30 September 2007

Pleasanty surprise of groping!

The American embassy in Beijing is a walled fortress. To approach, you first wade through the throngs of Chinese people lining up to apply for an U. S. visa. You then meet with a guard who, after checking your American passport, lets you through a turnstile, where you shortly encounter a second guard who goes through your documents again, and you find yourself in a magnetically locked room where your belongings are scanned (and water, sharp objects, and cameras confiscated), after which you walk through a metal detector. After emerging from this you are greeted by a Starbucks, and then a US marine who again checks your ID one last time before you are let into a little room for services to American citizens.

I would have liked to make fun of this attempt at isolation, but honestly it was the first time I could hear myself think since we arrived in China. It was a bit of a relief. Being in China is like standing in Times Square on New Year's Eve, only worse if you look the least bit foreign. Touts shouting "Hallo sir, come come!" while thrusting their wares in your face (kites, electric tops that lit up like a disco ball when you spun them, socks). In buses, loud karaoke music blares, with different music depending on if you are to the right or the left of the aisle. And then there is the almost orgasmic satisfaction the older folks take in announcing their bodily functions, whether it be coughing, spitting, or performing that farmer's blow. In preparation for the 2008 Olypics in Beijing there is an honest attempt to clean up and gentrify, but it is only a thin veneer that is easily scratched away. Witness: The Forbidden City has been garishly touched up, with some buildings patched and painted so that the roofs appear brand new, yet the interiors are in horrific condition, with the smell of dirty underwear emanating from the main throne room. Or the railway, with steel tracks perched on concrete blocks, yet an antiquated system of boarding the train that involves lining up 1 hour early in order to punch, scratch, and kick your way past a ticket checker so that you can get onto the platform. We sorely miss Western efficiency where "no problem" really means things will be done, like buying a train ticket or posting a package. Instead, we have slowly become obsessive compulsive as we double then triple check the money we get from a money changer, tickets that we buy from a travel agent, and room reservations. It is hard to adjust to living with a sense of vagueness, with not knowing whether or not things that we would have taken for granted back home would actually happen here. Everything is fluid, whether it be prices, promises, or schedules. It is with this and the constant assault on the senses that we have experienced the most culture shock, and made us miss the good old U.S. of A.

And the Chinglish. Oh, the Chinglish. "Slipy Carefully" behind the toilet in our bathroom. "Please for attention. Be careful don't dropet" in a touristy spot. And then our favorite. At the big 3.3 mall in the Sanlitun area in Beijing, underneath a picture of a model dressed to the nines, was the phrase, "Pleasanty surprise of groping."

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