A year and a half ago, I moved with my husband to Beijing for his job. I spoke no Mandarin, had traveled extensively but had never lived abroad. I was not sure what to expect and kept a journal to record the experience. I would often send emails to family and friends about surprising daily events and they encouraged me to share the experience. I've taken some of the early journal entries and converted them into blog entries. BCBeijing (Black Chick in Beijing) was born.
Feel free to suggest topics you'd like me to cover or offer comments/thoughts to improve the blog.
Living in Beijing brings great joys and frustrations, but when I was asked about my trip home to the U.S., I responded, “It was easy.” Brigitte, a Canadian expat, laughed knowingly. I offer an anecdote. This past week I needed to buy a couple of things: a blender and a bottle of nail polish. Nothing special or out of the ordinary. At home, the purchase of either item would require one click on Amazon, or no more than a 10-minute trip to two stores. Not so here.
The search for nail polish started with an inquiry of the front desk staff in my apartment building, and stops in two malls and four stores. While the front desk staff had no nearby suggestions, they did advise that two of the four online Mandarin translations for “nail polish” were not colloquial enough to be easily recognized by most shouhouyuan (shop assistants). Armed with the correct vocabulary, I thought no problem. And off I go.
I knew from a previous inquiry that the supermarket I frequent does not carry it, but I thought perhaps the nail salon would. The nail salon hostess understood what I wanted but tried to convey she could not sell me the gallon jug of it. Nor did she have a suggestion for where I could find a small bottle. Next stop a Sephora-like store. I figured that since they sell nail polish they might sell nail polish remover. Nope. Finally, I decided to try a larger version of the drugstore chain I’d visited. The clerk did not recognize either of the two supposedly colloquial terms for nail polish, but once I showed her the screen shot of translation for nail polish she recognized one of the other words. Success!
Emboldened by one success in one day, I was going for a second. Let the search for the blender begin. Neither of the two malls I visited in search of nail polish had small household appliances, so I figured perhaps one of the two Western-catering grocery stores I use might have it. No luck, so that purchase would require an online search and another excursion. I headed home.
We are fortunate to have front desk who are very helpful (even if overly curious by American standards), so I asked where I might be able to buy a blender. They offered the most obvious suggestions, and places I’d already tried. The other suggestion, was to TaoBao - Not Easy to Use buy the blender online. I explained that using TaoBao (Chinese Amazon equivalent) is nearly impossible (register and read reviews) if you’re not character-fluent. Victoria, one of the front desk staff, offered to buy the blender for me from Taobao. I paid her and fielded several persistent questions about what I planned to make with the blender when it arrived. Acknowledging that assistance comes with a price, I said a cake. Explaining that I planned to make body moisturizer would have taken too much effort.
I provide the above to elucidate what the accomplishment of average tasks demands, and to explain why I have a one errand/activity/adventure per day rule, because as anyone who lives here and is not Chinese will tell you even the accomplishment of mundane tasks is rarely easy or quick.
So, earlier today as I mapped out an activity for the day, I considered heading to a park to take some photos. Then, I thought about braving the subway with the enhanced security because of the One Belt and One Road conference, and decided no. Then I considered alternate modes of transport, and rejected the idea of taking a taxi as aggravatingly slow because of the same conference. The park, although a bit distant, was definitely walkable. I decided to walk, then, I thought about deflecting the front desk staff’s inquiries about where I was going, and decided no.
No, I wasn’t having a bad day, I just wasn’t in the mood for Beijing today.
With clear air and temps in the low 60’s, I decided to go for an outing. I walked from our apartment toward Jianguomen Wai Da Bikes for Rent Jie, the main East-West avenue just a few blocks south of home. My plan was to go to the Palace Park and take some pictures. I figured if traffic was bad on Jianguomen Street I’d take the subway, which is extensive, cheap (30 to 40 cents) and easy to use even for a first-time visitor to the city. And renting a bike is yet another option: They number in the hundreds along most main streets, and can be rented using an app.
Traffic was fine, but I opted for the bus--my preferred mode of public transportation. Joe and my friends find this hysterical and atypical because I never frequented public transportation while living stateside. I explain that although it’s often slower, the bus allows you to see the sights, identify landmarks and orient yourself geographically. And, although the buses are crowded by Western standards, the riders seem less aggressive than their subway-riding counterparts. Beijing’s elderly seem to agree and comprise a good chunk of bus ridership.
