Being in Beijing
By Nikita Hayward
I remember getting off the train at Beijing West railway station and wondering how the sun could not be seen shining on such a hot summer’s day. Naturally, the sun was there all along, potent but invisible, like the moon during the day. I also remember that my laptop is still on the train, but not until we’ve been nudged off the platform by the stream of people, all heading for the escalator. It’s a cliché to say that I was shocked by the number of people I saw on arrival in Beijing, but this is especially true given that I had spent the previous twenty-one hours in a single train compartment, filled with six wooden bunks, luggage, and not much else. You only truly appreciate that rooms usually have doors when you find yourself sleeping in one that doesn’t. The window proved to be our salvation though, whilst daylight lasted, though it made the transition from Guangzhou to Beijing all the more dramatic. After spending hours gazing at blue-tinged mountains and lakes lit by lanterns, everything literally disappeared in a puff of smoke, or, rather, a cloud of polluted dust.
Several days later I am about to take a seat and listen to a lecture at the Confucius Institute headquarters when a voice announces “let’s go get your laptop!” and takes me by the hand. One of the ex-participants of the internship programme, who’s helping to organise things this year, has decided that we should abandon the neatly folded Confucius Institute welcome booklets and hurry instead, past the flags and television screens which adorn the Institute’s foyer, and out into the streets of Beijing. She grins at me, and I realise that she had probably planned the timing of our laptop rescue mission carefully. We attempt to navigate the tightly packed pavements, avoiding watermelon sellers and the occasional person who wants to take a photo with me, the incongruous blue-eyed westerner. The Beijing subway makes the London rush hour look like a quiet rural paradise. The chaos is probably compounded by the fact that I, unhelpfully, know little Mandarin other than “I don’t want” (needed in case of swarming by watermelon sellers and/or budding photographers).
Walking, or more accurately, being steered through crowds of people, roaming Beijing, I genuinely feel like a small child on their first unaccompanied outing to the park. I’ve felt a lot like a small child since coming to China, but I’ve mainly put this down to my illiteracy and complete inability to eat with chopsticks, which draws everything from pitiful stares to half-ashamed photographs in the campus canteens. Cultural exchange may be many things, but one thing it rarely is, (don’t let the elaborate ceremonies fool you) is dignified. There have been several occasions in which us woefully ignorant foreigners have had little choice but to crudely mime the things we want and need, most hilariously – the toilet – before we knew that the term and hand signal for “W.C” is apparently widely understood.
So that was my introduction to Beijing, not the Beijing of a neatly-preserved and historic university campus, with hotel-like accommodation for international students, and quaint little organised gardens. Beijing where people spit on the street and queues do not exist, where street-food (including scorpions) is sold alongside new, western-style shopping districts, and you’re totally overwhelmed by how little you really matter, in a city home to eleven and a half million people. The panic of losing a prized possession, the joy at having it returned (complete with a cool Chinese customs sticker after it was checked for explosives), the safe haven of an air-conditioned restaurant, compared to the maze of heaving, tourist-filled Hutongs. All this and more, because just as you think the day is done, you’ll be approached by a couple and their child who wordlessly ask for you to pose with them.