Once DD leaves in the morning for his Chinese lesson, the thing that wakes me up a while later is the car horns outside. In Beijing rush hour – with its crawling traffic and rule-breaking drivers – the beeping and parping is incessant. From the street below and across the city I hear a disharmony of honks, some short like a trumpet call and others long like the last note of a symphony. It reminds me that I’m no longer on the first floor of a terraced London flat where the street outside had a quiet pub on the corner and was barely wide enough for a bus, but on the 11th floor of a gated apartment complex looking over one of a few high-end expat districts in Beijing.
It’s not quite the 11th floor though. The number four is considered unlucky in China, which means our building doesn’t have a fourth floor, or a 14th floor or a 24th floor. This makes me wonder what happens in a building that has more than 40 floors – do they just miss out all the 40s and go straight to the 50s?
This is one of a few musings I’ve had during our first week here, which I could solve by going out on my own while DD is out. But shamefully I’ve been a bit of a coward, scared of walking amidst the traffic, embarrassed by looking Chinese and not being able to speak the language, and disdainful of the smog. There have been some days when I haven’t stepped outside, just moving from the flat through the walkway to the shopping centre, then directly through to the hotel and its swimming pool, and back again, applying for jobs online and eating giant grapes.
But it seems my reasons for staying indoors are rather lame and self-perpetuating. For one thing, the smog this time of year is actually the best it can be, and there have been a few blue-sky days after overnight thunderstorms washed away the milky haze. I’ve become a bit lazy and timid probably because I know that I’m here for four years, with DD to look out for me. I need to play the long game, which requires patience, getting back up after I’m knocked down, planning ahead, and being able to justify that plan to people who ask – all of which I’ve always avoided because it’s daunting and because it turns me into a sulky bitch.
I should really just brush away my reservations about Beijing as TIC moments. We learned this phrase from another diplomat and his wife who invited us over for dinner a few days ago. TIC (tee-eye-see) stands for “This Is China”, an explanation for the frustrations you come across here, like why an apparently imported wine has such an awful soft cork that it can’t be opened, or why sometimes you can access Gmail and sometimes you can’t. To my mind though, it should also encompass some of the unexpected kindness we’ve encountered, like the young receptionist downstairs who bought my swimming cap and goggles for me online using his own personal account, and the trusting restaurant manager who let us leave without paying the whole bill when we realised we didn’t have enough cash. He even tried to give us some money back for a taxi home, apparently confused about how we could be foreigners in an upscale restaurant with little cash and a desire to walk.
I don’t, however, have much desire to try the mooncakes, which are sitting unopened in a luxurious box by the door in our room from when our receptionists gave it to us on our second day. A traditional accompaniment to the mid-autumn festival which China is currently celebrating, mooncakes are stuffed with red bean paste and are more calorific, apparently, than a Big Mac. This year they’ve been rather unpopular, as the government is cracking down on officials who have long used them as a form of bribery, hiding money and luxury goods within the elaborate packaging. Sadly I’m sure our mooncakes are just mooncakes, I doubt our receptionists like us that much.
But maybe I should at least open it and take a peek. After all, I’ve got more chance of contributing to the household income that way than, say, by writing a blog post in the middle of the day.
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