Every Beijing bus has at least transit 3 workers on board. There’s the driver, there’s a person situated at the middle door who calls out each bus stop and ensures you swipe your fare card getting on and off, and then there’s a person who role seems to be security and who urges you to not to block the middle door. Whenever I board a bus, I’m with met the curious stares of the fare card monitor, the security person and other riders.
Getting a seat on any public transit in Beijing is a more aggressive version of the children’s game of musical chairs. Initially I found it disconcerting, now not so much and I managed to land a window seat. A few stops later my seat mate offered his seat to an old man. I greeted him in Mandarin and he asked where I was from. I responded, “America.” He asked if I was in Beijing for work, and I explained that I don’t work and had come for my husband’s job. This always prompts people to ask about his job. If it’s someone I do not know I simply say he works for an American company, rather than the U.S. State Department. (My reasoning will be made clearer a couple of paragraphs down.)
The man wanted to know how long we had been here, if I liked Beijing and Chinese food. I was proud to be able to have my portion of the conversation in Mandarin, and he was clearly pleased to be able to practice his English.
Not surprisingly, this unfolding exchange had drawn the attention of all the nearby passengers. A young woman who’d edged alongside was listening with amusement. He then asked something I didn’t understand, and she explained that he wanted to know if America has racism and if I had experienced it. She translated my response; during my life I had experienced racism on occasion, but not very often. The two of them had a brief exchange much of which I did not understand and then she said he thought it was because I was educated.
Then to my surprise he asked if my husband was black. This question caught me by surprise. I said no and then he wanted to know if he was a nice man. I replied, “Ta shi hen hao.” (“He’s very nice.) It was incredibly frustrating to have a nuanced conversation about a subject as complicated as race and racism limited by my language skills, and our interlocutor had since reached her destination and left us to our own devices.
I was curious about how he learned English, and whether he’d ever been to America. He taught himself English many many years ago English by studying International Phonetics. At that time he’d also applied for a visa to America, then by way of emphasis he took his right hand which he’d balled into a fist and pounded on the palm of his left and said they told him “No!” (Had I revealed that my husband worked at the embassy, the likelihood would have resulted in a series of questions as to why the visa was denied, or how his nephew who studies English could get a visa.)
He began gathering his cart and bag and said he’d be getting off at the next stop; I realized I’d ridden 3 or 4 stops beyond where I’d intended to get off. In Mandarin I told him it had been a pleasure to meet him. He responded in English, “I too,” which made me smile. It’s this kind of experience with strangers that make for good memories.
Beijing TaxiBeijing Taxi A ride in a Beijing taxi is not unlike a taxi ride in any other big city, with old and grungy being the best adjectives for the interiors. And Beijing taxi drivers are not unlike taxi drivers in other big cities. Yes, the drivers are cranky and gruff. Yes, the drivers will bypass ride hailing passengers just because they feel like it. Yes, they’ll refuse you if you’re headed somewhere they don’t want to go. Yes, they’re hard to get at rush hour or when it rains. Yes, they profile potential riders: Westerners tip even though it’s not required, but Chinese people can articulate where they want to go. But OMG, the language obstacles and cultural gruffness add an extra spice to any Beijing cab ride.
If you’re lucky enough to have a cab stop to pick you up, the smell of cigarettes hits you as soon as you open the door. I don’t mean a faint whiff, but rather the knock-you-back-on-your-heels stale smell of many a cigarette smoked over many years, likely with the windows rolled up. On occasion, the driver is smoking and gets annoyed when you beg off because the smell’s too overwhelming. Once you’re in a smoke-free cab, now it’s time to tell him where you’re going.
When I first arrived, I got into the cab and announced the English name of my destination. That seemed reasonable since the name was in huge letters Beijing Taxi BookBeijing Taxi Book across the front of the building. The driver began yelling, and kept yelling, “bu zhidao” meaning he didn’t know/understand where I wanted to go. In the 5 or 10 seconds since I’d gotten in, we’d gone about 30 feet and he refused to go any farther. Anywhere else in the world, I’d have protested or tried to offer directions. Without being able to communicate my destination or explain that I knew where it was, I found myself curbside. From that ride on, I knew I’d better learn to say my destination or have it written--in Chinese. (As an admission of how difficult it is for foreigners to use cabs, the embassy includes a Beijing Taxi Book in its welcome pack.) Sample Page in Taxi BookSample Page in Taxi Book
On another occasion, the front desk staff told the driver the address for the Western grocery store where I wanted to go, he drove me about 3 blocks to the nearest Chinese grocery store, pointed towards it, and shooed me out of the cab. I was angry he’d cheated me and frustrated by being treated this way, but without the verbal ability to insist, and knowing some drivers' propensity to yell, what could I do but pay and get out?
