Busting Out in Beijing

Trip Start Jul 28, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Beijing, Beijing...it's almost hard to believe I'm in Beijing.  Except for a few key landmarks (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Chinese people) it hardly seems at all like the same city I visited two years ago.  The whole populous has been taught manners.  Spitting in public has largely been eliminated.  Drivers now (for the most part) obey red lights (though bicycle riders are still exempt from traffic rules.)  The sounds and smells of demolition and construction are everywhere.  It's at the same time encouraging and scary to see that a city can change this much in so little time.

What's driving this drastic change, you ask (because you have been vacationing in a cave on Pluto for the past seven years)?  The Olympics are coming!  The Olympics are coming!  ("One World, One Dream,"  is the slogan.  Not to be confused with the "One China" or "One Child" policies.) To say that this city has Olympic fever would be like saying that Derek Jeter is an okay baseball player.

The effort to improve Beijing for the Olympics is so comprehensive, it goes beyond the construction of sporting venues, athlete housing, and better public transportation.  Since I was here in 2005, thousands of trees have been planted in an effort to clean up the air (Beijing is the 3rd most polluted city in the world.  The 1st and 2nd place honors in that category also go to China.) Unfortunately, the trees have not yet had their full effect, as the air is heavy with smog and the sky is a permanent, murky, eggshell color.  When the sun is really working hard, like it was this morning, the sky turns a faint, milky, blue, but that's a rare treat.  Most of the time you can't see the sun.  On nicer evenings, it hangs on the horizon as a blurry, red ball.  The newly-planted foliage, however, provides a nice contrast to the pollution and I hope the greenery will take effect soon.

One clean-up effort that has taken effect is the Chinese government's War on Bad Manners.  In the past, Beijingers had a reputation for being rude, pushy, impatient in line, and prone to public displays of bodily fluids (mostly spitting and letting children relieve themselves in the streets.)  When I was here in 2005, sidewalks were polka-dotted with goobery wads of phlegm and other bodily treats.  No more.  This time, I have only witnessed one public spitting and no incidents of public urination, etc. 

And then there's customer service.  Last time I was here, customer service was nothing to write home about.  But this time, when I arrived at the airport, I knew something was different when the booth where the Immigration official that checked my passport was sitting had a little panel with four buttons.  The first button said, "I am very satisfied."  The second said, "I am satisfied."  The third: "Checking time was too long."  The fourth: "He has a bad attitude."  When the Immigration official had stamped my passport, he directed me to the buttons so that I could give him his grade.  Shocked by this, I, of course, pushed, "I am very satisfied."

Let's see...a couple of other things to note at this time.  My youth hostel is Spartan but very clean.  I have my own room with no windows but free television.  The TV has about 60 channels, 20 of them are the state-run Chinese Central Television (CCTV).  The bed is a wooden platform with a 1-inch thick pad on it, but I have learned to love sleeping on this kind of bed.  Believe it or not, I always sleep great in China, and that's not just because of jet lag.

There are only two things I can complain about here in the youth hostel: 1) no toilet paper, but  I have learned to always carry my own (when in China, always, always, always BYOTP), and 2) they allow smoking indoors.  This is not just my youth hostel, of course.  China, as a country-wide policy, seems to encourage smoking in public places.  Having pampered my lungs in smoke-free California, New York, and New Jersey for the past two years, I have now become an absolute pansy-wuss-Nancy when it comes to second-hand cigarette smoke.  I really can't stand it at all, especially when I'm eating.  Finding a smoke-free restaurant in Beijing is nearly impossible, and the best you can hope for is a less smoky restaurant and to sit by the door or near a fan.

The only other funny thing to note at this time is that more than one Beijinger has told me that I speak Chinese with a southern accent.  This must be because I learned Mandarin in Taiwan and Hangzhou, which is a southern city.  To them, I sound like the equivalent of a Chinese person in New York speaking English with a Tennessee drawl.  Hey, as long as they can't pick up my American accent, I've accomplished more than I had ever hoped for.

Well, I've gotta go.  There's a special on CCTV on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People's Liberation Army that I don't want to miss.  You'll hear more from me soon.  Take care of North America for me.

Ciao, ciao,
Ingrid, a.k.a. Lin Yinyin
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