Saturday, July 12, 2008

Culture - it's a shocker.

I have to say, there’s been a little bit of culture shock. It’s weird because that sort of thing never really bothered me before. And it’s not like I haven’t been in situations of extreme cultural differences before – it’s just not gotten to me the way life in Beijing has. I’ve always been able to brush it aside and use my excitement for exploration to get over it.

Maybe it’s because I’ll be here for a full two months. Maybe it’s because the language is so difficult to navigate and I feel completely lost, linguistically. Whatever it is, it had be down for the first couple of days.

The funk settled in like a thick layer of the city’s infamous smog, which, by the way, exists in full force. What little of Beijing I’ve seen is, quite frankly, very ugly and full of concrete buildings and massive, Communist-era structures. These intimidating skyscrapers are everywhere.

The skyline’s uninviting demeanor isn’t exactly improved by the thickly settled pollution, either. This stuff is just as bad as advertised. It’s like the weather is continually foggy, yet strangely bright, all around here. You can’t help but feel sluggish as you struggle through the pollution’s pea soup.

I’ve seen the sun twice since I’ve gotten here. The other day, at 1pm, it towered high above Tiananmen Square, burning bright and yellow. But it was just a glimpse and then it disappeared, blocked out by the thick clouds that jostled each other for position over the city. Then, later that night, I saw it again before it set… a burning, red orb angered at being pushed aside and forgotten.

I’ve heard that people my age, who have never left Beijing, have seen fewer blue skies than they can count on their hands.

The most noticeable feature of the city’s skyline are the towering, skeletal outlines of massive cranes. There is a huge amount of construction underway in Beijing and these tools are literally everywhere. They are specters overlooking the birth street-and-concrete offspring - new buildings, bringing new life to a Beijing that’s evolving on a daily basis.
They should be the image of rejuvenation. And yet, I haven’t been able to shake off the ominous prickling up the back of my spine when I see them rising from the mists, looking ready to devour the young they helped create.

Yeah, you could say that I’ve been in a funk.

A little bit of culture shock is a standard part of travel. Strange faces, strange faces and strange foods can overwhelm, but for me, that was always the most exciting part. It was the reason I traveled in the first place. I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to see new things, I wanted my comfort zone to melt away.

But during my first two days here, I didn’t want any of that. As I looked around at what I perceived to be a despairing city, lost in in a sea of 17 million fast-paced, hard-charging citizens, I felt lost.

(An aside: very few people wait in lines here – there’s a whole lot of cutting and jostling while at cafeterias or waiting for the subway)

I felt lost and insignificant. What was I doing here? I still had two months to go… could I cut it? For fleeting moments, when thinking about home and Sonja, I wanted to leave Beijing. And I’d barely even gotten here.

It’s funny, sometimes, how life works. One minute, you can be completely lost (in my case, in China, struggling to be understood and to understand) and then a seemingly inconsequential act can give you a ray of hope that pierces the clouds like a bright beacon.

For me, it came at a subway station ticket machine. Rush hour in downtown Beijing and literally thousands of commuters were pouring past me through turnstiles and herding themselves towards the trains. I stood there with the whirlwind whipping around me, trying to work the touchscreen and buy a ticket back to home campus.

Even though there were English directions, I couldn’t figure out exactly how to work it to purchase a ticket. Every time I searched for my destination on the map and tried to put in my money, the machine either timed out or spit out my bill. Over and over and over, I got rejected. Looking around, there wasn’t a station attendant in sight or a counter where I could bypass the dysfunctional computer station.

Right when I was about to give up, there came a small tap-tap-tap on my left shoulder. I turned around to see three teenagers, smiling w/ gapped, yellow teeth. The tallest one, his unruly hair sticking out at every angle and dressed in a t-shirt two sizes too large, motioned to me and then to the machine.

I thought he wanted to use it and had gotten impatient with the befuddled American (wei guy ren) in front of him. He just wanted me to get out the way right? Wrong. Quietly, he punched three keys on the screen. His friends stood there smiling as he motioned for me to put money into the feeder. I slid a 10 yuan note in, the machine took it this time and then it spit out a ticket.

The three kids, all of whom were about 10 years younger than me, and I never exchanged a word of English. But they came to my rescue no matter what the language barrier. I quickly grabbed my ticket and change, thanked them repeatedly (in Mandarin – one of the few things I know how to say) and then hurried off to catch the next train.

It was an inconsequential moment, really – the whole thing took less than 15 seconds – but to me, it mean quite a lot. A ragtag group of teens had seen me struggling to get through a simple transaction, saw I couldn’t do it on my own and stepped in to help a complete stranger.

I boarded the train, pressed in on all sides by a crush of humanity, and thought, “Maybe I can make it after all.”

Two days later, not coincidentally, I woke up to blue skies and bright sunlight with mere wisps of clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful summer day in Beijing.

I’m still here.

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