Aug 18, 2008

Bizarro Beijing

About a year from now, when Beijing's air quality index is back in the 300's and I am having (as one is bound to have now and then) a Bad China Day, I know my lousy memory will kick in and I'll think that these were the two best weeks I've ever had in Beijing. It can't be denied: it's a cleaner, kinder, politer city than it was just a month and a half ago, and who knows how long it will last after the last Olympic tourists board their flight home?

Yeah, it was smoggy to begin with; but since the sky opened up and dumped out sheets of rain on Thursday, even the weather is now idyllic-- the sky is blue and the sun is shining, but with a perfect slight breeze to keep it cool. Saturday morning, it was pleasant enough to go for a run OUTSIDE. Which I did. I didn't step in any dog or kid poo, nor slip on a phlegmy loogie (which really did happen the last time I went for a run outside). There were no staring dusty construction workers, squatting at any of the five job sites I pass on my route, smoking their cigarettes and marveling at the wanton waste of energy bouncing by their very eyes. Later that day, walking with Bella, a car actually STOPPED and waved us across at a crosswalk. That absolutely NEVER happens. Even Bella, who always yells "STOP, CAR!!! Bella CROSSING the ROAD!!!" at the top of her lungs whenever we cross a street, was amazed. Oh, and this one I'll be telling the grandkids about when I'm 70: earlier in the week, I was hailing a cab, which ended up stopping in front of someone else, but the guy LET ME HAVE THE TAXI since I had been waiting longer. I am telling you, this is not "normal" Beijing.

I am probably walking around with a puzzled look on my face, which has undoubtedly been a good thing, since tourists approaching to ask how to get to the Silk Market assume that I must be a lost tourist too. Part of me is mildly bothered by the false impressions that tourists and athletes will have of Beijing - both on the good side and the bad. Though cleaner and less chaotic, this Olympic version of Beijing is, well, kind of scary. Like, in a martial law kind of way. Heading out to the Opening Ceremony parties last week, I had chills up my spine when driving around the eerily empty streets, where there were police and military at every traffic light, highway exit, bus stop, and pedestrian overpass. And, as Bella would put it, where are all the peoples? Apparently they have been asked by the authorities to stay home for the duration- Mik and I have been wondering exactly how that particular announcement/request/command was worded.

Despite having lived here for four years, I don't think I have ever thought of Beijing as "my" city until these two weeks. Having railed for so long about people spitting in the streets and small children doing their business in the bushes, I find myself unable to parse my irrational nostalgia for the non-Olympics Beijing, where there was at least a perversely soothing predictability: people aren't either rude or polite, they're just divided into people you know (who will be unfailingly kind and polite) and people you don't (who just won't bother). Now, with the entire city on a mandated mission to "warmly welcome foreign guests," it's all been turned topsy-turvy.

And it's not just the day-to-day stuff. Since the games have started, I've almost been embarrassed to think of my pre-Olympic rants (thankfully all done with sympathetic friends at bars, and none of them online or in print) about non-human-rights-improving, freedom-of-the-press-hating, minority-culture-destroying China. And the IOC who allowed themselves to be taken in by a series of not-quite-really-but-the-rest-of-the-world-thought-they-were promises. Perhaps they've been shooting some kind of happy gas into the air along with those silver iodide rainmaking rockets, but I even find myself feeling much more charitable on the "serious issues" these days: at least they're making progress.

When Mik and I are asked if we like living in Beijing, particularly by people we want to be honest to, we're usually unable to give an unqualified answer. We tend to go in cycles: weeks when all we can think of is how the hell do we get out of here, followed by a period of time when we swear to improve our putonghua, sign up for traditional ink painting lessons and actually GO to a mixer organized by the Swedish chamber of commerce. Then the smog will roll in, Mik'll get into a fight with a cabdriver, Bella will pick up her 3rd stomach bug of the month, and we'll start all over again.

I can't predict where these two weeks will wash within that spectrum - I think it will end up being unchartable on so many levels that we'll think of it as a blip, an outlier - 16 days of an alternate reality, when Beijing was Beijing, but still not Beijing, for a family who loves it when we're not hating it, and somehow manages to enjoy every minute here, on days when we're not longing for the fresh air, poop-less sidewalks, and green green grass of home.