My Beijing trip has been very different from my usual visits to Asia, or elsewhere for that matter, where I pick a new destination and try to immerse myself in its culture and offerings while having a lot of down time to digest everything around me. Instead, this past week has been all about sports: getting to and from Olympic events, going to sports pubs to watch the Games on TV, getting into Olympic parties, figuring out if we can snag tickets to just one or two more events.
Well, duh, I did come over here to attend the Games.
I’m not sure whether because my focus has been on sports, or because I’ve previously spent a lot of time in large Asian cities, but I’ve noticed fewer major cultural differences that stand out compared to previous travels. Or is this the result of continued globalization and 21st century communications?
Nonetheless, here are a few things that definitely caught my eye the past week.
- Waiters want to serve you … fast. When seated in restaurants, the waiter hands you a menu, then stands and waits for you to order. It’s a little distracting and uncomfortable and makes you rush through the items (or at least it causes me to), which increases the chance of ordering errors—such as when I thought I had selected shredded chicken for lunch one day when I actually had inadvertently ordered chicken feet.
- Lines are kind of useless. I’ve experienced this in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, but it’s really noticeable in population dense Beijing. Doesn’t matter if you’re standing right behind a person buying a subway card, in front of the door of the train, going through a security check or trying to buy an entrance ticket to a venue, someone, or several people, will inevitably push you aside and get ahead of you. Accept this beforehand, and you’ll keep your cool longer.
- Big brother is watching. Security checks, police and cameras are everywhere, including every subway stop. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put my day-pack through a scanner and had it subjected to hand searches where every zipper and pocket was gone through. Much of this is because of the Olympics being in town, surely, but also saw a statistic in the China Post the other day that New York City plans to add 3,000 security cameras around town while Beijing currently has 30,000 of them keeping an eye on things.
- People don’t let anything go to waste. While this is not specific to China, the people here give utility and recycling a new name—which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. This topic can be broken into subcategories:
Food. As has been well documented over the years, no part of any animal goes to waste (see chicken feet, noted above). Rodents and insects are at risk of being turned into dinner dishes as well. Even cooking oil is reused.
Recyclables. People on the streets collect paper for recycling—you’ll see wheeled carts piled sky high with discarded cardboard and other paper-based products being pulled down the street by individuals; others carry around large bags full of plastic bottles and come up to you on the street while you’re drinking from one, and wait for you until you’ve finished, then ask for it.
Electricity and water conservation. In the apartment building I’m staying in, lights in the lobby and hallways won’t go on unless you whistle or make a loud noise, then they go off automatically after a few minutes. This is common in many of the new high rises going up all around the city, I’m told. Individuals also will repurpose water—if washing dishes, they’ll collect the water in the basin when finished and use it to water plants, or collect water coming out of faucets while waiting for it to warm up and use that for cooking, hand washing or, again, watering plants.
- Children are allowed to relieve themselves in public. While this practice is not encouraged, I was told that it’s common to let kids go whenever and wherever they happen to be. Sure enough, the day after I heard about this I was walking through the Tiananmen Square subway stop during rush hour when I noticed a father balance his young daughter over a grate in the floor of the walkway while her mother lifted up her dress and the little girl squatted to do what she needed to while crowds rushed past. (No, I did not take a photograph.)
- Kite flying. People love it here! Any time I’ve been near a park, I just look up and will see dozens of dots in the sky. People go all out and buy big colorful and multi-tiered kites to soar over the city. When I see them it never fails to put a smile on my face.