Waiting in Beijing

Just when I was beginning to believe the worst of Beijing’s weather had passed, the skies opened up tonight and let loose a torrent of wet, slippery snow, bringing the streets to a semi-standstill and causing general chaos. I had gone to a part of town I’m not very familiar with, a diplomatic compound, to audition for a classical music chorus, and when I stepped outside I knew I was in for it. Sure enough, I had to wait about 30 freezing minutes at the Scitech Plaza as mobs fought for the next taxi. Lines here are always an interesting experience, if by chance a line should form at all. Usually it’s just anarchy as tai-tais cut in front of you and push their way to the approaching cab. Finally I just resigned myself to the fact that if I didn’t adopt the same attitude, if I didn’t claw and fight and push, I’d never get home. These are the moments when I get kind of scared: Will I be the same person when I get home (to America)? Will I by osmosis pick up these Darwinistic tendencies to always struggle and survive, to get into that taxi at any cost? I’ve noticed how by necessity I have certainly become more aggressive since moving here and sometimes I have to check myself (not holding doors open for people, pushing to get a seat in the subway). Nice guys always finish last in Beijing. Chivalry offers no rewards, only puzzled looks. I know, we are different cultures with different mindsets, and what seems so natural for one might seem an utter mystery to the other. So I guess I should just adapt to my environment and claw and fight and push….

I’ve had some interesting conversations about this type of experience with my Chinese colleagues. No one is more critical of the Chinese than the Chinese, and this younger generation is acutely aware of what they see (I repeat, what they see) as a lack of sophistication among their parents’ generation. One of them told me the Cultural Revolution is to a large extent responsible, having deprived an entire generation of true education and culture. An older man works in my office cutting out stories from newspapers, and colleagues have come up to me to apologize when he clears his throat with a deep gutteral snort and then spits loudly into his wastebasket. I tell them it’s no problem, that I know people have their own habits — but these young people are definitely embarrased, and make it clear that they intend to exhibit a different set of social skills and habits than their predecessors, for better of for worse.

Chun Jie — Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year — starts in just 10 days. I couldn’t get a flight anywhere because I waited too long but am on waiting lists for flights to HK and Taiwan. As with so many other big cities, it’s important to get out of Beijing every once in a while. I just want to go somewhere warm, somewhere quiet and relaxing. Somewhere without snow. I never want to see snow again.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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