Friday, July 15, 2011

Exploration



I was completely in awe at the expansive growth of China since my last visit 5 years ago. Jen's apartment and office were between the 4th and 5th Ring Roads, not far from the Olympic Village. This area, previously undeveloped, is now a densely populated residential area. My goal for the morning was to buy a city map and SIM card. I walked the main street for several miles with no bookstore, coffee shop, or department store in sight. Feeling somewhat sticky and warm, I returned to her apartment and decided that if I was to go anywhere in the next few days, I needed to learn the local bus system. Although somewhat intimidated by the thought of ending up in the wrong place, I was determined that if Jen could figure this out in the few days she had been there, I should be able to as well. Over and over, I read the Lonely Planet guide, subway map, and map of Beijing before venturing out. The bus schedule required deciphering but I managed to find the correct bus that connected me to the subway, which took me to the Sanlitan area, embassy row which had modern shops and a huge outdoor mall boasting names like Adidas, Starbucks and yes, even an Apple store. Feeling quite empowered in having reached my destination without difficulty, I walked the streets and the mall, losing myself among the crowds of black haired people. On previous visits, local residents pointed me out as a foreigner on first sight. With the westernization of China, I was told this time, that unless I spoke, I resembled every other local Chinese person. What was it, I wondered, that made me different in the past - my clothing, mannerisms, facial features?



Children were playing in the spouting water midway in the mall with a backdrop of a huge LCD screen showing advertisements and music videos. The Apple store was packed with young people playing with ipads and iphones. Downstairs was a large supermarket with recognizable American and European products, and neatly displayed fruits and vegetables. After work, young people flowed into the mall like SF after the July 4th fireworks. This was apparently, the happening place to be.

I arranged to meet Jen here after work and the two of us found a nice restaurant to eat in, then went in search of a club playing live music, so described in the Lonely Planet. The small bar, it turned out, was filled with punk looking kids listening to heavy metal and thus we moved on to walk the streets, ending up in the Hutong area of Beijing. This converted hutong was also packed with young people out for a cheaper form of entertainment than Sanlitun on a Friday evening, looking in the gift shops, eating yogurt, and other snacks. We laughed at all the girls wearing small bunny ears on their heads, which were being sold by vendors on the sidewalks. We walked and walked and walked and the hutong winded on for probably a mile.

Beijing is densely populated and I often felt like an ant moving orderly with a flowing mass of ants, indistinguishable from the others. Is that what we look like from above, I thought? At the subway station, we wait en masse, the door opens and a few manage to squeeze in. Like ants, sometimes others are left waiting for the next opening. Body to body we stand. I don't know the person next to me but we share skin to skin contact. Across from me is a blond haired foreigner to whom I feel a bond, yet to her, I am like one with the other Chinese faces on the subway. I feel a loss of identity; I am unknown among the crowds and from all appearances, the same as everyone else. I realize there are millions like me out there and my life suddently feels somewhat expendable.

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