Thursday, June 4, 2009

What a difference 21 years makes

The impressive modernist airport terminal by which I arrived in Beijing is the third new airport terminal at which I’ve arrived in Beijing over the years. (I have also arrived in two different Shanghai airports, Hongqiao and Pudong, but that’s another story.) My first trip to China was in the summer of 1988, and we flew into the Capital Airport Terminal 1, which at the time was the only terminal, built in 1980 to replace the original 1958 building. It was hydra- like in design, with round, podlike arrival/departure halls connected to the main terminal by stemlike hallways. Departure gates budded off from the pods all round their circumference. The floors were laid in abstract patterns of dull yellow terrazzo, and all the seats were futuristic molded plastic shells, bolted to the floor. It was a
vaguely ‘50s-futurist design, clearly Cold War in its origins: Soviet central planning meets the Jetsons. It’s now principally famous as the location of the Yuan Yunsheng mural “The Water-Splashing Festival” (1979), a landmark work in the development of contemporary Chinese art, noteworthy both for its use of ethnic-minority themes and for its depiction of female nudes.

When I arrived in China for a year of dissertation work in September
2001 (which turned out to be a very strange year to be an expatriate), I flew into Terminal 2, which was dedicated for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1999. It is spacious and clean and has a pleasingly modernist waveform roof. At the time I thought it was quite modern-looking, but it’s been completely outclassed by Terminal 3, where I arrived this week. Terminal 3 is apparently as big as all the terminals at Heathrow put together, and then some. It’s so enormous that getting to the baggage claim involved trains. I had no ability to assess its size overall, arriving as I did in the late evening and after twelve hours of travel, but my lasting impression is of glinting steel and acres of glass, and one memorably clean bathroom, where even the squat-style toilet smelled like roses.

Before I left, I was running around getting things I would need for the trip. After 21 years I am a fairly seasoned China traveller, but at one point Rex turned to me and said “You know, you’ll be able to find whatever you need in Beijing. It’s an international capital now.” And he was right. Unlike in the past, there are plenty of things that are now just as available here as they are in the US, and given where I live, sometimes more available. The cost, too, is now often more or less the same, though the flip side is that, unlike in the past, the quality is also often very high. As a largish Westerner, I find that clothing in my size is still unavailable - I had to buy a men’s belt recently when I needed one for the pants I bought just before coming here - but otherwise, post-Olympics Beijing is really another world. I was perhaps unnecessarily boggled to discover, for example, that the Beijing Subway, in operation since 1969, now finally goes to the airport. A brief list of the things I have arranged since arriving here, all with a minimum of fuss:

Local cellphone number
Local university ID
Library card
Cafeteria stored-value card
Bus/Subway stored-value card

These are all things that in an earlier China - and not necessarily much earlier, maybe something like 2001 - could potentially have demanded the negotiation of snarling bureaucracies and sullen service workers. Each of them now simply requires the appropriate service charge, and occasionally some form of ID; and in most cases the people I dealt with were unfailingly helpful.

Other things have changed since I was first here, but they have as much to do with the fact that I’m not 16 any more as with changes in the country itself. Westerners usually look older than they actually are to Chinese viewers, so I look forty-plus to most people; if I hadn’t just colored the white out of my hair, I would probably look fifty to them. My fashion sense, such as it is, was never particularly Chinese: never girly enough (and I can’t bear to wear the shoes many Chinese women wear, especially in the searing heat of a Beijing summer) and usually too casual. I’ve brought a few skirts and tops which probably look age-appropriate to the Chinese viewer, and also a few pairs of capris, which ditto; but on days when I’m just going to the library (like today), I might wear shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers, which is both overly youthful and somewhat masculine in the Chinese context. My Tevas are totally unredeemable - I hadn’t planned to wear them in Beijing, but I went out to a Buddhist temple in the suburbs on Sunday in an effort to stave off jet lag, and the resulting blisters have meant I’ve had to wear them. And my haircut, which I normally think of as a rather smart bob, is more common among middle-aged women than among young ones here - perhaps a legacy of its use in the 1970s - while my natural wave makes it look like I have a perm, which is also more commonly a middle-aged thing to do (since the 1980s). If I were a vainer person, some of this might bother me, but fortunately I did learn at some point to pick and choose which misconceptions about me need to be untangled and which don’t.

Of the many things I’ve learned in my life, one of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that I am well and truly bilingual. Recently I haven’t spoken much Chinese and I had started to worry that I was forgetting it, but it turns out I wasn’t; it’s still right there, Beijing accent and all. I do keep adding vocabulary (recently, the distinction between “SIM card” and “added-value card” for cellphones) but have not lost my ability to occasionally fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker over the phone (inconvenient in cases where a Chinese citizen’s national identity card number is called for, and I have to explain the whole passport thing). One of the things that I first loved about being in China, back in 1988 when I’d only studied 3 years of Chinese, was the way in which my ability to speak (and my enthusiasm for speaking Chinese, which, at the time, was the greater of the two) endeared me to Chinese people I interacted with, from bus conductors to lunch ladies. In 1988 this had at least something to do with the rarity of foreigners speaking Chinese at all. The first public bus I ever took on my own was in Beijing, from Minzu Gong to the shopping street Wangfujing (about five stops along Chang’an Dajie, the biggest, straightest street in the capital). Having grown up in the total absence of public transportation, I didn’t realize that the return bus would run along the other side of the street. When I got on going the wrong way, at the same stop where I’d just gotten off, the bus conductor just laughed and pointed me in the right direction. Later I realized that a tourist from the provinces would probably have gotten an earful of abuse instead of laughter.

It’s no longer rare or even really remarkable for a foreigner to speak Chinese, now that we have Da Shan, a Canadian who’s made a career as a public personality in China out of his ability to speak idiomatic Chinese and, in particular, to perform xiangsheng or “crosstalk,” a traditional two-man stand-up comedy routine conducted at rapid-fire speed and depending broadly on punning and other linguistic twists for its punchlines. One of the most annoying things you could say to a Chinese-speaking foreigner, for a while there, was “You sound just like Da Shan.” Nobody’s said it to me yet this round, which suggests that he’s no longer the standard by which Chinese fluency is judged, and just as well, too, if you ask me. But the truth is that to speak Chinese unaccented and idiomatically is still considered remarkable,
and people want to talk to you - just talk to you - because of it.

After a particularly punishing school year, I’ve needed to be drawn out of my shell a bit, and it turns out that it’s cashiers and newsstand attendants who are doing it, little by little, and with the robust cheerfulness that is characteristic of so many Beijingers. But some people working these service jobs are quite young, and one thing that’s happening now, that’s never happened before, is that when they ask me how long I’ve been speaking Chinese, the answer (24 years) makes them exclaim “You’ve been speaking Chinese longer than I
have!” And, strangely enough, it’s true.

1 comment:

Melinda Hsu Taylor said...

I'm really enjoying your travels! Especially since going east of La Cienega Blvd. counts as a significant excursion for me these days.