Saturday, April 12, 2008

One Year On

It's a year since I landed at Beijing Capital International Airport and wondering if I was prepared to tackle living in this city.

I haven't regretted the move and it's been an experience to say the least.

My biggest concern was language as I was rusty around the edges and it really was a problem at the beginning. Taxi drivers didn't understand what I was saying, and I had no sense of geography so I couldn't even direct them to my apartment. But with an air of confidence, an authoritative tone has helped along with recognizing landmarks.

Small errands were huge obstacles that took a 180-degree turn in mindset to accept. The concept of having to buy electricity and gas before using them was bizarre to me, as well as adding money to my cellphone instead of paying monthly bills.

At first it was a frustrating and stressful chore, but now I have figured out how to pay for things at a machine at the bank and know where to buy phone cards to input money into my cellphone.

And in the last few months I've shed my dependence on the taxi and try to take buses or subways as much as possible. Having a public transit card makes it not only easy but also cheap to get around even if it's just one bus stop away. It's a great way to get to know the city and get a big picture of where everything is. At times things seem so close, and others, very far away.

In some respects what I've noted above are monumentous achievements for an expat in Beijing. While I'm getting more used to the city, many things still bother me.

I still can't understand why people have to spit wherever they happen to be. The other day I noticed someone had spit on the floor of the elevator of my building. Why do people do this? Also seeing people mindlessly littering riles me up as well. Isn't Beijing supposed to be a "green" city and isn't the municipal government trying to get people to keep the city clean?

While I love Peking Duck and have found an excellent restaurant (Da Dong Roast Restaurant), I'm not crazy about the way food is cooked in Beijing. Dishes are covered in oil, very salty and at times very spicy. When you tell wait staff to tell the cooks to use less oil, the plate still has a generous film of oil on it.

Smoking everywhere is something that's hard to avoid. The Chinese government has a very big hand in the tobacco industry and isn't urging its people to quit even though medical costs are higher than keeping people healthy. I wonder if showing people blackened lungs are enough to freak people into cold turkey. But somehow I think they'd just shrug their shoulders and continue puffing away.

The city is a sprawling metropolis, parts of it very slick, modern-looking and hip, others extremely run down, poor and dirty. Beijing is so spread out, logistically it takes longer to get from A to B than you think. Traffic jams during rush hour are chronic and full of cars with one person in them.

That said, there are certain charms of the city that you'd never find anywhere else. Beijingers, men and women, are very chatty and on the whole hospitable. Once I had a frustrating time trying to put money onto my electricity card at the bank, when an older couple gave me directions to another one.

The city is full of history, from the emperors who lived at the Forbidden City, to Tiananmen Square, the residences of Madame Song Qingling, Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang, and writer Lu Xun, and the Lama Temple.

When I manage to take public transport from A to B without any hassles or manage to locate a restaurant on my own, it's a great sense of achievement. Or even just being able to understand someone's directions, especially on the phone is also quite amazing.

There are some culinary gems here, many located in traditional courtyard houses offering unique Chinese dishes in a relaxed and even quiet setting. The price of eating out too is so inexpensive you can eat like royalty on a budget.

People who come to China are armed with expertise, excitement and energy, ready to make their contribution to the developing country. But in the end it's China that changes us. It's such an overwhelming place, so many people, so many things going on, that we're all swept up into the system as it were.

Chinese people's mind set is so ingrained in doing things the way they have always done them, so change is a huge mind shift for them. It can only be done incrementally, through diplomatic prodding than dragging, kicking and screaming. Where I'm working I had hoped to create lots of changes, but most people weren't interested and in the end I've only managed to help a handful of colleagues improve.

One rewarding thing is having gained the trust of some of my coworkers and having them come to me for help or advice on their young careers. One has even confided in me about her fears and boyfriend problems.

At the same time I've had to learn to be very tactful in conversations, picking the right time and place to discuss certain things and being extremely patient. I'm still working on the patience part. Sometimes the Chinese are very short sighted, other times look at the big picture -- not just taking into account their own lifespan, but those of their future progeny and generations.

I'm so glad to be here to witness all of this and see changes in myself at the same time. It certainly hasn't been easy, but it's made my life experience all the more interesting for it.


mh said...

Congratulations on your one year, you've captured it so well in your blog. I notice the huge turn around in your attitudes from the beginning and up to now.

Your perseverance and patience has definitely paid off, keep it up. I love your insights.

ks said...

great , you have fit yourself in. human beings are on top of the evolutionary tree. carry on.