14 May 2004

A Pleasant Evening in Seoul, Final Remarks on Beijing

So I was taking a walk this evening in the area around Sinsa subway station, enjoying the cool spring air (about 3 degrees centigrade cooler than Beijing) and breathing deeply the (seemingly) pure air around me, when I was approached by a law student, who happened to be a former reporter, who is also an amateur comparative sociologist, looking for foreign views of Korea.

Well, you can guess how things went from there. We ended up sitting in front of a mini-market drinking coke and talking East Asian and American politics, security and society, for nearly three hours. How I manage to attract these folks (like the Chinese student who wanted to talk Taiwan) I’m not sure, but I do, and it is interesting. It was then a quick run by the Paris Baguette for a small snack and back to my current brief residence.

Returning to Seoul felt somewhat like having blinders removed. In Beijing, I only could read about a dozen and a half Chinese characters, and many of those with Korean pronunciation (for example, the “Bei” in Beijing, meaning North, is pronounced “Buk” in Korean, the “Jing” pronounced “Kyung” in Korean. South in Chinese is Nan, in Korean Nam. West in Korean is Zhi, in Korean Seo. East in both is Dong). But returning to Seoul, my eyes greedily drank in the Korean and English signs, reading every word and syllable like a small child first realizing that letters actually made words.

I am coughing out the remains of the Beijing dust, and hope to have relatively clear lungs in a few days.

Now, I have 10 rather tongue-in-cheek suggestions for any visitor to Beijing to follow if they want to seem more like a resident (as much as any foreigner can seem like a resident) than a short-stay tourist.

#1. NEVER WAIT IN LINE. Lines are optional. Always push and shove, squeeze in from the side, reach through, over, under or around others. If you do attempt to wait in line, you will wait forever, as the “line” will constantly reconstitute itself in front of you.

#2. SPIT. Spit often. Make really big, throaty, goobers. If you are female, this is an even more important thing to do frequently and in public. Spit while walking or riding a bike, on the street or the sidewalk. Spitting not only removes the Beijing dust from your mouth and throat, it wets the ground, keeping the rest of the dust down.

#3. IGNORE THE CROSSING GUARDS. There are so many different security officials and forces in Beijing that there must be at least one people should feel safe to rebel against. Try to sneak past them when they aren’t looking, walking right into the middle of traffic. When they catch you, pretend you don’t hear them and keep walking.

#4. GO PLAY IN TRAFFIC. Cross the road anywhere. This is fun, as the roads are all very wide, and there is plenty of traffic (including the bicycles). Try not to follow the walk or don’t walk signs, cross on the red. Go one lane at a time, getting really skinny as buses, taxis and bicycles wiz past you on both sides. It is fun. Consider it a life-size game of Frogger.

#5. RIDE YOUR BICYCLE ON THE SIDEWALK. Even when there is a bicycle lane, use the sidewalks or the middle of the street. The corollary to this is

#6. DRIVE YOUR CAR ON THE SIDEWALK. Why use the road when you can drive on the sidewalks, park on the sidewalks or even, if you want to have some fun, drive in the bicycle lanes.

#7. THROW WASTE EVERYWHERE. Garbage cans are simply suggestions, not requirements. And anyway, of you throw your trash all over the sidewalks and the street, it is easier for you and for the independent recycling folks who ride around on their three-wheeled bikes to pick through for the items (papers, plastic, wire, food scraps) that they are looking for.

#8. HAGGLE. This is more a universal Chinese necessity, but obviously you need to do it in Beijing. Anyone who pays sticker price is either a fool or a foreigner.

#9. CROWD AND PACK. Learn to fit in the smallest space possible while pressing others into even smaller spaces. This is especially useful on the subway and the buses.

#10. IGNORE ALL OTHER FOREIGNERS. This is the rule, unless they may either buys something from you or for you. Do not be rude, simply act like they don’t even exist. If you do look at them, make it a secretive glance. Do not approach foreigners unless you have something (legal or otherwise) to sell.

Well, I hope these are useful for your trip. Like I said before, if they can clean up the air, Beijing would be an even more wonderful place to visit, with broad, tree-lined streets, interesting architecture and wonderful food. And foreigners rarely have to worry about their safety – there is always a soldier, police officer, Beijing security official or some other public security personnel within a few feet of you.

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