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Rice, chili pepper and green hat: 7 years in Beijing

In 2010, after graduating from high school in a Russian border city, I went to continue my education in the capital of China. I did not have a solid plan or clear intentions for my life in Beijing. All I wanted to do was to take pictures, skate and explore the new city.

A few months after arrival I seem to have already visited all parts of the capital, as if it was important for me to see and explore all corners of the big city. Despite the notorious problem with air pollution, in good weather Beijing looked vivid and attracted the eye with its combination of traditional and modern. Something was always happening and changing in the city, whole areas were transferred to another locations, and entire streets were reconstructed in a week. Nonetheless, the main thing remained unchanged – Beijing always maintained its unique style in everything, starting from the local speech to the hangouts of expats. The city had kept me hooked with the number of hidden, secret places that never ended. And just like that, without really noticing it, I ended up living in Beijing for the next seven years

A look at the city. Hutongs

Comparing Beijing with other big cities in China before moving there, the capital stood out to me with how it looked. After the 2008 Olympics, the city was clean and neat, with lots of green zones and epic monuments.

Beijing city has a form of a circle. Its heart – The Forbidden City, emperors’ palace – is located in the very middle, and the city grew outwards from it. Beijing is well spread out and consists of different zones and areas. For example, while you can buy a pair of nice shoes for no price almost next door, you might need to take a couple of buses and ride for an hour or two to buy a lamp. One zone for painting supplies, another zone for furniture. Some parts of town are all tall shiny steel-glass buildings, while there are blocks with only pastel colored residential apartments and concrete grey traditional areas.

Good number of palace estates in the city emphasize the distinct feeling of imperial times. The traditional North Chinese dwellings, called hutongs, also preserve the sense of history. Hutongs are small houses with no more than 2-3 floors, the city’s middle part is where you would see them. The contrast between the modern part and the hutongs is one of the main characteristics of Beijing. It is the hutong district where the habits and quirks of the locals seem to have their roots in.
When describing the central area, it is hard not to compare hutongs to an endless labyrinth. Seems like the whole old city was built without any architectural plan. Every house seems to be designed individually, and sometimes it takes the most unusual forms. Lux and poverty, narrow passages and wide backyards, filth and beauty, there are contrasts in everything.

While most of modern Beijingers would rather live in a freshly built compounds, many expats choose to live in hutongs instead. The reasons for that are convenient location, affordable rent prices and probably the whole peculiar essence of the area. In this traditional architecture area, one can find a deeply foreign, often European, infrastructure: restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, discount stores, clubs, bars, hipster coffee houses and art spaces. There are a lot of places of unique format there, such as a bar with old Nintendos (8 bit), a hair salon-art gallery (Aotu), a private tiny cinema (Camera Stylo), etc. Many of such places are made in a Western/European manner, but they fit very well in the Hutongs, and are also valued by progressive local Chinese. And, of course, cherished by the local expats living nearby.

Outside the city center, separated by a ring road, is the modern part of the city. It is full of high-rise buildings, business centers and wide roads with busy traffic. Everything seems more comfortable and neat there. The appearance of the areas varies depending on the part of the city: the south was built earlier, so now it looks older than the north. Skyscrapers, offices of large Chinese companies, luxurious malls and business centers are mostly located in the east. The western part has many government buildings, the financial street, the TV tower and other objects important to the city as well as the country as a whole. The north has most of the city’s universities. The Olympic stadiums and some of the main parks are also in there.

The modern part of Beijing is full of brightly lit shopping malls. Every evening crowds of people, mostly the older generation, meet at the squares in front of the malls for leisure. Like in a festival many things happen there, but there is always singing and group dancing. The modern, open part of the city is more suitable for such gatherings than the narrow hutong alleys.

“Chifan” – to eat food

Many aspects of life are different in China for those who come from other places. But one of the vital issues for a foreigner is dining. And probably most of expats who spent a couple of years in China have a list of safe places to eat. By “safe” I mean not spicy.

However, Chinese people are very proud of their cuisine. For many Chinese, “chifan” (eating) is a key topic for conversation and something of a cult in the good sense of the word. And they really have something to be proud of. We say “Chinese food”, but for them there is the separate cuisine of Northeastern China, Southern, Sichuan, Xinjiang, etc. Almost every province has its own cuisine and its own extensive set of dishes.

Yet, the cuisines are and are not diverse at the same time. With all the variety of dishes, most of them are spicy. Often, the food can be unusual and even strange. I’m talking about things like duck blood tofu, cartilage barbecue or fried bugs. Still, there certainly are lots of dishes more familiar to a European, made of vegetables and common types of meat. One can eat ordinary Chinese food every day and it will take a long time before the safe list ends. But sooner or later any expat wants to eat something more home-like, and there things get complicated.

With all the variety of local food, the foreign food is something of a luxury. Although there is a lot of Japanese cuisine, Korean barbecue spots where you cook for yourself, spicy versions of Thai and Vietnamese food, yet the cuisines of other countries are much less common. Often, these are either expensive places that are not worth their money, or places open by foreigners. The latter pretty much can be called hidden gems. They are small, usually located in the depths of the city. Most of the time one can only learn about them either by chance or by someone else’s recommendation.

The list I’ve put together during the 7 years includes both Chinese and foreign cuisine. While anyone can find a good Peking duck, not everyone can easily find dishes of Hutong style (七寻八找), great Yunnan food (Aimo town), a famous eatery of Sichuan cuisine (张妈妈), the best Japanese teriyaki and curry in the city (Suzuki kitchen) and excellent burgers in a craft brewery (Great Leap Brewery).

