My first experience with the Beijing subway went overall pretty well. I remember standing on the train, when a homeless man came by. He had no arms or legs and scooted himself and his tin pot along. The type of homeless people you see in China perturb like nothing else. A homeless man in any city presents an interesting predicament. Growing up city to city, I’ve been trained to ignore homeless people my whole life. My parents never outright told me how to treat them. I observed it from every thinking, feeling, and compassionate adult in the area. Ninety percent of them turned their nose at homeless people. What should make me so different? After all, altruism’s wasted on homeless people. This is what we are all told we know. Money serves you better than them. They’ll waste it drowning their sorrows in liquor. They are probably scammers, dressing down for cash. If you give one of them cash, the whole street will ask for it. If you give just one of them cash, why not give cash to another? What made the first more worthwhile. Homeless people present a moment to decide if you want to judge someone. They present a very real moment in time where you can look a person dead in their eyes and decide just what worth you see there. When someone brushes by a homeless person it is not that they have a cold heart. They do not want people around them to suffer. They probably do not think homeless people worthless. It is just that judging challenges a person. Judging annoys a person. Judging downright exhausts someone. It depletes you, even if you think you made the altruistic move. Even if you think you made the sensible move. So the only move to make is to pretend you have no judgment to give at all.
Homeless people are a predicament. I could never know where they came from. I could never see where they would end up with my dollar. I never will have the information to make me feel secure in my judgment. I have ignored more homeless people in my life than I care to admit. I will not make much excuse for it. It is tough to deal with, but I have done plenty of tough things before.
Chinese homeless people are particularly exceptional. They tend to be amputees, and they tend to wear tattered rural clothing. A lot of them have darker, leathery skin from all the years under the sun. They look like they come from another country. They seem like refugees from some harsh distant land with an ever blazing sun. In reality, they come from the same land brimming with young adults in designer clothes. They come from the place with seas of steel towers that stretch for miles. But the sun feels sharp here too.
It felt striking seeing this man amidst all the people commuting in their nice formal wear. The subway sped on anyways. Holographic ads ran alongside the subway car, telling us about new luxury goods. The visualized inequality does not feel uncommon. I would see plenty more homeless people in my time here. The contrast still shocks me. It reminds me that even this humongous city only offers me a small slice of an even more vast country. Somewhere in this vast country capitalism has yet to fill everyone’s coffers.
Beijing feels massive all on its own. Exiting the subway, I expected something similar to the cities I was used to. It was not so different. It had the same model that most cities follow, except a lot more packed. It seemed like buildings were pushed closer together and generally more people walk, drive, and bike in Beijing than even in New York. Despite the crowd, Beijing feels about as calm as DC and much calmer than New York. I find my campus more hectic than the city. The bikes of Peking University feel endless. Lots full of bicycles litter the campus. I cannot recall the last time I walked anywhere during peak hours without having to wade through bike traffic. The part of Beijing I saw on my walk to work felt calming compared to the cluster fuck of bikes at Peking University. Of course, not all of Beijing felt so calming. Later I will discuss the parts of the city that made me feel truly schizophrenic.
The walk to my office occurred in a more residential, notably not that notable downtown neighborhood. Any part of a city can feel notable because most cities barrage you with big buildings. Any part of city feels like it might be brimming with something, because a decent amount of people live and build there. Though, there are parts of any city that are almost purely functional. They may have tall buildings, but the buildings house office space. They might have street vendors, but they are not pushy like the ones on touristy avenues. Likely, they don’t push because there’s no great competition around them. They might well be the only street vendor there. Houses still sprawl out, full of interesting architectural features and interpersonal dramas. But none of the houses put that is on display, so it is odd to spend a lot of time looking at them. This part of Beijing felt functional. It had a large bank, residences everywhere, and lots of office space. It also had plenty of stores and some street vendors too. Still, nothing popped out.
Initially it made me feel out of place. But having done the walk a few times, I like it. I do not feel any more included in the area. Most people there will never know me. Many will continue to do triple takes upon seeing me walk through. Their eyes will pry at the how and why of where I am. It can make me uncomfortable. When I am all about myself, I ask them what right they’ve got to go looking at me like that. When I calm down and click into the context I can understand it. I am a very odd sight. It is not like in America, where we see people of different hues constantly. America’s full of different sorts of people. We do not just have Mexicans, we have El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Argentinians and more. We do not just have African-Americans, but Africans form Kenyan, Egyptian, South African, and many more places still. America’s melting pot status took on a real, physical form. I took that for granted. In Beijing there are Asians and then more Asians. Even in the very touristy areas, Asians vastly outnumber anything else.
