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Lifestyle
 

Doing things the Beijing way

Published on Jul 20, 2014 3:05 PM
 

For all its gleaming trappings, by the standards of global cities, Beijing is still a closed-off place.

Even for a Singaporean, whose ethnically Chinese physical appearance and grasp of Mandarin should suggest a relatively seamless entry, it's unexpectedly difficult.

For one, life is designed with only a monolithic Chinese nation in mind. Participation in everyday activity in modern Beijing - buying subway tickets from the machine, setting up an Alipay account (China's version of Paypal), using taxi-hailing apps - still assumes the possession of a Chinese identification card.

The passport is sometimes accepted, but they reveal this fact to you and how to proceed as grudgingly as the Chinese government issues visas to foreign journalists.

Then there's the fact that when it comes to the Internet - basically the thing that's more important than all other things in everyone's lives - there is The Internet, which connects the whole world, and then there is China Internet, which connects the whole of China and divides it from the world.

For every Internet thing, there is a Chinese equivalent that is the same thing but in Chinese characters and owned by a Chinese company. The Chinese won't even call "apps" apps, although they use the same English word.

They say, I kid you not, "A-P-P", like an acronym - stretching out a one-syllable word to three and ensuring another layer of impenetrability between them and foreigners, simply because, and I'm just guessing here, they can't conform to Western concepts out of principle.

One would think that in this age of zero turnaround time, compressed supply chains and instant information, China Internet - basically a massive duplication - would have been eliminated by the invisible hand already.

But instead, for various political reasons that are beyond the remit of this column, all of us masochistic foreigners have Weixin, Weibo, QQ and renren accounts AND pay for virtual private network services so we can continue using The Internet.

One of my friends who just moved here was recently urged to adapt and use Chinese apps rather than struggle constantly with the VPN. When she lamented that China likes to make life difficult for foreigners on purpose, she was told: "It's not easy for locals either. And you are a guest here."

This sentiment captures exactly why Beijing remains, despite its rightful place as the second-biggest global city after New York City, so difficult.

It's become clear to me that most Chinese simply do not find it necessary to apply any effort at all to making foreigners feel welcome in their city. And why should they? You are a guest here.

This is why they persist in disgusting social habits and laughably bad English translations - they don't know, and don't care, how things should be done in The Rest Of The World. This is China.

When I don't understand what a Beijing cabbie is saying to me, for example, he doesn't try to use simpler words or speak more slowly and clearly. It never occurs to him that he should.

For a Singaporean, raised in a society at the other extreme of caring too much about making foreigners feel welcome, it is a perplexing thing to encounter over and over again.

Coming from a place where people instantly and magically modify their accents when White People appear and where standardisation with the rest of the world is a perennial preoccupation, it is jarring to know that not everyone does things that way.

Of course, it's comparing apples and pears or, more accurately, bonsais and supertrees. But one thing I've noticed is that the China doctrine imbues in the foreigners who do settle here a perverse sense of pride and attachment.

As if they were the child and China the distant father who walked out, foreigners here hate and love the city; each time they say they're done, they stay for more. And all they want is an acknowledgement that surviving and thriving in a land that honestly does not care about your existence, and sometimes tries to threaten that existence just for fun, is an achievement and a mark of character.

I once met an Austrian photographer who moved to Beijing from Berlin. When asked if he liked it in China, he said he liked that he never met any "ordinary people".

To external observers who accurately perceive that there is little that makes Beijing an attractive city to live in, he sounds like a brainwashed glutton for punishment.

But to him and his ilk - and I have to admit that there are moments when I feel part of this tribe - what they're living feels extraordinary.

rchang@sph.com.sg

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