Learning to survive in Beijing

About three weeks after moving to Beijing, I had an awkward moment of realisation that I might fit in too well.

I was walking briskly out of a hotel, texting while deftly manoeuvring around the bodies that are always in the way here.

It was not until I felt someone's glare burning a hole into my back that I lifted my eyes and turned around to see an older Caucasian woman giving me the mother of all b**** stares.

Apparently, what I considered to be "deft manoeuvring on a narrow pavement" was, to her First World eyes, someone rudely cutting into her path with nary an apology.

We locked eyes for quite a long time, like 10 seconds - recrimination in hers, while mine first reflected puzzlement, then realisation, then defiance.

I didn't say anything to reveal I was an expatriate too, but it wouldn't have made a difference. What stood between us was an ideological gulf. She believed the lack of social graces on Beijing's streets was a travesty, while I approved, as signalled by wholesale adoption.

Foreigners in China have to adapt to a lot to survive and thrive here, like the smog, the dry and dusty air, the fact that almost all taxis smell like sour armpits.

Many people that I've met, some of whom have been here for years, can get over all that - but not the complete lack of social graces.

It's not that people here don't display them because a frenetic pace is not conducive to pleases, thank yous and excuse mes. That's true of almost every global city. It's more like China actively discourages pleasant behaviour among strangers by entrenching unique practices that incorporate the worst of human instincts.

Nowhere else on earth does shouting at a waiter across a restaurant signify anything but boorishness. Here, it's how you get his attention. I tried to wave one over in my first week here, embarrassed to raise my voice in public.

One waiter saw me beckon and looked at me quizzically without moving for five seconds before I put my hand down, and yelled "FU WU YUAN!" He trotted over with a smile.

My voice has been permanently raspy since moving here. Whether to a taxi driver at 8 in the morning in a Starbucks, or in an office to a grieving wife on hunger strike, I've shouted over the phone more times in three weeks than in my entire life. And most of them were fairly pleasant conversations.

I don't spit and I don't shoot a snot rocket out of one nostril while holding down the other nostril with a finger in public - yet.

But my adaptation period to this brusque social culture has been brief, and the behaviour that Beijing permits - nay, encourages - now has taken on the sheen of freedom.

I don't actually like to wait while people file out of a train. I don't like to utter inane niceties to strangers, I don't like to stand to the side of a pavement to let an older Caucasian woman pass, and while I didn't know this before, raising your voice to be understood is actually incredibly efficient.

I don't think I'm alone. This is the brutish nature of the human condition. We've just repressed it out of respect for unspoken rules of human interaction.

But the biggest proponents of these rules of civility tend to be the most passive-aggressive, because the rules frown on open confrontation. That woman could have educated me, but she settled for a long death glare.

This is where Beijing's barbaric rules are so attractive. There are no double meanings. There is no shame in cutting in front of someone waiting for a taxi - if he wanted one enough, he would simply walk ahead of you again.

The universal syllable of passive- aggressive disapproval - "tsk" - has no equivalent in Chinese. It's open confrontation or nothing at all.

Everyone knows the rules, which is there are none. And man, do you save a lot of time when you don't leak minutes going through the motions of civility.

Many of you may be shaking your heads, thinking it all sounds like hell. But don't be so judgmental. From a different perspective, it could be paradise.

Just a really loud, smelly one where people would step over your prostrate body in the street if you had been stabbed or something.

On the plus side, when the roles are reversed, you don't have to be late for an appointment because you had to stop to help.

rchang@sph.com.sg

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on April 6, 2014.