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Staring into the ‘Jing

To live in an Asian city is to have your perceptions changed of young people. I know that when I lived in the UK, I didn’t see young people anymore. I saw youths – the same way they’re described in police reports. Scrawny, underfed spawn that mill about mindlessly who you’d rather stab in the eye with your housekeys than say hello to. Living in Beijing or Osaka, or taking a trip to Kyoto to see people getting together in a park, dancing, drinking, rollerblading, kung-fuing is a refreshing experience.

For a long time I saw China (especially Beijing, the city where I had illogically chosen to make my home for 2 years) as the cowshit-covered, nose-picking, idiot older brother to the Henry Miller reading, Chablis drinking, smoking jacket clad Japan. I ached to get to Japan where things would be more comfortable, cleaner and a whole lot better. The general fact of the matter is that although it isn’t untrue, it’s a lot less true that you’d imagine. China had been like living in a country that was held together with duct tape, and I fantasized that Japan would be like living inside a Rolex.

The fact of the matter is that Japanese people aren’t crazy. The Japanese themselves have pegged themselves as crazy, and they’re not. It’s true; there are a lot of Japanese problems that have been solved by Japanese people for Japanese people that strike outsiders as odd. They may not be the best solutions in the world, but according to the myriad social rules of public conduct in Japan, they make perfect sense. While Chairman Mao was declaring that “women hold up half the sky”, the Japanese were only just getting to grips with the fact that women could and should go to work – the Japanese women have done their best to paint themselves as weak and feeble in the workplace, but it hasn’t washed well with the Japanese government – and fighting their wars with exactly the same death-to-the-enemies-take-no-prisoners attitude that were taught to the samurai on the streets of Kyoto 200 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, they lost to the Americans. Twice.

To say that China has a better, freer, more open society than Japan is to make a bold statement indeed. But having lived in both countries, it’s obvious that the two have more in common with each other than they dare admit. The moment that I found out that one of Japan’s political party had only been defeated twice in the last 60 years of democracy in the archipelago, I decided that I would be better off in China.

When someone pointed out that there are a lot of pointless rules in Japan that no one follows, I made my mind up to leave the country – if things are going to be like this, then I may as well be somewhere where the beer is cheap. Things are just as “crazy” in Beijing. As you walk on through Bei Hai, you might be lucky enough to see a portly gentleman walking on the wrong side of the lake railings, cheerfully taking his dog for a swim. There’s not really any ‘normal’ in Beijing, and the longer I stay here, the more normal that becomes. Seeing sixty people gathered together in a park with a battered stereo, ballroom dancing the night away is something you would never see my local park. The tourists take photos, I just walk past them, and I secretly wishing that I could dance like that.

The only real thing that I’m rather biased towards is anything medically traditional in China. I think it comes from the time when I was suffering from diarrhea that could only be described as “epic” after eating chuanr of dubious origin and was subsequently given a mysterious bottle of green lozenges that I was told would take three or four days to take effect (deciding that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any bones left, I went to a better pharmacy and bought some better medicine).

In the long, seemingly endless summer of 2008, some enterprising young men got together and started producing pirate copies of official Chinese Olympic memorabilia. Even last Christmas, a visit to the Olympic Stadium would almost always in end with someone trying to sell you something Olympic related. When the government said that they had enough stockpiles of almost everything to ensure a safe and enjoyable Olympics, they were including in the two Eiger-shaped mountains of Fuwa plushies. Chinese people are able to reel off four thousand years of history, but seem utterly bewildered when you ask them what their plans are for next week. When you do ask someone what’s changed in whichever Chinese city you left, the answer will, more often than not be, “nothing special”.

One thing that even the casual China observer will notice is that the Chinese often fire criticism at what seems to be the wrong target. While their own news services are censored and monitored by the propaganda department, people set up anti-CNN websites. While people still protest the Japanese prime minister visiting a WW2 war memorial, they ignore the memories of the millions of people who died during the Cultural Revolution. The (mis)representation of Chinese and Japanese in movies has been another sore point, and one that often degenerates into the most pointless of misguided arguments. The uproar over Chinese stars taking on Japanese roles in Memoirs of a Geisha should give you some idea of the average IQ of these mindless, Internet-addicted morons, many of who I daresay would benefit enormously from a sound beating at an internet addiction rehab clinic in the countryside.

The huge gulf between the invading foreign devils and the Chinese that were already living there when the British decided to get them all addicted to opium hasn’t gone unnoticed by the powers that be. The Chinese are too proud and the foreigners are too set in their troublesome western ways. It’s a state of affairs that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese themselves. Last week, I went to a public toilet in Sanlitun’s new shopping district, “The Village” and saw a sign in both English and Chinese that people should not stand on (and thus squat Chinese style over the bowl) the lavatory to use it. Staff at a local hotel run by a English friend are astonished by the fact that foreigners prefer cold milk on their corn flakes in the morning.

One of the things that you’ll find about Beijing is the wealth of things that you can actually do. It’s something that you’d miss if you traveled to Xi’an or Chengdu. Take the food, if you don’t like Chinese food, so you can go to an Italian restaurant, if that’s full, then you can get Japanese. Despite the out and out hatred that Chinese people foster for the Japanese, there’s a number of sushi restaurants that have sprung up, Yoshinoya is here, and so is Kyo Nichi. Beijing is a place to get fat in, there’s an obsession with food – have you eaten? Will you eat? What did you eat? When did you eat? Where did you eat? If you’re not full you should eat more…why aren’t you eating? Are you full? Is your food ok? Is the food good? .

I’m still not really sure what to make of the city – even nearly three years on. Walking down the street, as summer draws its final breaths, the government is clamping down on Internet porn sites and the girls are digging out their skimpiest, tiniest, tightest and unusually sexiest clothes to strut around in. Long ago, I arrived at the conclusion that Beijing annoys the living hell out of me. It annoys me like no other place on the planet, but there’s no other city I’d like to be annoyed by.

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