t really care what we had to say, and went onto the next topic. However what she said about our eyes has stuck with me since. I mean, I remember reading before how round eyes were seen as standards of beauty in many Asian communities, but to actually hear someone say that was shocking, and honestly put me in a gloomy mood. This particular sentiment is something you definitely don’t hear in America, or at least not explicitly said.However it’s something that is implied by Western/American media. With an influx of Western fashion and pop culture infiltrating China, Chinese beauty standards have shifted to reflect changing ideals. American culture in particular is a big influence to many in China; It’s seen as foreign, exotic, cool, much like how we view China and other non-American cultures. Therefore American/Western models, with their round eyes, high nose bridges and large breasts, set a beauty standard that many Chinese women try to emulate. Maybe you’ve heard of the surgeries women have to create double eyelids.
As of now, I’m ambivalent about the impact America’s beauty standards has had on China. I think that women should have the ultimate say in what happens to their bodies, but how can we say a woman is fully in control when she is trying to change her image to fit a particular concept she had no say in creating? How do we separate what a woman truly wants from what society and popular culture says she should want? Is American culture surreptitiously in control of how Chinese women feel about themselves, instead of actual Chinese women? I mean, American pop culture already makes actual American women feel like shit about their appearance; I wouldn’t be surprised if it did the same to those of other countries.
In the end we tried to convince our driver that her eye shape worthy of the word beautiful, but she still wouldn’t have it. How does one shift that paradigm of standards?
Our journey took a more serious turn when we visited the Lama Temple (also known as Yonghe), a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the heart of Beijing. Upon arrival our awesome Chinese tour guide Pao (who took his name after famous basket baller Pao Gasol), told us there would be no photographs to be taken inside the temple, out of respect for the area. Pao then asked us if we wanted to get some incense, which was free with admission. We declined; I’m not sure why everyone else did, but I felt since I’m not a practicing Buddhist, it wasn’t really my place. Also I had no idea what to do with the incense, as people were making slightly elaborate steps before placing their incense in front of each altar.
Once you get in the temple itself, you find it’s more like a series of courtyards that lead into rooms which are the temples themselves. It was like going through levels; There were about four or five of these courtyards leading into temples in all. I won’t go into much detail about what was inside the actual temples themselves, but I want to share an interesting conversation I had with Pao that kind of surprised me. You see, Pao had a monumental wealth of knowledge for anything concerning Beijing, and the Buddhist religion was no exception. Throughout our guidance of the Lama temple, I was itching to ask Pao if he practiced himself. Since he has so much knowledge on Buddhism, I assumed he must be Buddhist. I was hesitant for a bit, because I understand this could be a personal question for some. When I finally did muster up the courage, our conversation went a little something like this:
Me: So do you follow Buddhism?
Pao: No I don’t, I’m not religious. Actually, 75% of China doesn’t follow any religion. People are more spiritual if anything.
Me: Really? So spiritual as in believing in and encountering spirits, that sort of thing?
Pao: Yes exactly, like good luck and bad luck too. Like good and bad spirits.
So Pao’s answer really perplexed me, especially because it didn’t really seem to reflect what I saw that day in the Lama Temple, or what I saw and heard so far in Beijing. I saw dozens and dozens of people, not just monks, praying and burning incense. And to hear that 75% weren’t followers!? But then I thought it over; China is a huge country, the most populated in the world at that. China’s overall population is almost 1.4 billion souls, and I’m not the best with math but that still leaves millions of people who are religious.
Anyway, I think it made me a look like asshole because I just assumed that most of the Chinese population would be religious and therefore probably Buddhist. But to hear that Pao and the majority of Chinese were rather spiritual as opposed to followers of a specific religious sect made me feel a sort of kinship with these people that I didn’t previously realize. You see, my entire trip thus far we seemed so different; Completely distinct tongues with no common linguistic roots and cultural barriers that made me feel aware of my foreignness, to name a few. Not to mention the way the locals stare at you because they know you’re not from around there.
