Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Beijing's Grubby Charm

There are cities you love because the trees form a green canopy over you, the air smells sweet, and the rivers sparkle in the sunlight. That’s not Beijing, and I’ve been trying to figure out how those who live here and love it have fallen in love with the Big Gray.

I think I’m beginning to understand. Beijing is a home-brewing expert with bad teeth but a kind smile. It’s a sidewalk that suddenly ends in a gaping hole, making you pay attention to every step. It’s a dark alley that you walk through at night without any concerns at all. It’s a smell that mixes stinky tofu with grilled chicken and star anise. It’s the look of round-faced babies who stare and stare and suddenly break into a toothless grin. It’s the fact that people are outside all the time, strolling, eating, napping, playing cards, watching cars go by. It’s a three-wheeled cart so laden with bags and boxes for recycling that it looks a little like its own circus wagon going down the street. It’s a manicurist who can give you a great manicure without messing up her own sparkly nails. It’s the fashion choices – bling upon fur upon sparkle upon tottering heels – of so many Chinese women.

It’s the Wu Mart employee who wants us to tell her the names of the colors of sheets on sale – pink! purple! yellow! – because she loves English. It’s the cilantro flavor of the jiang bing made fresh for you just outside the Wu Mart. It’s coming out of a concert in the chill of a Beijing December and eating a piping hot sweet potato from a vendor sitting there waiting. It’s the old folks walking down the street and pounding themselves on their shoulders and torsos to get the circulation going. It’s making friends from Germany and Australia and Beijing.

And it’s also the little alarm clock I bought today – chartreuse green – for 12 RMB ($1.90), some nail polish remover for 5 RMB (79 cents), and a manicure Joanna and I got for 30 RMB ($4.76). After that we bought soft ice cream cones from the McDonald’s next door for 3 RMB (47 cents). And then there is the haircut I get from my guy Justin (with the boy-band mop hair) for 20 RMB ($3.17). That includes hair washing, a cut so careful I think every hair is cut individually, and a blow dry.

There are plenty of days when everything goes wrong – my sink, for instance, is still broken – but then you start to notice the grubby charm. Plus, my home in D.C. has mice in the kitchen and squirrels in the attic. I’ll wait.