In a way China must be diverse. With a dominion strung out over so many miles and lands, people can act like tourists in their own country. The same goes here in America, where there east and west coasts flood with tourists coming from the across their own country. But to my observations at least, America’s got more pigmentation than Beijing. Even in Indianapolis, I got used to seeing white people, African-American people, Asians, and Latinos. I might even see some Europeans or Africans as well. In DC the variety intensifies further. In the great crowds of Beijing, a non-Asian person really sticks out. I cannot blame them for staring, because they do not get the same opportunities to see out of the norm people. In America out of the norm almost is the norm for cities. Street performers dot the urban landscape. Foreigners of all sorts come here seeking education or attractions. America’s a weird and colorful place. I forgot until know just how much I loved it for that.
Do not think that means China looks dull or boring. Beijing might appear more homogenous, but I doubt that truly is. Besides any off that, Beijing has a liveliness all its own. I see some of that liveliness on my walk to work. That is what I love about it. I do not feel very included, or even that settled into routine. The walk there and back always rings of a certain strangeness. That strangeness comes from liveliness that I am not a speaking, understanding part of. I might belong to it in some physical sense, but I cannot understand or grasp it. So I love my walk to work because each time I feel introduced to a fascinating aspect of life across the world that I did want to know about. I wanted to see how Beijing looked and lived. That was one reason I came here. On the way to work, I get a glimpse at that. Even better, I do not get to know it fully. The mystery makes it all the more enticing. I cannot analyze it until it becomes dull. I cannot sink so far into it that it seems mundane. Every time there is something fresh about it, because it has something I cannot quite get my hands on. Much akin to the general act of living.
As I walk to work, a few women sell all sorts of tech gear on a blanket just outside of the subway. Another couple of stands set up even closer to the subway. They sell all sorts of bottled drinks and plastic wrapped snacks underneath large cafeteria umbrellas plastered with worn “Coke” and “KFC” logos. How did they get their hands on those umbrellas anyhow? When I get further along the street vendors fade away into little mom and pop convenience shops. The shops usually sit just outside large tenement communities with their own gates and gardens inside. To get to my work I have to walk through one of these communities. The instructions felt strange at first. My boss told me to walk through a little community of bike repair stores and fruit stands sitting inside the courtyard connecting a few apartment buildings. How would they put an office building in here? It seemed odd that the Economic Observer, a major independent publisher in China, would set up in the midst of it all. As I walked through a street lined with cars and scooters I saw all sorts of people cross in and out. Some older, more traditionally dressed people lounged. In the meanwhile, well to do businesswomen flocked out as fast as they could. Porsches parked near rusty bikes. The apartment buildings gazed down at all of it.
The building I actually work in used to be a kindergarten. A playground still sits outside. It brims with the blasting sort of color children love. It is all bold blues and streaks of glowing red. Inside, the tiled floors have painted designs meant to teach children simple English words. My actual day at work felt much less entertaining than getting there. Since it was the first day, I learned what I would do, and then decided to head out. My co-workers never offend and I like most of the work I do.
After leaving, I decided to check out a small park that my boss recommended to me. Parks appeal to me. Parks provide a spot of calm in an urban environment. They can pack up with people, but all that beautifully arrayed nature keeps my anxieties in check. Here in Beijing the parks feel particularly beautiful. Most of them center around bodies of water, featuring multiple bridges and paddle boat services. On a clear day, a Beijing park has a lot to offer. Rows of weeping willows sway over quietly rippling waves of water. Each park features an expanse of great green trees running up and down slopes along the coast of the rivers and ponds. This park was not even exceptional, but it seemed beautiful all the same. After that I would visit the Yonghe temple and Ditan Park.
Both inherited ceremonial significance from the days passed. Ditan Park used to have shrines dedicated to a goddess of the earth. Emperors used to sacrifice animals in the middle of a large courtyard at the center of the park. While the foliage all still stood well maintained and ordered, the buildings themselves had seen better days. Grass grew wildly up beneath the grey tiles of the sacrificial courtyard. The goddess of the earth came back after all this time to reclaim her shrine. Signs at various points told visitors to refrain from superstitious activities. It did not seem anyone came for worship. The park had a few families, a few Asian tourists with their own cameras, and a good deal of old people performing calisthenics.
The Yonghe Buddhist temple could not have been more different. Beggars and incense salesman formed a line all along the outer wall of the temple. I gave money to one, determined not to ignore them. The beggar next to him immediately got pushy. For whatever reason, it made me feel indignant. I did not know what I expected. Giving does not make you a saint, and no saint ever became kind out of a desire for reverence. Kindness can be forced, and if there’s no other recourse it should be. But I missed the point. The point being the universe would not give me immediate reward. It may give me no reward at all. The reward’s not the point.
