Before I get to the point where I don’t notice things anymore, I’m going to record some of my observations about strange things here in Beijing.
- Sidewalks. Google maps is worried about the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian pathways for us. Whenever we try to create a walking route on Google maps, we are warned that we may not have a sidewalk. I’ve never seen such an inconsistent country in terms of what pedestrians need to finagle. You could be walking down a paved, somewhat stable sidewalk, and suddenly you will be facing one of any number of obstacles: a giant tree box taking up three-quarters of the sidewalk; a parked car or a line of parked cars; an 18-inch dropoff to dirt; a phone booth (which are odd hooded things looking like something Mighty Mouse might use to make a pay call); a noodle shop’s tiny tables and stools set up for customers; a bike-repair stand; a food cart; a magazine stand. No wonder no one much uses strollers for their kids. And then suddenly you could come to an open paved area that seems to have no other purpose than possibly the nighttime line dancing that the older women seem to love.
- Dancing. Chinese people tend to have a grim expression on their face as they march down the (non)sidewalks on their regular business, but put a boombox and any kind of music in front of them, and the smiles start. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve discovered either a crowd of 50 or a single woman happily dancing to music in public. And they’re usually smiling and seeming to enjoy themselves.
- Smells. The weather is getting colder so the smells are less pungent than they were in the summer, but they’re still there, and walking down just one block can bring a series of smells: noodles from the shops, burnt sugar from the candied dates on sticks, exhaust from a cart without any kind of muffler, strong Chinese herbs on sale outside subway stops, incense, whatever strong spices are used in cooking (coriander? Star anise? Cardamom?), dog poo, pee, smoke from fires, roasted corn, and the general metallic scent that the air in Beijing has on very polluted days.
- Sounds. The Chinese like noise. As I type this I can hear the song “All Over the World” being blasted on a loudspeaker somewhere, followed by chimes for the hour. At 7 a.m., the kids from Beijing Middle School No. 55 line up outside and do a half-hour of calestenics, led by a guy counting for them into a microphone. The Chinese also like to shout into their phones or to their friends across the street. Even when they’re having a conversation, it sounds heated to us. To them, it’s probably just a measure of enthusiasm. Then there are car horns, bike bells, and beggars shouting “hello!” when they see westerners.
- Lights. There’s a crazy amount of neon on stores and restaurants, but the streetlights seem about half the intensity of those in the U.S. You walk at night down sidewalks where there is some light but it’s still dark and gloomy. If I were in D.C. or New York with that kind of lighting, I’d get ready to be mugged.
- Drivers. Pedestrians have no rights. The philosophy here is, “I have the bigger vehicle, so I win.” You should never assume that a “walk” sign crossing the street is a signal to blithely set forth. You can start, but first look behind you, to both sides, and LET THEM WIN. What I do in the States sometimes is use my body as a way to slow down crazy Maryland drivers using our neighborhood as a commuting shortcut. If I see a car speeding down the block, I’ll step out and sloooow down, so that they actually have to stop at the stop sign rather than lightly tap the brakes. I would never ever do that here. And I would never assume that because a particular lane is set up for one direction only that there might not be bikes or scooters going in the other direction.