It is weird with China. When I am there, I simply enjoy the so foreign culture. When I leave, I am happy to escape those who spit on the floor, push their way through the waiting lines and have oh so different manners from us Europeans. And when I am back home, I realize the magic of that faraway place.
It has been the second time for me to visit Beijing. In 2013, I taught summer school at UIBE. Now, in April 2015, I was traveling with a delegation of 10 people from of the University of Vienna. We were to give talks about the topic of ‘social care’. Chinese university people and ministry officials wanted to know how us Austrians dealt with issues on an aging population, single-children or care for the elderly. During the conference, some Chinese kept talking about Australia instead of Austria, but this is nothing new. Or if it is: “There are not kangaroos in Austria”. Come buy the t-shirt at any Vienna tourist kiosk.
We stayed for one whole week. Thanks to my great sleeping pills, I was able to easily adapt to the six hours time difference (never do Asia from Europe without ZOLPIDEM). And when the jetlag tried to set in, there was coffee, sometimes, accompanied with the still disturbing question: “Hot or cold?” The cold version is that tiny Nescafé can containing awfully sugared factory coffee. It should only be consumed in emergency situations.
Some of my colleagues had never been to China before, and I felt like I could pass on important information. Such as: Don’t wait for the rice (because it is always served at the end), bring your own paper for the bathroom (or you are on your own), and use an umbrella even in the lightest rainfall (acid rain, yay).
But with seven more days in Beijing this time, I realized I have not known NOTHING yet. For instance, there was new horror in the toilet: Apparently not every ladies bathroom is outfitted with stall doors. No more details on that one. But I later read that China is aware of the traumatizing effect on Western women and is now regularly organizing the “World Toilet Summit”. In 2011, their focus was on the “Launch of International Code Council Guidelines on Public Toilets”. That was four years ago. Hurry!
Also, there are these men with an ultra long finger nail on their pinky. Weird! We got aware of them in the subway. Middle aged men in unspectacular clothing. The boring kind. So it cannot be a fashion gag. What was going on? I read the answer in a great book by Kai Strittmatter: “Gebrauchsanweisung für China”. He says it is to demonstrate high status: “We are not peasants who would break this nail in hard manual work”. Also it would come in handy for the art of nose picking. Oooh, here we go…
It is truly amazing (sometimes entertaining, often frustrating) how little of communication is possible with the Beijing people (people say it is different in Shanghai). Nearly nobody speaks English. And sign-language seems not to work either. Already the Chinese use of fingers to show numbers is different. When you show 7, they just shake their head in disbelief. My favorite however is the trip to the birds market. It took us 1,5 long hours in three cramped subways. When we got to the destination, according to the travel guide, no birds market in sight. And when we tried to sign-language our destination (= movement with wings + paying with money) the Chinese got really afraid and quickly tried to get away from us. We tried a hotel lobby, phone calls were made, very helpful staff had long conversations with taxi drivers, but in the end, no birds market could be located. We nodded in resignation, and left again. In these moments, Beijing feels like a very secluded village which wants to remain untouched and purposely fools travel guides, let alone google maps.
But in the end, I understand it is good that China keeps its mystery. It makes me want to return. And: pictures are here.