Assault on All Your Senses and Sensibilities
As if smoking weren’t enough, often the driver is having a loud conversation on WeChat (Chinese messaging app) or listening to 1950’s style talk radio, and then there is an official recording on loop “Thank you for taking the Beijing taxi,” which you’re likely to hear 15-20 times before you reach your destination. When the air is bad the driver is likely to have a tubercular cough and repeatedly open the window to spit unceremoniously. (Forgive me while I put on my mask and practice holding my breath until I reach my destination.) And, for the full gross out, he may decide to perform an ear cleaning with a long pinky fingernail or an ear curette, the contents of which he'll flick carelessly. Yuck!!!
Once, Joe and I were in a cab and the driver knew generally where we were going but not how to get from the main boulevard to the one-way side street. We called to have the person at our destination give the driver directions. The exchange quickly became heated. The driver’s exasperation Cab Driver HarangueCab Driver Gets Directions mounted as he tried to follow the directions. The video captured a fraction of a protracted, loud and dramatic conversation. We didn’t dare laugh until we were safely at our destination.
Your Comfort Is NOT His Concern
I understand that the drivers spend hours on end in their cars and are probably impervious to extreme temperatures. Windows are open winter and summer, good air or god-awful air, Beijing cabbies are the not Uber drivers seeking to ensure your comfort in exchange for a good rating. So unless you want to be cold in the winter or hot in the summer you have to speak up. Your requests to have the windows up, and the air conditioning or heat turned on are not always welcome, and often met with a huff of disapproval. These reactions often make me laugh because they are so unfiltered. I am sure to them, these Western requests for comfort (no matter how short the ride) seem excessive.
As I wrote this I had to smile about my early cab experiences. I didn't know the city and depended on the driver's honesty to take me directly to my destination. I was rarely disappointed. Now my knowledge of the city and my Mandarin skills are a match for anything a cabbie throws my way.
The best thing about cab rides in Beijing: they are super cheap. In the States a cab ride lasting an hour or for more than 25 miles, is likely to rack up at least $50 on the meter. I’ve been in Beijing cabs for extended periods or distances, looked at the meter and been pleasantly surprised to see it reads less than 60 or 70 yuan ($10). So you’ll endure smoking, coughing, cursing, and spitting in exchange for cheap transit. Just bring a mask and learn how to ask for temperature adjustments in Mandarin. And don't forget to tip the driver.
During my first week in Beijing, I began a habit of getting up and dressed soon after Joe’s 6:30 departure for work. Beyond getting over a wicked case of jetlag, I wanted to get in the habit of accomplishing a task or activity that would help me acculturate to a life that was very different from the one I’d lived in the United States. Beijing is a big city and I also wanted to see and enjoy as much of it as possible during our tenure.
About a week after arriving, I decided Tiananmen Square (site of the famous photo where a protester stood in front of a military tank) and the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) would be my destination for the day. Although I’d ridden the subway with Joe at least a few times since arriving, I hadn’t ventured more than a mile from our apartment or onto the subway solo. So as I enjoyed my regular morning coffee, I plotted the train route from our apartment to Tiananmen; the trip would require eight stops and a transfer between two train lines. Armed with my camera and cell phone, I headed out.
To say I was excited inadequately captures how absorbed and fascinated I was by every element of this venture: from the commercials that flashed by on the TVs lining the subway tunnels to the changing demographics of the riders (urbane and westernized to petite framed, darker skinned and less westernized). Surrounded by unintelligible sounds, I was grateful for the Siri-like voice announcing each subway stop in English.
The closer we got to Tiananmen, the more crowded the train and the more attention I was drawing from Chinese who had never seen anyone black. I couldn’t be sure but I think at least those closest to me were talking about me. I’d wedged myself against a door and the seats next to the door only to realize that we were approaching my desired stop. Luckily, enough people were exiting that I was neither panicked by my inability to announce “I’m getting off” nor forced to push my way off the train.
