The kindness of strangers.
There is kindness in the big city of Bejiing.
Some years ago there was an episode of the radio show This American Life, which related the stories of four visitors to New York, a city that most people consider the least kind city in America. In one segment of the show, Brett Leveridge was standing at a subway station.. A guy comes walking down the platform, stopping in front of each passenger and delivering a quiet verdict: "You're in. You're out. You, you can stay. You — gotta go." Most people ignored the guy. But Brett found himself, against his will, hoping the guy would give him the thumbs up, and when the guy does, it's thrilling in a very small way: a tiny kindness from a stranger.
After a week of often surly officiousness of police and government officials, I was like Brett Leveridge, hoping that when I arrived in Bejiing, I wouldn’t be told that I gotta go. After all, I was traveling in an authoritarian country without a passport and just an official-looking piece of paper that was supposed to give me passage and approval to stay in other cities, but I wasn’t too confident that it would work.
And actually at first it didn’t. There was no problem at the beautiful new Shezhen airport. I made it onto the plane without a hitch. But when I arrived in Bejiing, and found my way to the hotel at which I had made reservations through Expedia, my concerns were realized. The hotel clerk’s English wasn’t great, and she didn’t know what to do with the official paper I was carrying, and so with a smile she promptly marched me over to the local police station. As in every other police station I had visited---this was number 5---there were a bunch of people sitting behind desks, glued to their cell phones. The man in charge seemed annoyed when he was interrupted from a video he was watching, and after a bit of scowling, unpleasant-sounding discussion with my hotel clerk and others, he gave the paper back to her. She seemed embarrassed to tell me that I would not be able to stay in the hotel, and that I would have to go to the American embassy. I responded that the American embassy would already be closed, and reminded her that my document said I had permission to stay in any city in China. She smiled again, and said she was sorry.
That’s when the kindness of strangers began. We returned to the hotel, and per my suggestion, she found the address of an American hotel chain—Holiday Inn!---and within moments I was on the backseat of a motor scooter driven by a young man from the hotel. He motioned for me to hold on tight, and we zipped our way in and out of some pretty wild and hairy traffic, at times barely brushing pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and other motor scooters. He seemed confident in his driving, so I just enjoyed the ride, and when we got to the Holiday Inn—at least a 20 minute ride away—he insisted on taking my bag into the hotel. I thanked him profusely as he left, and bowed to me several times, I think as a gesture of apology. This hotel clerk took one look at the document, smiled, and promptly registered me for the duration.
The kindness continued multiple times in the last two days. I have had people approach when I have appeared lost, a storekeeper who helped me get a cellphone app I needed, a person who tried very hard to get me to eat fried bugs on a stick (I didn’t, but we had a great laugh about it), and I even had a guy offer me his seat on the subway. I was grateful for his gesture (and all the others) but I wondered if I looked that old and decrepit!
I certainly didn’t feel that way. I’ve walked over 20 miles in Bejiing at this point, and it has been a pretty fascinating experience so far. I have explored the working class neighborhood near my hotel, and I’ve been impressed by the number of restaurants there are and how many people go to them. It is clear that even ordinary people have disposable income for frequent meals out. Like in Moscow’s Red Square, where government’s Kremlin headquarters are located and where Lenin still lies in state for all to see, I stumbled upon Bejiing’s famous Tienamen Square, seat of the Chinese government and where Mao’s body is also on view. And both have a very high-end shopping center with stores like Prada and Tiffany’s within a block of these historic symbols of their professed communist governments. I visited the Forbidden City, which was the home of Chinese emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolize the majesty of Imperial power. There are hundreds of buildings within the Forbidden City, which today of course is a huge tourist attraction for Chinese and foreigners.
In the front of the Sacrificial Hall, where Ming and Qing emperors held sacrificial offerings for their ancestors, I came across a very strange sight: at least 10 simultaneous photo shoots for couples who had been married that day. It seems that Bejiing couples love to have their wedding pictures taken in front of this building in the Forbidden city, and I really enjoyed watching it all. Apparently red is the traditional color for the bride, not white as in our country. And some of the grooms had some really wild outfits as well.
On my first attempt I was unable to visit Tienamen Square itself. The entire area was completely closed off to the public for what appeared to be some kind of national event, and I literally walked a gigantic distance all the way around it in hopes of getting in or at least getting a peek at what it looked like from afar. To be honest, it was a bit chilling to see military forces and policemen everywhere in the city. Countless times I encountered a small regiment of soldiers or policemen literally marching down a sidewalk, and sometimes it was a group of men or women dressed in regular black suits who were marching in step towards some destination. Soldiers were stationed at nearly every corner of downtown Bejiing. They all looked like they were 18, and they did not appreciate having their pictures taken. On many streets, police were randomly checking(Chinese) people’s ID’s, and I was nervous that I would be stopped. I hadn’t brought my official paper with me, and I had no passport, so I would have surely run into issues if they wanted me to identify myself. Thank God that didn’t happen!
When I took the subway, I found it like the others I have experienced in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shezhen: very efficient, clean and inexpensive. But there is something worrisome that I saw everywhere I looked on the subway, and well actually everywhere. The use of cellphones here is even worse than in the US (or New York, comparing cities). Virtually EVERYONE on every subway car I rode was intently concentrating on their cellphones. They were watching videos, playing games, looking at pictures, or chatting via text messages. And when I got off the trains and walked the streets, it was no different. Storekeepers, policemen, people walking down the street, children in parks, people in poor neighborhoods---were totally consumed with the devices in their hands. As much as I am annoyed when I see it in the US, here I found it frightening. Of course it has been discussed and written about for years now, but this experience in Asia has me reflecting deeply about who we are becoming. I will acknowledge that having my phone has been invaluable for receiving directions to places, reserving hotel rooms and airplane seats, taking pictures for this blog. But now globally we are obsessed by this technology, and our dependence is not necessarily bringing us together.
There is so much more to see here and so much more to reflect upon. I look forward to both!