There is an I in Beijing

Thus continues a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy.


How you act when you’re alone may be your single most defining characteristic.
And, no, I didn’t just misquote the most famous definition of ‘character.’ 

I’m chilling in Beijing alone, right? My goal is to blend in. I mean, I know I don’t. The frequent stares I collect are a regular reminder of this. I don’t want to be an intruder, though. I find my own way even when it means walking around the block to find the subway station rather than struggling through the entirely possible audio/visual spectacle required to ask for help. I noted the subway station sign two stops back. I can get there if I need to.

I feel like a spy. An inept, under-informed, ill-equipped spy.

At the Forbidden City, I intentionally avoided spending time at the hot spots. All the foreign gawkers were there. I mean, I saw those things—who wants to miss the important stuff?—but I didn’t linger. No, I did my lingering in the more secluded parts of the garden. I hate tour groups. The drawback to my touring style is that I might miss things. The advantage is that I see what I want when I want. For example, scurrying past the highlights might have cost me a thorough history lesson, as my auto-guide hadn’t caught on enough to my touring style to keep talking as I moved away. I wasn’t ignoring her. I was interested. I just didn’t want to collect attention. But she said she enjoyed touring with me, so apparently she didn’t take it personally.

I don’t aim to be antisocial. That happens naturally when I travel alone and try to avoid attention. For example, I talked as much as I could at lunch. I ate in a little sidewalk shop in an alley off the main road. A middle-aged couple, their English-learning teen son, and the apparent uncle whose mutterings 

My dining companions

sounded exactly like Steve Carell to me occupied the other table in the dining closet. I almost exhausted my Chinese and the waiter’s patience ordering my lunch, but I had enough left to realize I was serving as the sole subject of their table talk. Once assured I could only reduce the attention by speaking to them, I answered what questions I could about myself and found out even less about them. I finished quickly and left new friends for the second time (the first was the volunteer Forbidden City tour guide). Both my appetite and my need for conversation sated, I wandered through the streets for a little while longer.

My desire for invisibility no more results from fear than it does from asociality. I blundered into three different banks trying to get my six month Chinese nest egg incubating in my American bank, but to no avail. I generated plenty of attention there—wandering from desk to desk gathering their tellers gets noticed. But I did it. And wasn’t even embarrassed.

Now I’m ensconced in my corner seat at the mall’s Starbucks overflow. Five of us loners occupy various tables. Most of us are pretending to be busy. The smart-but-dull-looking fellow next to me is browsing his paper for the third time. The businessman in the corner is holding his cell phone. He’s yet to use it, but he looks ready. And you can bet he’ll be loud when he does. Next to him is the is the Americanized (i.e., chubby) student pounding on his laptop. Apparently, the quality of the character is directly proportional to the strength of the stroke. Directly across from me, the shy girl is pouring a morose gaze into her frappuccino between sips. She won’t stay long—you can only do that if you’ll watch people. And I put on my best philosopher-poet face and hide behind my pen.


Unrelated Extra: Chinese marriages are strange creatures. This dorky middle-aged man is waiting for his immaculately dressed beauty queen wife to bring him his drink. She married in for financial and social security. I really can’t say what his reasons for the marriage were, but that’s not for lack of possibilities. They interact like Emperor and concubine—she’s submissive and helpful, but he knows enough to offer her genuine love. I highly doubt they have any of our romantic ideals of passionate love, but they both work at it. He looks his best for her. She looks her best for her. She needs pampering; he provides it. In return, he gets a devoted, submissive, beautiful wife. She expects, but doesn’t demand, and he provides. No silly emotional ties to hold onto. Just seeking mutual benefit. You can’t say it doesn’t work.
(17 Jan 08 | Beijing) 

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