When you arrive at a new destination, especially after a long flight, your body wants rest and relaxation. Sleep. A lot of sleep and peace and quiet. Usually, in the airport or on the plane (and not only), I befriend people easily. Time goes by easier that way. I remember that during my first marathon through Asia – Kuala Lumpur, Phuket and Singapore – one of the advices I got was not to sleep once I reach my final destination, if that happens during the daytime.
Even if the sun is up blazing in 90% humidity and I would tell myself You know what, I’ll just take a 30 min or an hour nap and then I’ll be fresh, ready to conquer another city. Why? Because, in fact, that half hour nap will turn into a full afternoon, and when the night time comes I’ll be up and ready for action like an owl and that will eventually ruin my entire vacation because my sleep schedule is going to be whacked.
With this advice in mind, we landed in Beijing around 15:00 local time and I was trying to look rested and excited. I did rest, truly, because I managed to get 7 out of 10 hours of sleep on my flight from Qatar. I love sleep, what I can do, my friends joke that I can sleep through the end of the world, no problem. The meetup with our guide, Andy (his “English” name) or Chen Yan, his Chinese name, was cheery and sent a lot of good vibes.
What we discovered in Beijing
I want to confess that this city, the second capital of the ex-Chinese Empire, left me with mixed feelings. Leaving the airport, I was staring into the horizon, somewhat unsure whether I was in Beijing for real or I somehow teleported back home in Romania, in one of the neighborhoods of my city. The apartment buildings were surprisingly similar to our Eastern European ones, even mimicking the colors you can find on a newly insulated one back home. I was kind of pissed a bit about it, actually, wondering who stole the idea of “gray-ugly-crammed-buildings” from who.
So Beijing was the city of stories, the kind of stories which give you a déjà-vu. Captivated much?
The traffic is impressive and by contrast, Bucharest seems tame, although Bucharest is always up there in the “cities with worst traffic to drive in”. Distances are measured in tens of minutes and hours if you’re in a car, and the people’s health in the air quality – so the local government regulated the registration of new cars in the Beijing area; if you want a car, you need to participate in a lottery to win a registration plate, in a system similar to the one in Singapore, with waiting lists spanning for years.
Speaking of traffic, Beijing is full of “German” cars. They have the same concepts as the rest of us, that only the German cars are the best and the safest, even though most of them are made in Asia, some even in China.
One day, our guide asked us what’s it like in my country, how many houses and how much land can we own. I told him that we can own however much we want of whatever we want, as long as we have the resources to buy it. His question helped me to better understand their inner struggle, which until not so long ago was also ours “Does the state allow you to own more than one house and one car per person or family? Doesn’t the government take them away?“.
He continued to explain to me the concept of “communal collective” (the joint farming everyone was forced to participate into during our Communist past), and I told him we know about it since we were Communists as well, but I did not have the heart to tell him what we, Romanians, did to get out of it because we did not want to get him our ourselves in trouble. He said that, usually, the government leaves you alone as long as you don’t criticise the party or the country, so that was enough of a hint for us.
Housing in China
Chen Yan opened quite a lot during our conversations and answered all my questions, no matter how much of a joker I tried to be. With the same large smile and his positive attitude. I asked him about the rent situation in Beijing. He told me that, as far as he’s concerned, the rent is high- in the range of of 400-900 euros for some matchbox apartments, in which usually live at least two and maybe three generations of the same family.
The reason why they choose to do that is because the elders of the family can take care of the children, if there are any, and the young family can go to work. This was the case with him as well, he lived with his parents so his wife can get some help from them raising their one year old baby.
An interesting thing I did not know about was that you really own a house in China, you can only buy a right to use one for 70 years. After 2020, the first houses sold in the 1950s under this policy should be reclaimed by the state- it will be interesting to see how that will pan out and how the government will handle it.
“One child per family” and why do the Chinese insist on having at least a son
Until recently, the Chinese had a famous policy that allowed only one child per family. Today’s Chinese youngsters (much like the rest of the world) don’t really want to have children even when they reach 30-35 years, due to lack of resources, jobs, lack of good healthcare, small living spaces; they’d rather travel- the ones that can afford it.
The reason why previous generations had more than one child, even with the violation of the law, is a very subtle one, specific to Chinese culture. In their understanding, a couple had to have a son in the family due to an implicit social contract, existing between generations for thousands of years, which says that when the parents grow old, the son and his wife will take care of the boy’s parents.
If they had only girls, they would risk growing old alone as their daughters would go off to live with their husbands’ family. Therefore, they were pumping out babies until they got a boy!
A heartbreaking story which moved me to tears was related to this policy. Talking of this and that, eventually Chen Yan told us the situation in his family, where his parents desperately wanted a boy. They already had two girls so they tried again and… they got a girl once more.
When she was born, due to the fact that they basically broke the law a second time and they didn’t even have a boy, they were forced to give her for adoption to those who could not have children – in front of the hospital there was a platform where unwanted babies would be placed. If you could not have children, you would just go and take one from there.
Chen Yan told us that he thinks he saw her once, years ago, on the street in a nearby town from where he was born. He thought it had to be her because she looked extremely similar to his two older sisters.
Our Xi’an guides’ parents were a bit luckier in that regard- they were not forced to give her little sister for adoption, but they had to pay a hefty fine which affected the family income for years.
The Chinese travel too!
One thing that I found out about the Chinese is that they don’t have a lot of flexibility if they decide to leave the country. They need all kinds of visas, which are difficult and time consuming (probably expensive too!) to obtain, especially to visit Hong Kong. If you missed it, Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997 when it was peacefully handed over to China as per their 1898 contract that they would lease it for 99 years, so you could say that they are a bit more progressive than the rest of the Chinese. Chen Yan was telling me that he managed to visit Hong Kong through his job as a tourist guide which made obtaining his visa easier, he was very proud that he was the tour guide for an American couple for two days.
He dreams of going to Thailand one day and asked me so many questions about it that I kind of wish that one day I’ll receive an email from him telling me he reached that unique paradise.
Still, many Chinese travel a lot within their own (vast!) country, which explains their and the tourism workers’ lack of need in learning other languages such as English. I was surprised that even most of the restaurants near the tourist traps are designed for the Chinese tourist, which leads to hilarious situations when a European or Western tourist enters the shop, but I’ll tell you all about it in a future post.
Above everything, Chen Yan helped me to better understand their way of life and some of their behavior. He asked me on our second day whether I had any culture shock when I came to China and I told him, “Okay, I get a lot of things, however what baffles me is why do people bump into you on the street, when you are queuing somewhere or at the restaurant?“. He was very amused by my question and surprisingly he acknowledged that it’s something ingrained in their culture: he said that they learn pretty fast during their childhood that they are literally a billion people and if they don’t push people out of their way to get to their objective, they’ll never get anywhere (I believe the expression was something closer to “the piglet that doesn’t fight to get to the proverbial tit, never gets to suckle“).
Nevertheless, I reached the conclusion that their rhythm is much too alert to be compatible with mine.
My few days in Beijing really touched my heart. It’s interesting how, when you see the world through someone else’s eyes, you actually leave your shell a little; you gain a deeper understanding of what happens around you and you question more often what makes us human; you learn to be truly happy with what you have and not take it for granted. Life throws many obstacles and battles your way, but your transformation depends on how you get past them. When you realize your place in the world, that’s when you’re ready to move forward. And these people moved forward despite the challenges they faced; the gave their future generations a positive attitude and a lot of dignity. I think we all have a thing or two to learn from them, which we should pass over to our children. Legend says that this is the magic formula by which civilizations evolve.