It’s been just over a week since I landed in Beijing, something I realized yesterday when the morning routine in the schoolyard my apartment watches over changed. Each weekday morning, I’ve watched the school assemble for mass calisthenics, coached by a teacher on the stage, pepped up by a few of their peers joining him to lead the routines and overseen by what must be class leaders or monitors, fellow who wear armbands and stand at the front of each group observing (perhaps not completely the synchronized fun I first took this for, but I’m still all for the daily exercises).
Yesterday was different, and a colleague whose apartment also oversees the school told me each Monday is the same. This time, when the music announced assembly (the day is broken up by musical interludes, which I guess mark different lesson times or breaks – they continue into the evening but the school also continues into the evening, with what look to be classes or meetings of adults), it was for a more solemn occasion. The students again formed into lines before the stage, but this time the national anthem (I assume) was played as three students raised the national flag behind the stage. There was then a type of prize-giving ceremony, with some students called to the stage where they were given what appeared to be a certificate of some sort.
It’s interesting being here as an observer, especially at this stage when I have almost none of the language with which to communicate, and I can’t help but compare and contrast what I see and am told with Korea, as well as other countries in which I have lived and traveled. I watch the students as they play and interact in the schoolyard and on the street, watch the men (it always seems to be men) play board games on the street (yesterday I passed two who had used broken brick to draw a board on the road and were using pieces of brick and torn up paper as their pieces), the grandparents and parents play with the children and family members care for the elderly. Much of life is lived on the streets, particularly in the heat of summer, and the many parks near my home and further afield are filled with people playing, talking, exercising or simply resting in the shade. Of course, there is also food everywhere, from fully-decked restaurants through shop-front eateries, take-out windows and street vendors. (There’s going to be a lot of blog posts about food – it’s an important part of my life.) It’s not unusual to see a couple or group find makeshift chairs and picnic on the sidewalk or wherever they happen to be.
Beijing is chaotic, noisy and undeniably dirty, but I feel very much at home here. There’s not the sense of pali, pali (hurry, hurry) one finds in Korea, nor do I sense the same anxiety one often encounters there. If I were to describe how the Chinese I have seen appear to live their lives, and this is definitely only a first impression, I would say they do so with gusto. They seem to grab this crazy world we all share and try to squeeze every last drop from it. I’ll be the first to admit that can cause a multitude of its own problems, but I see every day in the stories we run how the country as a whole is trying to come to terms with itself and apply reasonable limits. I watch the process with great interest.
Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here, apart from the welcome and professionalism I have experienced from my colleagues and work superiors – I am by nature an observer and there is so much to observe here. One friend teased me, when I announced I was moving here, that only I “could see moving to China as the route to freedom. Or sweetness, or even taste.” But so far, that is exactly what I am finding, the freedom to be myself without expectations from anyone else, because I am completely unknown, the freedom to work well and to the best of my ability, because that is why I was employed (it’s a sad indictment of many workplaces that that is often not the case) and the freedom and inspiration to write. As for sweetness, I find that each day in my interactions with my Chinese colleagues, neighbors and strangers on the street, who are often transformed by a simple smile and greeting from this laowai who can’t even speak their language, in watching workmates practice Tai Chi in our beautiful garden or Chinese practice in the park, and in watching the families care for each other and spend quality time together.
As for taste, that’s a whole other blog or 50, but suffice to say, I’m living well and loving life.