Once at the Tiananmen station, a smiling couple whom I’d noticed Subway Sign looking at me on the train stayed close, exiting as I did and slowing or hastening their pace to meet mine. I couldn’t be sure if I were a novelty or being targeted for theft. I slowed hoping they’d keep moving, then the woman came close enough to make me shoo her away, only to have her come closer and hand her phone to her husband. I checked the zipper on by bag and pulled it closer to my body, relented and let her take a picture just so they’d leave me alone. Not so fast. Once she had a picture her husband wanted one too and they enlisted another exiting passenger to take our picture. I just walked away.
The subway stops right below Tiananmen Square, which is a couple of football fields long and wide. Swiping the subway card and emerging from the musk and humanity of the subway, I realized I’d gotten off at the stop on the farthest end and wrong side of the street from the famous Forbidden City wall emblazoned with Mao’s portrait. To get to Mao, required I go back down the stairs, cross under the 14-lane avenue and up another set of stairs back to street-level—all through a gazillion people, half of whom seemed to be gawking at me. But … I’d come too far not to continue. Mao...Close But Yet So Far
Once on the correct side of the street and nearer the Mao picture, other tourists were trying to include me and Mao in their selfies (as if I’d never seen a cell phone), or pulling me into the frame by my arms and clothing. Initially, I felt a bit helpless but not scared: I stood at least five inches taller than most. Then the urban survivalist in me found its voice. Bitch-face is universally understood and barking “Hey!” aggressively warned most people off touching me. But it was nevertheless overwhelming, and cemented my lifelong dislike of crowds.
s, and an old man flying a kite in a small park. My disappointment dissipated and I inhaled the newness of it all.I snapped a couple of pictures to commemorate having been to Tiananmen Square, but I demurred standing in the snaking Disney-line queues to enter the Forbidden City. I’d had enough ultra-close personal contact with short strangers. The darkness and crowded subway were unappealing on such a beautiful day, so I decided to try the bus. Tiananmen Bus Route sign At the bus stop, I realized the foolishness of that plan since I can’t read Chinese characters. I decided to walk part way home and de-stress from the experience, none of which had unfolded as I expected. The farther I walked along the broad boulevard the less frustrating the adventure felt. I was enjoying the Chinese flags flapping in front of government buildings, street sweepers using tree-branch brooms, and an old man flying a kite Blog - Straw Broom
Although I didn’t know it then, this adventure provided my first lesson in living abroad. When reality falls short of expectation try to appreciate the reality.
I had traveled widely as a single person, but travels while Joe and I courted and since we’ve married have become more exotic and longer in duration. That travel now includes a 3-year job-related stint living in Beijing. Since I arrived, I have been documenting what it feels like to live abroad, especially as a black person and especially in a place like China.
Beyond the to-be-expected angst of leaving family, friends and the familiar, I figured making the transition from traveler to expatriate would be relatively easy and painless – and, for me – luckily, it has. Easy and painless means not that all has gone as well as I naively expected, but that the transition has been fulfilling in ways I could not have anticipated.
I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport late in the evening on October 24, 2015. The ride Chinese Warrior By Night from the airport was exciting and I couldn’t wait to see our apartment and explore the neighborhood. When we arrived at the apartment, we deposited my luggage and I surveyed each room to see how many of the boxes mailed from the States had arrived. Then, we headed out to find a bite to eat. As soon as we crossed street toward the courtyard of restaurants, there stood a giant statue of a Chinese warrior. It struck me as so authentically touristy and Chinese that I absolutely had to have a picture. Yep, this was definitely not America.
We ended up choosing a Mexican restaurant because it was serving dinner. The few other diners were equal parts Western and Chinese. Although the restaurant’s name was in English in bold signage, neither the hostess nor the waiter spoke any English. Joe, who’d spent 10 months learning Mandarin, had to order my beverage and meal, and ask which way to the restroom. The other tables of Westerners within hearing distance were intermittently conversing among themselves, and with the servers in Chinese. The excitement of my first night in Beijing eclipsed a fleeting thought about how handicapped I’d be without any language skills.
View from Our First Apartment on a Clear Day The next morning, I spent a few minutes alone in the apartment with pretty bare cupboards and no coffee in the house, I figured I’d head to the nearby Starbucks and do some exploring. The streets below looked so different in the light of day. As did the giant stone warrior. As I left the apartment, the maze of construction fences surrounding our apartment building made me go back in and ask the front desk staff to confirm my planned route to Starbucks. Although I knew how to say Starbucks in Chinese, and tried to show them the logo on my phone, the ubiquitous brand was clearly unknown to them, and I couldn’t make them understand what assistance I needed. I was surprised, but excited and undaunted.
