Sens­ing Bei­jing

My Chi­nese fam­ily en­abled me to bet­ter un­der­stand Chi­nese so­ci­ety, and more im­por­tantly, helped me feel right at home.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by He­lena Vil­lar Se­gura The au­thor was an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent from Spain who stud­ied at Pek­ing Univer­sity. She cur­rently works for a Span­ish com­pany in Ningbo, Zhe­jiang Prov­ince.

The Neigh­bor­hood

Across the al­ley from my apart­ment is a black-and-white six-story build­ing with barred win­dows. Its en­trance is flanked by an end­less pile of bikes high­lighted by yel­low, or­ange, blue and green.

More than 30 grannies fre­quently gather to dance to­gether in the small square, and some­times a young wo­man and two men join them. They en­joy group ex­er­cise to the beat of Chi­nese mu­sic.

A street stall in­hab­its the cor­ner next to a lit­tle shop. Un­der its big red um­brella is a fridge full of ice cream and var­i­ous lo­cal brands of wa­ter. The op­er­a­tor is a mid­dle-aged wo­man with her hus­band and baby in tow. Her hus­band looks after the child while she sells let­tuce, car­rots, onions, toma­toes and pota­toes. The shop also of­fers toi­let pa­per, to­bacco and chips.

Three old men shop­ping there are my neigh­bors. As usual, they soon be­gin to play Chi­nese chess and chat. Night has al­ready fallen. In a cou­ple of hours, they will re­turn home with shop­ping bags and smiles. To­mor­row morn­ing at five o’clock Bei­jing wakes up.

I wit­ness this scene from the win­dow of my tiny apart­ment. When I sit be­hind my desk to write, read and study, I pe­ri­od­i­cally gaze out­side and pon­der my life in China.

Pur­ple cur­tains brighten the beige walls off­set by black flow­ers and a hang­ing tele­vi­sion. The mat­tress is hard; the bath­room is small. I can sit on the toi­let while tak­ing a shower if I want. My head­board is made of faux leather, which fre­quently falls off onto my pil­low at night.

My land­lord’s fam­ily lives next door, and ever since I moved in they have tried to make me feel at home.

Chi­nese Choices

I have now been liv­ing in China for more than three years. I lived in Fuzhou, a coastal city in the south of China, and else­where pre­vi­ously ly be­fore set­tling in Bei­jing—dry, masas­sive and cos­mopoli­tan. The great­est est thing about China’s cap­i­tal city is that it pro­vides so many op­tions.

In Bei­jing, you can find food from Rus­sia, Vietnam, Iran, Spain and Ar­gentina. You can drink mo­ji­tos on a rooftop while danc­ing salsa or drink ink bai­jiu (Chi­nese liquor) while singing g karaoke. You can take a taxi, use a shared bike, call for a Didi (a Chi­nese ese taxi app) cab, ride the sub­way or hire re a tuk-tuk. If you lust for au­then­tic­ity, ven­ture down a hu­tong (nar­row w lane)—a city in­side a city—a com­mu­mu­nity se­cluded from the rest of the cap­i­tal but hid­den right in the cen­ter of f it. If you want to feel far from the tra­didi­tional side of China, stroll down the he packed and in­ter­na­tion­al­ized San­l­i­tun un area. It is known for shop­ping cen­ters, ters, restau­rants and for­eign­ers from all walks of life, due to its prox­im­ity to o the old em­bassy area. Or you can head to one of many parks for a peace­ful ul break, to the Great Wall for breath­tak­tak­ing views or to a teashop to sip a cup up of high-end tea. When peo­ple ask me why I like Bei­jing, I al­ways give them m the same an­swer: be­cause you can find any­thing there.

My first year in Bei­jing was easy y and fun. I was sur­rounded by stu­dents ents and for­eign­ers, next to my univer­sity, ty, close to beau­ti­ful and fa­mous scenic ic spots and not far from an area where ere par­ties are fre­quently held. My apartrt­ment was new and com­fort­able, and nd I never felt alone. How­ever, the sec­ond nd year changed things a bit. As with the many choices in life, in Bei­jing you can also choose where to live.

My Chi­nese Fam­ily

Due to the size of Bei­jing, if you don’t want to spend all day on the sub­way, you should try to live near r

your school or work­place. When I changed uni­ver­si­ties, I also moved. I had to stick within my schol­ar­ship bud­get, and the cost of rent­ing an apart­ment in the area was ex­tremely high. A friend ad­vised: “When you find an apart­ment within your bud­get, just ask if you could live there— if the an­swer is ‘yes,’ don’t hes­i­tate and take it—cheap places are hard to come by in Bei­jing!” And so I did.

It was the first apart­ment I saw. The build­ing was pretty old. I didn’t see many young peo­ple around, or for­eign­ers. A sixty-year-old cou­ple opened the door. The hus­band was big, bold and cheer­ful. The wife was a short, round, en­er­getic wo­man. Be­hind her hid a shy but cu­ri­ous seven-year-old girl. These were the land­lord’s par­ents, and the child was their grand­daugh­ter. A nar­row pas­sage sep­a­rated their apart­ment from mine. They spoke as many Bei­jingers, adding a heavy “R” sound at the end of each syl­la­ble, which made it dif­fi­cult for me to un­der­stand. I had to ne­go­ti­ate for nearly an hour, first with the lady, then with her hus­band, be­fore fi­nally get­ting the son on the phone.

“No­body wants to live right next to the land­lord. You can’t party at home!”

“I’m a stu­dent. How do you think I can pay that much… I’ll talk to your daugh­ter in English, so she can learn… I won’t make any noise, just study­ing… Please, please, please…” I pleaded so earnestly in poor and des­per­ate Chi­nese that even­tu­ally, he laughed and agreed to lower the price.

I lived there for ten months. In the flat across from me lived six peo­ple: the great-grand­mother, the grand­par­ents, the par­ents and the lit­tle girl. Ev­ery day be­fore class, I saw the grand­mother take the girl to school by bike. Ev­ery time we met, she would ask me “Where are you go­ing?” or “Have you eaten?” or ad­vise me to be care­ful be­cause of a cer­tain weather fore­cast. Sel­dom was their door closed, so I felt like I lived with them. Once, the grand­fa­ther gave me a wa­ter­melon be­cause he de­cided I was los­ing weight. I didn’t think wa­ter­melon would be much help, but it was tasty nonethe­less. De­spite the lack of pri­vacy, my Chi­nese fam­ily not only al­lowed me to bet­ter un­der­stand Chi­nese so­ci­ety, but also made me feel right at home.

The build­ing in Bei­jing where the au­thor lived for about 10 months.

An aerial view of the Sanyuan Bridge in Bei­jing. VCG

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