The wild, wild inscrutable north
I have been in China only one week, and I already feel like I have been transported somewhere that is always oscillating between seeming just upside down, to being downright inscrutable. I have eaten green pea flavored ice cream, drunk black bean flavored milk and watched the staff of a beauty spa perform military drills in their parking lot. I have abandoned the conviction that traffic lights have any meaning whatsoever, and likewise said Zaijian to my sense of personal space.
I arrived here by train from Hong Kong. We traveled overnight through the south of the country, by the time I awoke the landscape was flat and barren. It reminded me of parts of Mexico: flat, bare and dusty. In the towns, the small roads between the humble houses were occupied by an occasional bicycle or pedestrian, between the towns there were endless plains and occasional fields with neat rows of cultivated crops. I arrived in Beijing in the afternoon, having endured the incessant chatter of an aging American ex-pat who thought I needed to hear his somewhat jaded opinions on the country, twenty times over. He had worked as an aircraft engineer in China for five years, and seemed to have nothing good to say. No matter how often I derailed the conversation toward other topics, he would bring it back to things he didn’t like about the place. In the end I just escaped by claiming I needed more sleep.
Beijing was still enduring the tail end of the dust storms that arrive at the start of spring. I am told it was mild this year, nevertheless the air contained a noticeable orange dust that obscured the more distant parts of the city. The effect was more pronounced at dusk because the neon lights would glimmer through the orange fog and give a vague outline to buildings that could not quite be seen. As I walked through the wide city streets and stared into the windows of shops I struggled to find the right imagery I might use to describe the city to others. The best I have been able to do is that it is like a futuristic steampunk western. So much that I would not be surprised to see tumbleweeds come rolling through the city, followed by a cowboy in a leather chairman Mao suit riding a robotic horse. I realize that seems far-fetched, but the city writhes with the feeling that future and past, native and foreign all coexist here, perhaps not harmoniously, but they are all jammed into the same subway carriage watching the same cartoons on the glitchy television.