the good, the bad, and the grimy

3.19.05 (dubyruby)

In order to stay happy and healthy here, I think you really need to have a fantastically positive attitude, like some kind of bulletproof Pollyanna. Today the weather is lovely, but unfortunately when the weather’s nice and warm, there’s no wind to blow the pollution away. And the pollution really has gotten no better than I remember. I took my bike out and rode to the shopping district, and the air was just so gross that everything looked grimy—the buses, the people, the buildings. Everything had a visible layer of dirt, and thanks to my formerly white jacket, now I’ve got one too.

Wangfu jing, the shopping district, was a nightmare. People everywhere, out for their Saturday afternoon stroll/shop. Chinese people and foreigners of all shapes and colors. I popped into several stores to try and find earrings in the shape of Chinese characters, but only succeeded in finding one pair, and it was a pair I didn’t especially like. I remembered that the Friendship Store is probably a good place to buy such things, but it’s in a different neighborhood and requires getting on the subway—so it would be better to go at a time of day when there’s less traffic. I fought my way around Wangfu jing for a while and then biked back. When the traffic’s light, biking is really enjoyable here—it makes you feel very independent and free to go where you like. But when traffic is heavy, like today, it’s a tough game to play. You always have to watch for pedestrians crossing randomly, taxis and buses pulling into your lane, people riding the wrong direction, people hauling enormous loads, and so on.

And then, just when I was feeling very rotten about being in Beijing (it’s really very dirty, and people can be so pushy), I had this nice conversation with a guy at the pastry store. I was buying a box of pastries for my friend and her mom, because I’m going over to her mom’s place tomorrow night (her mom is Turkish and the daughter is American, but my friend is studying at the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and her mom is a scholar of ancient Chinese, spending a year at Beida, so they have something like a little “home” here in Beijing). The guy next to me was buying SIX boxes of pastries, and I asked him for recommendations (they’re not pre-prepared; the shop assistant packs it for you as you wait). He approved of my getting these pastries for my hosts, because apparently it’s a very typical thing for Beijingers to do—this pastry shop, Dao xiang cun, is a famous old Beijing name. So we chatted a little bit about the pastries, and he asked me if I was a teacher. I said that I had been a teacher in Dalian before, but now I was a student. “I thought so,” he said, satisfied. “You didn’t look like a businesswoman to me. You can always tell the businesspeople. You look more like a scholar.” (translation: you’re a little dirty) I asked him why he was buying so many boxes of pastries and he explained that he was going back to his laojia, the place where his family is from, for the Qing ming holiday, and he was bringing these to his relatives and friends. He told me how great it was that it now only takes an hour on the highway to get there. It was just a very normal, cordial conversation that reminded me how thoroughly decent and ordinary most people are around here, despite their pushy behavior in crowds.

Another wonderful moment last week was when my cell phone dropped out of my pocket on the street when Zhou Libo and I were riding to the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. No fewer than three strangers independently helped me get the phone back. I hadn’t noticed that I had lost it until a woman biked up beside me and said, “Ni de shouji diu le! You’ve lost your cell phone!” I asked her where, and she told me it had fallen out at about the newspaper stand. I went back to the newspaper stand and asked the guy selling papers if he’d seen it. He apparently didn’t speak Mandarin, so he didn’t answer me, but he kept pointing back at the bus stop. I finally understood that he was pointing at a man who was coming towards me with my cell phone in his hand. I was so grateful to all of these people—when the lady alerted me that I’d dropped it, I thought for sure the phone was gone. What are the chances you’d recover it on a busy street during rush hour?