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purchase point

February 27, 2006

Not surprisingly, my mother’s favorite place in Beijing happens to be Wal-Mart or “War-Mah.” Located in the southern part of town, one sees it’s familiar and unsettling blue sign from far, far away. The first floor features bins of socks and underwear, with ladies handing out instant coffee samples and hundreds of newly-weds maneuvering their way through cramped aisles. Small crowds of onlookers dot the store, entertained by fruit juicer demonstrations and models doling out skincare advice. Prices are low— shockingly low— and the promise of “everything one might need under one roof” proves to be too overwhelming for some. These tired masses take turns resting on artificial park benches scattered throughout the store, blotting their foreheads and dipping into sleep.

The second floor houses the Wal-Mart food store, a yet-to-be-realized entity at its American predecessor, my mother informs me. Entire roast ducks for 10 yuan ($1.25) might go well with jugs of sorghum wine and spirals of pork sausage. A murky aquarium presents schools of fresh fish while an expert in the accompanying reptile section attracts an impenetrable swath of people. After elbowing my way to the front in a fit of unbridled curiosity, I witness what might be called a for-locals-only event. The man in the chef hat is demonstrating a turtle dissection with said turtle becoming the centerpiece for his featured soup. I back away slowly, my space instantly overtaken by an energetic young couple.

Bemused by my shock, my mother reminds me that turtles in China are revered for their healing properties and that it’s no different than having chicken soup in the states.

“They don’t have chicken torturing demos at Wal-Mart,” I retort. She nods in an extremely rare moment of agreement and I stumble away to the red meat department where the fare is of a presumably less graphic nature.

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mauling the mainland

February 23, 2006

I’m sure there are 100 urban planning theses currently being written on this topic, and for good reason. It’s impossible for anyone who spends time in this city not to be aware of it: the cranes, the rubble, the dust, the half-built towers, the coal-grey sky. Everywhere you look there are signs of urban development. Everyday more neighborhoods fall to the bulldozer, as if (Robert) Moses had returned to part the slums and lead the legions of middle-class Audi drivers into a brave new world of luxury highrises and shopping malls.

What’s interesting to me is how, in the face of all this erasure of the past, the city has gone about making provisions to preserve some fragments of that past. Maybe preserve is not the right word; replace might be more accurate. Take, for example, the case of Old Beijing Street. Located beside an inauspicious side door to the popular Sun Dong An Shopping Center along Jinyu Hutong is a plaque that describes the history of Old Beijing Street – one of the oldest streets and outdoor markets in the city.

The street itself no longer exists. The city grid on which it was built was cleared years ago, and yet, the small sign above this shopping mall emergency exit beckons me to experience the Old Street of Beijing. Which I do.

After forcing open the seemingly ill-hung door, I descend two flourescently-illuminated flights of stairs and arrive at…a fitness club.

Realizing that I’d made a wrong turn, I backtrack and find the “real” Old Street market. The market is set in an open space with fleck-toned tile floors, white drop ceilings, about 20 vendors peddling panda-shaped backpacks and an escalator rising up in the middle.

Most of the visitors to this once emblematic site of China’s vibrant market culture appear to be foreign tourists looking to have their photo taken with a wax Mandarin and maybe pick up some cheap silk pajamas. The locals can all be found two floors up, rushing from shop to shop through the 7-storey mall, chatting on cell phones and taking home the latest arrivals from Hong Kong-based chains like Cabeen, 5cm and Izzue.

It gets me thinking: how does this shift from a culture of bargaining – of active, daily social engagement with local business people – to one of browsing – passive, silent examination and consumption – affect a society? How does it alter the way people interact with others in public space?

One of the things I really enjoy about life here is the level of informality that accompanies most activities (sure, there’s heaps of bureaucracy, but if you’re going to be waiting in line at the bank for an hour, you might as well take your shoes off, pull out a thermos of tea and sing along to the Mandopop that’s piped throughout the building). There’s a certain candor and disregard for self awareness that seems instilled in the older generations here, those used to living and interacting with others on the street. It seems harder to observe that same quality in the youth of Beijing.