Inside the temple everything looked well preserved. Great ornate buildings housed just as decorated statues of various holy figures. People entered with hands full of incense. No signs told them to avoid superstition. They walked in, stood outside or inside of one of the temples, and went about their religious ceremony. To give a quick breakdown, the physical act of a religious ceremony means a lot more to Asian traditions. In Buddhism there are mantras, which involve chants of verbal worship, but there are also mudras. Mudras serve as something like a chant done with the body. It can involve the whole body, but mostly refers to hand and arm gestures during meditation. One woman performed a very complicated mudra every time she took a step. It involved carefully moving her arms through the air in various circular motions until she stopped and bowed so low her forehead touched the ground. The grey from the stones and the black from the ash of burnt out incense covered her forehead. Most other people had other forms of physical ceremony. Many people went to each shrine, offered up a stick of incense, and bowed low three times. I saw a few people hold the base of the stick of incense to their heads as they bowed. I read about this, but seeing so many people engage in forms of worship made all my religious texts come to life. The place felt hallowed in no small part due to the respect paid to it. Yonghe provided a strong contrast to Ditan. Their holiness did not completely come from the buildings enshrining long held beliefs. It did not float in the air either. That true sense of holy stemmed from the people themselves. Examining it, I wondered how religiously Buddhist I ever was. I rarely chanted, and I could not imagine doing what they did. But religion’s a tricky word, and I have already talked about too many tricky words today.
I left Yonghe feeling very intrigued with the whole affair of religion. Though, I often felt like that. Religion, philosophy, whatever you call it, deeply affects the thinking of thousands of people. Historians study it regularly because of the role it often plays in the lives of the people of any given period. As a history major, I ran into it plenty. As someone curious about the whole affair of life, and how other people interpret this madly wide space we live in, I run into it more than what’s healthy. In that regard the introspection and intrigue did not feel fully new. The questions it made me ask, I had asked before. The punctuation marks became a bit more packed.
After that I headed back. I lived through the first week. Once things got rolling I would feel much better. Routine started to scrape itself together. My mind weaved back into old familiarities. The internet helped with that, too. Consciously I just wanted to know I could contact the people I loved regularly. Something subconscious brooded behind the internet as well. Having the internet again let me go back to my routine of leisure. I could return to my well scheduled web-comics and youtube channels. The internet let even my passions fall into neatly folded schedules. The internet helped me turn everything back into a form I could understand. My mind would digest its food again in three perfectly timed meals a day. No stomach pains needed, my timetable turned on again. Still, I had let my eyes feast on something huge. I let my mind know I was not home. I hopped off the boat, to realize the ocean feels more massive from a foreign shore. No amount of timetables, schedules, and webpages could tear that full sensation off the contours of my sensory system.
A lot of travelling in China would turn into handling that sensation of overwhelming fullness. When something like that strikes me, first I feel like hiding. It has taken me years and years and years to realize the importance of accepting. Life’s always seemed bloated. There’s so much color and so many constants floating around. The first memory I have, I recall myself looking out at the wide blue sky shining over my tiny, fenced in backyard. When I was that young, it really was endless. My next nearest memories sits me by our ancient desktop. Even then you could use it to explore endlessly. Gigabytes of data splayed out all across the undeveloped internet infrastructure. I grew up watching it all come together into this huge and sometimes hideous network of intertwining facts and stories.
We had so much to learn and so much to do. All the old pursuits of sportsman and readership remained, but now we had video games and technology. Back then, if I can still digress, I loved to play games that gave me a sense of something wider. Most of my strategy games stored information about civilizations in encyclopedias buried at the back of menus. I would stare through the glaring gloss of the screen to get at the info. It would burn my eyes to the core. I constantly played games that let me lead thousands of soldiers into battle. I liked the clash of civilizations and the personal dramas that expanded beneath each click. I never knew why. It took me longer to get into shooters. By the time I did, the internet abounded with newly laid roads leading to blog after blog. With each year the internet got better and better. Each passing year somehow facilitated the intake of media more than the last. Somehow it gets easier still, to the point where no one uses RSS feeds. I stopped needing those old strategy games. Maybe I found a wideness to substitute the one I lost. Maybe the world suddenly flushed full of shit to wrap my head round and I got tired of thinking against something in my spare time. Perhaps the strategy games got worse as I got old. It could have nothing to do with me. Maybe I think it has something to do with me because I can find every story, email, and status update I wrote and suddenly I am as wide and fractured as the world I am in.
Who knows anything about me anyhow? Certainly not myself! My part wasn’t even thinking when I started making moves on me! I myself am fine with being lost on that “me” front. After all, I’ve been watching me for some time now, and I am pretty sure I’ve found me a shady fellow. So much jibber-jabber could never be wholesome. No sir, I wouldn’t go letting me in my house if I were myself, methinks.
~Austin R Ryan