Between my iPhone map and Joe’s description of his Warrior Statue By Day walk to Starbucks every morning before work, I bumbled my way there. As soon as I entered the Starbucks, it felt familiar; but as I stood looking at the food offerings, only the croissant looked familiar. When the cashier’s greeting and question drew a blank stare, she switched to English. I ordered to a croissant and a latte, and stood awkwardly as the cashier motioned where along the long counter I could pick up my drink. The barista was calling out drinks in Chinese as they were prepared. Not sure whether my drink had been called, I showed him my receipt. He said something I didn’t understand and turned away. Each time he placed a drink on the counter, I’d show him my receipt: six or seven customers later, he handed me my drink.
I sat in Starbucks enjoying my latte and soaked it all in. Within earshot I could discern at least three different languages being spoken--none of them English. The fashions were different, miniature stuffed animals hanging from purse straps, several workmen were splayed on the lounge chairs sleeping, and life size M&M statues in the main plaza.
Yep, this is definitely not America.
I’d known since the day we arrived that the privacy standards we enjoy in the States were not to be expected while living in China. A friend of a friend who had served in Beijing was giving me some insights about navigating the experience. I intellectualized it as the price of being a guest in this country.
Small and Bothersome
1) The front desk staff at our apartment function like concierges, they speak English and can be enlisted to accomplish mundane errands, like purchasing airline tickets, or scheduling deliveries. As I sought to wander farther and farther from home, I would explain where I needed to go, and (if I could find the place on the TripAdvisor app) show them the destination address and they would convey it to the cab driver. (I learned early on that although many skyscrapers, hotels and malls bear names in English, cab drivers do not know those names and do not speak English.) Besides conveying the address to the cab driver, they would often editorialize on the location, “Oh, that’s very far. How do you know this place?” And, I could be sure if Joe called and asked to be put through to our apartment they would happily tell him where I’d gone and how long since I’d left. They were even kind enough to tell my neighbor, who is a friend, where’d I gone one day.
The frequent greeting when I passed the desk and didn’t need assistance, was “Where are you going?” The question used to really, really, really annoy me before I learned from my teacher that the Mandarin equivalent “Ni qu nar (Phonetic: Knee-chew-nar)?” is a frequent greeting between Chinese friends. Even though I now understand the cultural basis, my American sensibilities still find it annoying and invasive. I have since learned to balance their helpful curiosity with my innate need for privacy. Now, no matter where I’m going, I say I’m going shopping.
2) Since the front desk staff almost always know where I am, why wouldn’t the host government? The WeChat app is very popular in China. People use it for everything from text messaging, bike rentals, to paying bills and calling a cab. When I arrived, several women I met and liked suggested it as the method for exchanging contact information. The terms and conditions for installing the app were staggeringly onerous. The download screen stated explicitly that I was giving the app extensive permissions related to the operation of the phone--not just the app. Holy intrusiveness! By accepting the terms and conditions, I was enabling it to close and or delete other apps, activate my microphone and GPS, delete contacts, and other wide-ranging and creepy actions (like activating the recording feature which happens often when I am on calls).
3) How many of us carelessly toss event tickets or business cards onto a credenza? Well as I’ve learned, if they are visible any service person who enters the apartment is likely to look at and comment on them. After picking up our high-speed train ticket stubs to Shanghai, one worker, asked what we thought of the city. His audacity—not just looking at but picking up and giving the tickets the once over—has since been replicated by our housekeeper and maintenance workers. Unlike in the States, the behavior is not seen as rude or invasive, nor do looks of incredulity or annoyance cause any shame.
4) BBC ran a documentary on Family Planning in China.(www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03t2mzp) I was surprised that BBC reporters had been allowed to interview families and former family planning officials. Four minutes into the program, I was hooked, and the TV faded to black. I switched to CNN, it was broadcasting. Clearly, the topic of family planning was not appropriate programming for the masses. I found it online and finished watching it. The government requires every Chinese woman of reproductive age to carry a small red book. A stamp is given for each quarterly gynecological check to ensure she is not pregnant, her IUD is in place, and she has no communicable disease. The overreach into such personal matters is inconceivable and intolerable to Westerners. So much for whining about a lack of privacy.
Even though my diplomatic passport avails me of protections and immunity, I’ll save these stories until I’m wheels up or I see you.