Never had I been so intrigued by the people of a country that I would stuff my suitcase with more than twenty books written by local authors, watch a complete series of totalitarian-nostalgic drama and even talk to strangers – all for the sole purpose of getting to know the people better.
This attraction is gravitational.
As far as my observations go, this is a place where people would spit on carpeted floor, shout at waiters and perform their lavatory functions without doors. (I once walked into a multitasking Olympian Facetime-ing her friend while taking a poo at the public toilet in FangJia hutong. Beat that.)
Yet, in a city engulfed in smog, the whip of Shame hits the Chinese ruthlessly hard like the tyrannic sun on the Sahara. There is nowhere for them to escape from the fear of being exposed. The fear of “losing face”.
The bei piao who have moved from faraway provinces to so-called first tier city like Beijing are not equal to the born-and-brats. Single women in their late twenties are shamed as the “leftovers”. On the other hand, men who are not single are strapped with the mounting pressure of having to own a house and a car before they are said to be qualified to propose to their partners. “These are the prerequisites to a successful, happy marriage”, they say. Socialist hogwash, I say. What nonsense.
These polar opposite beliefs puzzle the hell out of most foreigners. But they intrigue me to no end.
This series of blog post, titled “Babes of Beijing” is about the people I met during my various trips to Beijing.
And today, we’ll start with a fruit seller. The Fruit Seller.
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THE FRUIT SELLER
There he was, sat in a corner of the shop, gazing into a sea of motorbikes, pedestrians and cars that swooshed by him. Unfazed by velocity. This fruit shop that is a stone’s throw away from my Beijing office, crouches by North Dong Zhi Men alley. It is not bigger than the size of a car, yet I wouldn’t dare imagine the rent that he pays.
Behind the clusters of apples, star fruits, bananas and kumquats, there are two big fridges with clear doors. The grapes and dragon fruits are kept there. They all looked really fresh.
“What would you like mei nv?” He called out as soon as he saw me walking over. Chinese people like to shout, even when it’s unnecessary. Mei nv literally means “pretty girl”. When “miss” became a title widely used on escorts and ladies in the sex industry, the Beijingers have resorted to calling young women mei nv.
It’s a clever choice. Despite how commonly and nonchalantly it is used, it remains undeniably flattering. Easy to call, sometimes flirty. It gives men a chance to set the tone of the conversation, then it is up to the ladies to take it from there.
I went to this fruit shop a lot when I was in Beijing. Sure, I could have easily ordered fruits online like many in China do nowadays. But shopping on the internet would have robbed me of a wonderful chance to go local story-shopping. Also, in a city which I barely knew, it was comforting to establish a routine, a go-to place. And this was an easy way to do it.
Each time I placed my order, the fruit seller would respond with a chirpy “Of course! Let me pick some good ones for you”. The apples, the dragon fruits, they all looked the same to me. But he would go on picking and choosing like a proud father of identical quadruplets.
Among all, the bananas were my favourite. They look and taste nothing like the ones in the UK. They are softer, pudgier and a lot sweeter.
Few years ago when the Philippines and China feuded over boundaries in the South China Sea, thousands of tonnes of alleged substandard bananas imported from the country were impounded and destroyed at the port in Shenzhen. Then China moved on to ban fruits from the Philippines. It wasn’t until after the new president turned away from the country’s historical ally and cosied up with Xi Jinping that the ban was lifted.
Like it or not, the Chinese is taking over the world. Everybody needs China.
One time, I remember asking him whether the person manning the shop the other day was his father. “Yes, were you here? That was my father. He is not here today.” Then I realised that the Chinese have this habit of stating the obvious. It’s like a trick they use to make you feel like they are contributing to the conversation. It’s really a lousy attempt and very superficial. I responded yes and he went back to picking and choosing the apples happily.
Another time, he asked me, what do I do, what am I doing in Beijing? I told him I do law and have travelled to Beijing for work. He said, “hao liao bu qi” , smiled nervously and went quiet suddenly. I realised it was the sentiment of shame and immediately regretted my honesty. Even though I know I needn’t.
What most people do not know is that (1) the Chinese do not believe in compliments and would only focus on the bad instead of the good in one’s doing. Hence, what is usually regarded as mere statement of fact in the West could easily be perceived as sign of arrogance in the East, and is frown upon by the society; (2) since decades ago, the Chinese people has been “thought-reformed” by the Chinese Communist Party, who encourages them to immerse themselves in self-criticism. To do better. So that when they do, they could improve the country. In return, when the country prospers, they would also reap the benefits. They call it patriotism; (3) respecting, obeying and generally ” standing a step lower” than the elders or anyone who is more senior in age than you is a hallmark Confucian value ingrained in the culture. You need to know your social position. If you talk back to you parents,you will go to hell. And there are 18 levels of hell, each one imposes a more serious punishment than the other. Since I haven’t died, I can’t tell you if that’s real.
It’s a no-brainer, you see. When you put these pieces of puzzle together, it’s not hard to understand why, a man who is 10, 15 years older than me would feel ashamed about his job when I told him about mine. And I, on the other hand, being the younger one, should harbour the feeling of remorse for making him feel that way.
It’s ludicrous, this system of beliefs.
On my last day, knowing that it’s unlikely that I will return to Beijing anytime soon, I made a mental note to say goodbye to him after work. Alas, for reasons I won’t publicise, I didn’t.
But if I did, I would have told him that he too, hao liao bu qi.
With love x