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February 20, 2006

Since moving to Beijing, I have not seen a single set of white Apple earphones poised before the eardrums of a single person. Not one.

(ed. Looking back at this post 1 year later, I’m struck by how different the streets appear today. Scores of kids and office workers alike roam the streets with white earbuds pumping them full of sound.)

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February 11, 2006

About this face of mine. I suppose, among other faces nearby, it appears identical. Dark eyes against a pale face inset with a downturned smile. A course skein of black hair as a frame. One face moving past a million others on an escalator, shrinking behind an elevator door, turning away against a slap of air on Chaoyangmen Street. It’s the same face as all the others, hidden behind woolen scarves and ill-fitting hats. Familiar, expected, and Chinese in every way.

When the mouth opens, words tumble out from all directions and the face changes somehow. Features rearrange themselves, causing confusion and weariness. The face and voice cannot be reconciled. I read the words behind their eyes. Why does she have a strange accent? Where is this person from? Why does she not meet my gaze? I attempt to answer, but I lack the confidence and the vocabulary to properly vindicate myself. My Chinese sucks, but don’t I speak English well?

I expect I would have an easier time here if I looked completely different than everyone else. Perhaps I would be cut some slack, even appreciated for making the 9,000 mile journey. Excused for my spotty vocabulary and stutteringly slow diction. Every new word would be an achievement, while an entire sentence might elicit applause.

I have never been more aware of myself than in Beijing. Less so of my appearance than of my brain, my thoughts, my language. The difference between what one sees and how one is seen. The skin feels wrong some days.

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February 9, 2006

My eyesight is very poor. My most recent visit to the optometrist pegged me at -6 diopters in each eye, which means that I can see about 12 inches in front of my face before everything in my plane of vision drops off into haze. I used to like to leave my contacts and glasses at home and walk around the streets of New York at night so that I could experience my surroundings in an entirely different way. Signs and symbols give way to broad fields of color. Headlights on cars become flowing rivers of light, the life-blood of the city. The specificity of this person or this building or this garbage can is rendered insignificant – everything is amalgamated into motion, velocity, the city as organism. Certain awarenesses become heightened – you have to keep looking for clues, shifts in tone and volume, that define the space around you. Wandering in a haze can be inspiring, but it’s also a taxing process and I’m always glad to return home to my corrective lenses.

Life in China gives me a similar hazy feeling. So much of the visual information surrounding me is inscrutable. Sights and sounds take on strange forms that are difficult to focus on, so I have to search for clues to complete the most mundane tasks. For example, I’ve learned to recognize the basic characters for meat – pork, chicken, beef – but pointing to a string of characters with “chicken” in the middle can have wildly varying results. Everyday events like eating or riding in a cab or buying what you think is milk become a roll of the dice. There is so much around me that I can’t see or understand, and it’s going to take more than a trip to the eye doctor to improve my vision.

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cool kids of winter

February 8, 2006

At 3 pm everyone stops what they’re doing. Laptops nudged closed, computers relax into screensavers, legs elevated atop empty aeron chairs. My neighbor, sloped shouldered with a spiky silver mullet, is the ringleader. He owns the tea set, divvies out the cigarettes, and chooses who to light up first. Lifting the teapot high into the air, he measures out tiny cups of jasmine or chrysanthemum tea, toasting mothers, fathers, gods, nature and whatever else he can think of.

They drink for 45 minutes then return to their desks.

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man at the wheel

February 7, 2006

The graying man named Feng had left his farm in the north to earn money for his son’s education. Wrinkled and weary, he admitted he was only 35 lived but felt and appeared so much older. 100 years old some days, 50 on others. Usually somewhere in between. Absentmindedly threading his way through traffic, he described his hometown of Hubei, frostbitten in winter and witheringly humid in the summer. Dusty crops cornered by rough brick houses inhabited by families of ten or more. Because of their reliance on labor, farmers are allowed to have more than one child and for a small fortune, another field hand may enter the world. Feng’s only son needed money for high school, so the farmer moved to the city and became a cab driver, hoping to secure a better life for his child.

