Beijing Case

Via Lewandowsky, Email from Beijing, 2005

Sorry for my delayed response, well, anyways, you know how it is. Time is passing here very quickly. However, there are some days that are rather leaden. Today is one of those days. It began with rain, it’s dark, and the already hazy view from our 13th story Golden Lake Apartment has been reduced by another several hundred meters. As compensation after such days, sometimes a view to the mountains emerges through the small slits between buildings. But there is nothing spectacular to see towards the north anyways. The architecturally exciting CBDB lies to the south. The ocean of 20 to 30 story high-rise towers is monotone, and similar to the concrete desert of São Paulo or who knows where. Today we can see all the way to Marzahn. Heinz, our house cricket, is already quite frustrated and hasn’t made a sound in hours. One leg is hanging, flaccid, over the edge of his 4 cm2 wooden cage. But he belongs to the calmer of his species anyway. The Giant African Ground Cricket, however, possesses another disposition. Bred for competition, he allegedly has a nasty bite. Unfortunately, I have not seen such an event, I have only heard of it. Besides the fact that it would be linguistically arduous to maintain a clear head there, one already feels as though one is in a pet shop in the supermarket belonging to our compound.

Fish, tortoises, unappetizing-looking silk worms all creep and crawl inside storage containers. Loosely chopped and stuck together with a package of soup by means of clear plastic shrink wrap, one can order a complete packaged lunch. With this meal, one usually drinks a traditional tea or a beer, rich in formaldehyde. If you require a higher dose, you can purchase a 5-Liter canister of clear “Chinese Land Wine.” The 60% alcohol Mao Tai (a grain spirit) is placed dangerously close to the water in the supermarket. On my first try preparing the aforementioned water-based tea, I nearly passed out from the strong stench of the alcohol. The sung, nasal, and through-the-teeth language commonly leads to such misunderstandings when ordering in restaurants, despite a good vocabulary.

“Lian’ge” means both cold and two. When ordering a noodle soup, one will either get two soups, or one cold soup.

This is still relatively harmless. However, if you cannot get a taxi driver to drive you home because he refuses to understand the name of the blasted park around the corner, you are quickly left in despair. And if you don’t have a note from Mom prepared with the proper Chinese characters, it means getting out and twisting your tongue in knots on your next try. But actually, one need not leave the compound. Swimming pool, fitness center, the afore mentioned supermarket, and a large selection of good restaurants are within spitting distance. If you have enough courage, or faith in God and the fairness of the Chinese traffic regulations, you can hop on a bicycle and explore the city for yourself. There are only two similarities to riding a bicycle in European cities. The bike looks like a bike, but not even the Party knows whether it will remain intact until the next intersection – and the Party knows everything else. And one must ride on the right side of the road. But the right-hand traffic here is also a matter of interpretation. The rest is providence and natural talent. I am astonished that I cannot explain where the alleged 90,000 traffic-related deaths come from. Or was it 900,000?

Day 21: The view out of the window of Berlin-Marzahn in November. Exterior temperature, 39 degrees.
Day 21: The view out of the window of Berlin-Marzahn in November. Exterior temperature, 39 degrees. © Via Lewandowsky, Christine de la Garenne

One never sees accidents and dented vehicles, excepting of course the cars that are only held together by Mao’s good spirit. Everything here – as if by a higher power – is whisked together harmoniously. Pedestrians, cyclists, motorized rickshaws, cars, passenger vans, and trucks of all kinds weave through the intersection of eight-lane streets and dissipate like knots in the hands of magicians.

Those turning left conquer the right of way, lone mothers stand boldly in the center of intersections, three-wheeled cargo bikes cross the fast lanes at a snail’s pace. At the least, 1400 surveillance cameras provide drivers with an unseen source of respect, for fear of monetary fines imposed without warning. One latest register of sins can be viewed on the internet, complete with photo and time of offense. Accounts are squared at the end of the year. Expansion of the public transportation system lags behind the rapid growth of more densely populated residential and business districts. Flows of commuters increase with the rate at which the cheap residential zones are demolished. The supply of water and energy in the dry area of greater Peking is becoming more and more difficult.

Beijing, Day 61, 2005
Beijing, Day 61, 2005 © Via Lewandowsky, Christine de la Garenne

Heat is met with millions of air conditioners. In order to prevent the collapse of the energy supply, even artificial rain has been attempted.It is both cooling and impressive. The all-pervading power of the state is omnipresent. Except for the constant presence of uniformed private and public armed forces, this remains hidden to the untrained eye. The system is self-perfected. Allegedly, there are three large interfaces for internet access to foreign lands, so technologically advanced that even speed and access to complex filter software can be regulated, depending on the political barometer.

Or so they say. Exact information is just as difficult to procure here as it is to determine the authenticity of a product. Imitations, fakes and reproductions or fraud, blanketing and outright lies are the greatest strengths of a land in the midst of a counterfeiting boom. It appears to me to be like a gigantic school. Not every “faked” product fails our initial tests. Quality is becoming more and more a status symbol. The value of access to literature and film of the highest class for little money (pirated DVDs are available starting at 60 cents) is more powerful than any state-financed education program. That an action-thriller – accidentally provided with English subtitles from sports coverage – has increased artistic value can even be seen as innovative. English enjoys great popularity and is often only optically translated, word for word. Chinese is a language of pictures. A cookie made of organic-quality wheat germ suddenly appears on the market as an “Embryo-Biscuit.” The sign-board to the park dedicated to the ethnic minority reads: “To the Racist Park.” Well, everything is relative. I don’t understand my new cell phone either. I bought a Chinese designer model. It is indeed quite stylish, but the batteries are not meant for regular use. It is called AAACALL and is the replica of AnyCall, which seems to be a copper-plated Samsung. But in return, Chinese girls constantly dance across the back of the display screen, and it whines constantly in Chinese like a Tamagotchi-mutant; this has already led to much irritation in elevators. Presumably it will not survive until my return. But nevertheless, I would be happy to receive a call from you anytime.