Air pollution

Every year in Beijing, from 2010 on, the air pollution was getting worse and worse. It looks like I experienced the worst years of the smog in the capital of China so far. The peak, when everything became really bad was in the winter of 2015. August and December where usually the most polluted months, when the city plunged into eternal dullness and gloom. In the days of worst pollution it felt like inside the strongest fog, things were visible only few meters ahead. But it was not moisture and water, but dust and dirt.

There are several reasons for the smog in Beijing. First of all, it is the geographical location. The city stands between two mountains that prevent winds which could blow off the smog. Then, the big amount of cars and factories produce exhaust gases that pollutes the air on the ground. But the most significant reason is emissions from coal-fired power plants. It is because of that the pollution is stronger in winter, when a drop in temperature leads to a growth of demand for electricity. In winter, more families turn on the heaters, so more energy is needed from coal-fired power plants. The coal, burnt by the power plants, then turns into tiny particles of charred dust which after that spreads into the air. And because the mountains do not allow the winds to blow, this dust stays above the city, creating a thick-layered bubble and keeping all the dust, as well as the exhaust gasses within it.

When the pollution is on its peak, everything on the streets looks joyless and surreal. Everyone has fabric masks of different kinds on their faces. But there are also those who have more serious protection. I still remember clearly one scene from my memories. A family, getting out of a supermarket: a father, a mother and their son. Seems like they just came out of a supermarket – the dad carries a plastic bag full of groceries in his hands. They hold hands and walk while wearing big alien invasion style masks on their faces, the ones with a big protective screen and two cylindrical filters. It looked extreme, even for Beijing, yet everything around was dimmed-dull-muddy-grey color, so it wasn’t too comical neither.

At some point, when it became impossible to ignore the smog, the Chinese government acknowledged the problem and took action. Today, things are starting to look better and it seems that there are improvements. The number of polluted days has decreased in 2017 and 2018, and the people of Beijing feel that the situation is gradually getting better. Hopefully, the critical point of air pollution in Beijing is in the past for good.

Notes, habits and peculiarities

Want it or not, odd things usually happen to anyone who moves to China. The reason is, of course, the difference in culture. Each country has its own stereotypes, prejudices, habits and special moments, and it is impossible to learn them in advance. Therefore, any newcomer has to get acquainted with them on the go. So did I.

That’s how I learnt that wearing a green hat in China is not really a good idea. It means that your beloved one is cheating on you. I realized that something was wrong when people were pointing at me twice more than usual. And when people started taking close up photos of my head, I decided that it would probably be easier to buy a new hat of a different color.

Another thing I noticed when just came to town was that there were many strange people on the streets: some walked backwards, others passionately clapped their hands as they strolled. There were also people who did a weird exercise of smashing their backs against trees, like a metronome. All that looked like very weird, so as soon as I made my first Chinese friends, I asked them what was up with that. It turned out that walking backwards helps to open the third eye, or, in other words, trains the balance. As for clapping hands and hitting tree, it helps blood circulation.

The sense of etiquette is also very different in China. Basically, you can do anything you want and look any way you want on the streets – if you are a foreigner you will be looked at anyway. There aren’t too many don’ts in China. There are signs of a bad taste though. Like, for example, is to stick chopsticks in the rice vertically. It is a ritual sign, an offering of food to passed away. Using chopsticks as drumsticks is also not a good idea. I haven’t seen people getting in trouble for that though, it’s just frowned upon. But it might be more helpful to mention some things that are NOT signs of a bad taste. Like to refuse having a drink with somebody. That kind of offers come quite often and not every time you might feel like going for it. The people who offer can sometimes be very persuasive, and even directly say that they will be offended. In such situations, usually they just really want to talk with a foreigner, and they can try to achieve it quite aggressively. Saying no politely and consistently normally resolves the situation.

Most of people in the city are originally from other provinces, so it’s not too easy to meet actual Beijingers in Beijing. However, the natives can be distinguished from the rest by their pronunciation. People of Beijing has developed their own dialect, which at first doesn’t seem much different from the standard Mandarin. The difference is the addition of one sound – “er” – at the end of some words. However, the born-Beijingers can use this small dissimilarity in a way that changes the meaning, so words that you might already know become unknown again. Feels like almost all of what they say is some local slang full of “er”-ending words and the whole conversation goes past you. Though, when they explain the meaning of some words, it becomes clear that it is something very cool and full of history. Yet, not the easiest for direct understanding.

One strange advice I received from a Chinese friend of mine in one of my first months in Beijing. He told me that if I see an old person lying on the ground somewhere, I should not help him, take him to a hospital or wait for an ambulance after a call. And in response to my totally confused face, he explained about some cases in which old people accused the person who came to their aid and made him pay for their treatment in a hospital. Luckily, I have never come across any people lying on the street like that, and never had to make that choice.

Despite such warning, I can say that the Chinese people in general are very united, friendly and sociable. They are always ready to help, sometimes even when you do not ask for help. I can say that living in China feels safe. People are more often friendly than otherwise. And you can feel it in their actions, rather than a part of an etiquette.

Some of the things said here about Beijing can describe China in general. But not all the things. Same as Beijing dialect – at first it seems that it is not much different from the standard Mandarin. But over time it becomes clear that such judgment is not correct, and that their dialect is not like anything else, same as the city.