Inspired by my mom’s fascinated gaze, he began to list out all of his expenses. Monthly salary: 5000 RMB ($700), with 4000 of it going to the cab rental agency. His twin bunk bed in a room shared by four men set him back 150 RMB, with additional utilities totaling around 300 RMB. Another 250 RMB for tuition and the rest he used for food and cheap cigarettes. “I don’t buy too much,” Fengconfided. He coughed, squeezed his palms around the steering wheel and sighed deeply. “This is my life.” He held each word for a second, emphasizing the finality of his predicament, setting the phrase in front of us, almost proudly.

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moving day

February 1, 2006

It’s February 1: moving day. We didn’t have much time to find and outfit an apartment (just about a week, when you account for New Year holidays), so we were determined to act quickly. We signed our lease just four days after arriving in Beijing. The next day we were out hunting for furniture. We took a cab out to Furniture City near the south 4th Ring Road, but were disappointed to find that the entire complex was shut down until the 6th for Dog-Year celebrations. Under pressure and with limited knowledge of our options, we headed to IKEA.

IKEA in Beijing is much like IKEA in Elizabeth, New Jersey: a massive 2 storey structure filled with reasonably priced products, and an adjoining cafeteria that dishes out reasonably tasty meatballs. And yet, something about the place felt immediately unknown, somehow other than the IKEA-brand shopping experience I’ve come to know and endure.

After following the bold yellow arrows affixed to the floor for a few hundred feet, I began to realize that the difference I had sensed was not a difference in IKEA itself, but rather a difference in the IKEA shoppers I was confronted with. Shoppers who make the trek to the IKEA in Elizabeth almost invariably do so with a purchase plan in mind. They need a bed. Or a bookshelf. Or a Maysa Sasong. The trip to IKEA for the American shopper is not about the experience qua experience. It is, rather, a means to an end: the acquisition of goods. What is striking about many of the shoppers at Beijing’s IKEA is their apparent lack of a purchase plan. They wander the store examining products and checking prices, and then double back to the seating section to retire to one of the floor-model sofas or chairs. During our visit, almost every available seat in the house was occupied by someone who was eating, chatting or sleeping. Often, the latter. Once rested, these visitors would complete their journey through the self-pickup aisles, past the checkout counter and out into the biting winter night, empty handed.

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beijing street snacks dispatch #1

jiaozi – Dumplings plumped with pork and fresh vegetables. Mostly consumed steamed, they may be found pan-fried (guotie) or floating in broth (xuejiao). Served steaming hot and by the pound, diners are encouraged to mix their own spicy, vinegary, sugary, salty sauce for dipping (and subsequent splashing on their sweaters).

hong xu pian – Similar in taste to fancy sweet potato chips found at client lunch meetings, the Beijing version is about 1/100th of the price and is sold off the back of a bike by hearty ruddy-faced farmers in woolen pants. When we offered to buy a half kilo, said farmer looked incredulous, pointed at Joe and implored “Why would he want to eat sweet potatoes??” Answer: Because they’re deep fried and delicious.

tang fu lu – Glazed local fruits strung on a stick, usually found clutched in the palms of apple-faced toddlers. Beijingers somehow manage to consume an entire stickful without dropping any pieces of fruit or skewering their mouths.

fang mi tang – A thick, light candy made out of flour and honey. Small bricks are cut off of a larger glacier and make a nice hollow clinking sound when placed in a bag.

re muo – When one’s slackened body requires hearty and immediate nourishment, this Beijing version of a hamburger appears in all its pork-filled grandeur. A distant cousin of “jian bing,”or fried bread, this hand-held lunch may occasionally be topped with an egg or a smattering of scallions.

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