May 24:2010

It’s kind of fun to be a celebrity.  I don’t know if it’d be enjoyable long term, but it’s fun for a change.  This afternoon I had a horrible hair day.  I had let it dry while I slept, which often makes it more curly than normal, and kind of pretty. However today it turned out to just be messy and in the way.  It really was a bad day though.  However, in spite of that, everyone seemed to still act as if I’d walked off a Hollywood movie set.  I went into the office to send a fax for mom, and Yinghua, our “English speaking secretary” (what it says under her job description on a sheet of paper I have of important iHep contacts) started speaking to the lady at the desk.  We were just waiting for the fax to go through, and I started looking at a magazine there on CERN.  I put it down, and when I looked up Yinghua said “We were just saying how beautiful you are” in the bashful almost embarrassed way so many Chinese girls have of saying things.  I hadn’t really been paying attention, but I looked over at the other secretary. She obviously didn’t speak Chinese, but she beamed with pride as if she’d been the first to discover a momentous fact.

There’s a certain liberty afforded you when you realize that you’ll be a novelty whether or not your hair is perfect.  The truth of the matter is, extremely few ex-pats make it as far west of Beijing as we are.  There are probably 6 westerners on campus, and I know 4 of them.  3 will leave in about a month and go back to Minnesota!

The other side of this coin is, no matter what you do, you stand out.  When I was in France, it was something of a compliment to have someone not pick you out immediately as an American.  If you took just a couple extra minutes to dress in something besides jeans and a t-shirt  when you went to town, and looked respectable like the rest of the very classy city, people would treat you like something more than just an irritating American.  They appreciated when you didn’t stick out like a soar thumb.  That’ll never happen here.  I mean, I still like to dress nice, but there’s no point attempting to ‘fit in’.   The nice thing is, it’s not like in India.  When I went to the Taj Mahal I was harassed by other Indian tourists.  ‘May I take a picture with you?’ both men and women would ask.  “can a get a shot of you with my baby?”.  It was the worst side of being a celebrity.  It was kind of funny and cute at first, but after the crush and pleading of a couple hours, even unable to leave for more people asking for pictures, it got irritating.  If you started to say no, they plead, and put on a look as if you were taking the bread right out of their mouth.  This, coupled with the exhaustion of going shopping, made the whole experience just draining.  If you picked anything up to look at it, but then decided not to buy it, they would plead, and beg. I appreciate people working for their income, and not just begging on the street if they can help it, but the whole experience was just draining. “If you don’t buy it, my family will go hungry tonight” it felt like they were always implying.

Here, they like to haggle and barter as much as the next country with an emerging free market, but even this evening, as we were some of the last people out of the market, mom decided she really didn’t want such and such an item, after the girl had brought it out to look at it.  “I’m sorry, I just… it’s just not right.  I’m sorry –“ expecting the girl to beg and plead that she buy it, or offer a better price.  “No lady, that is okay” she smiled as if,  ‘sure, it’s a game to sell it to you, but if you don’t want the thing, ya just don’t want it’.

The courtesy makes it a much more pleasant experience.  People still stare at the two bazaar white ladies, and yes, even steal some pictures. But it is very much more rare that you feel harassed and irritated.

I’m really enjoying Beijing.  There are things I miss, of course, in some ways it is very very different, but in others, it’s a very pleasant society to visit and be a part of for a while.

I’d really planned on writing about the weekend and our trip to the Wall and Forbidden city, but I need to go to bed.  I’m trying to get up early and start work early, so I can get off early as well and have the late afternoon to go out with mom.

Today we went to the “Pearl Market” – which is something like one giant department store, but all different vendors inside.  They also sell just about everything.  On the 5th floor is supposedly heaps of pearls of all varieties and worth, but we didn’t make it up that far as we arrived just as it was being closed.  We walked around the first floor just a little, and got a couple gifts, but ended up leaving and walking out to find some dinner.  5 huge platters for just over 10 bucks.  I could get used to this!

Oh. Another quick little story before I fall asleep sitting up.

Mom and I chose a random restaurant on the second floor of some building.  It’s extremely hard to know if anything is particularly good, because you don’t even know what they’re advertizing.  They could be boasting the best dog meat in the city, and we’d walk in with just as much vigor. Well, in any case, we were seated and the menu’s and eventually food were brought out.  Next to us were a couple of men, having some heated discussion.  Not towards each other so much, as just very intense (also, rather loud).  The one younger man was very into his point, making forceful hand gestures and getting right up in the other guys face.  But as he finished whatever he was saying, he broke into a smile and relaxed, as if he’d been imitating some scene he’d seen, or telling a story of some intense moment he’d witnessed.  Mom and I had both noticed them and were kind of analyzing what type of conversation it was. Mom’d thought it was an argument at first, and was worried it might break into fist-to-cuffs, but I’d noticed him before he’d gotten upset, and sure enough, the moment passed.  We had just started going back to our own conversation, which had itself lulled for a moment, when the man turned to us and with the graceful gestures of a pleasant young gentlemen said “I’m sorry, excuse us” in broken English.  He apologized for getting a little too boisterous and hoped we’d not been too worried or alarmed (This second part was mostly in Chinese, but the translation was unmistakable).  Then went back to discussing, in an ever so slightly quieter a tone, whatever he’d been in the middle of discussing before.  Mom and I both turned back to each other – amazed that we’d been so obvious in our interest in  their conversation, as much as the response we’d garnered from them!

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