But who cares if the Chinese eat curious food called Fresh Bacteria Treasures; I eat ground up mystery meat alá hot dogs. Those are just trivial differences compared to our shared belief systems. Some of you may know that I’ve been rather vocal in the past about my switch in belief systems. I went from a pretty devout Catholic to someone that instead doesn’t really formally practice any one religion, but tries to appreciate the positive ideologies in all. To hear that the majority of Chinese people literally half way around the world are just as sporadic as I am in their devotion, but still value the inherent goodness that can be found in spirituality, really made me feel more at home than any other point of my entire trip. Not only that, but the Chinese concept of good and bad spirits mirrors my Indigenous peoples’ concepts of good and bad spirits that permeate the material world. It was really neat to discover that our similarities, though few, had significant weight to them.
Fake Artists/Art Student Scams:
So I had kind of heard about this before traveling to China but didn’t realize it was happening to us when it happened to us. It was one of our first days in the city, and we were walking on the streets trying to find a place to eat. We must have looked like tourists because a local couple walked up to us and started chatting us up, then offering to show us some good food spots. We ended up talking with them as we walked, and they were genuinely friendly people who were telling us about some cool night life spots. And to me it was great because I think making friends from around the world is one of the coolest friendships one can possibly form. So they take us to their art studio, because apparently they were artists whose pieces were on display at a cultural school. They lead us onto a some what abandoned street, and into a building that had a really sketchy entrance…It was like one of those meat packing buildings with the long clear plastic hanging down from the door way. They then lead us to an elevator… Long story short, they truly did lead us to a tiny art exhibit, showed and explained the pieces they created, and we ended up buying a few sweet pieces ourselves. Afterwards they showed us yummy places to eat, so everything was all good. After lunch we walked down another street…And a guy with an almost identical story about how he was an artist who worked at a school and how he wanted us to look at his pieces at his school came up to us…And that’s when it was confirmed that yes, we were swindled.
The Elders of Beijing: At nearly every park or historic site we went to (And there were a lot ), the elderly of Beijing(65 years+) were outside in large groups of twenty or so, practicing choreographed dancing to relatively smooth music played on a boom box. If not dancing, they were playing racquet ball with birdies, or Jianzi/hacky sack in semi circles. Often times we would see them simply stretching their legs in public spaces, with an emphasized flexibility. Our tour guide Pao was telling us that many elders gather every single day (unless it’s raining) at the park to exercise. But it wasn’t just exercising we saw; Old men and women sat on stone benches with tiny birds in cages next to them, playing card games with each other, gambling, chatting. It seemed to me like these people figured that the way to stay young is to keep up with old friends, keep chillin outside, and keep moving.
To see the elderly so youthful, active, and engaged outside in nature is something we don’t see a lot of back in America. I want to age like the people in Beijing.
Locals Wanting Their Photo Taken With Us:
This was one of the most humorous parts of our trip. My group and I were at Tiananmen Square, a historic site filled with thousands of tourists. We’ve heard of Chinese locals walking up to obvious foreigners, like a white guy for example, and taking photographs of/with them. Well our group was standing admiring the view of the Forbidden Palace, when a Chinese man stood next to us. He was looking at his wife who was holding a camera. He was obviously trying to take a photo where we were, so our group moved. However before my boyfriend could move, this local man pulled him by the shoulders so that he could face his wife’s camera. He pointed to it smiling, and my boyfriend kindly obliged, smiled, and the photo was shot. The local Chinese man might have singled my boyfriend out because he’s a Native American guy with skin a few shades darker, an obvious non-local. Or maybe he thought he was cute. Either way, that couple has a photo with my boyfriend in it, looking slightly startled but entirely amused. I hope they cherish it forever.
Low Key Exotic Dancers while Serious News Is On TV:
Nearly every bar in the Sanlitun district has female exotic dancers. Wearing bikinis/lingerie, they move with an acrobatic finesse that is really cool to watch, more like a Cirque du Soleil show than a strip joint. But no one actually throws money at them like in American bars. It was an interesting dichotomy being inside some of these bars because you got exotic dancers under hot pink lights to your left, and CNN on the TV talking about financial shit to your right. After a dancer would do her set, a live band would go on stage, instantly shifting the mood from raw night club to artsy coffee house.