Guest Blogger: Beijing: the city of wonders

This week’s guest blogger, Caterina Bellinetti, has written a really exciting, insightful piece about her recent trip to Beijing, which was funded by the SGSAH as part of the Speaking My Language programme. Caterina previously wrote about her experiences of the course and why it’s great from PhD students.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

To me Beijing is a noisy, chaotic, at times oppressing and inscrutable, ever changing city, and yet, it feels like home. Life in Beijing can be easy if you manage to embrace the necessary “what the hell” attitude, as Julia Child would say, and if you can let go of all the expectations one might have on this huge, complicated and somehow modern city.

It would probably be too easy and overrated to describe Beijing through its most famous landmarks such as the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. Despite the obvious beauty and fascination that these places still have for me since the first time I saw them in 2006, I was in Beijing for research purposes this time so I decided not to dwell in touristy activities and to try my best to live my days there as a true Beijinger. Although I was indeed an expat, I believe that choosing to live in a very Chinese neighbourhood and completely abandon the use of the English language were the first two steps to embrace Beijing.

It might be quite straightforward but Beijing’s most fascinating aspect to me is the great contrast that you can find in the city. I am not talking about the still very present and visible gap between rich and poor, but the coexistence of old and new ways of living. While young people hang around Sanlitun (one of the most fashionable areas), shop at Nike or Lanvin and eat Spanish paella while drinking Negroni, the old folks still spend their days playing majiang or Chinese chess on the street with their friends.

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New skyscrapers in front of Taikoo Li shopping centre in Sanlitun

My street-casino was organised by the bicycle repair guy who would set up a tiny table with stools in front of his ‘shop’ and wait for his friends to start the game. They were all men between 60 and 75 years old, all chain-smoking while playing and frequently enough you could hear them shouting at each other for a bad move or a good one; they got angry with the spectators who intervened with wrong suggestions for the next move. Although I am quite sure they would have been pleased with me asking for a photograph, I never took one; I just walked by and enjoyed the show.

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The unlocking service owned by the bicycle repair guy below our flat

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Repairing tools for bikes, shoes and other items

The other interesting aspect of my days in Beijing were supermarkets. I am not sure why but I find supermarkets the perfect place to go to get a grasp of the habits and culture of a country or city. It might be because Chinese people, just like Italians and Indians, treat food as a very, very serious business. In Beijing, and I am quite sure in all big Chinese cities, supermarkets are divided into two categories: Chinese style supermarkets, or Western supermarkets such as Carrefour. Chinese supermarkets have a more ‘farmers market’ approach to them; they are divided into sections —vegetables, meat, fish, rice and pulses, freshly made dumplings and such— but items are not packaged and you can’t really find Western foods such as pasta or jam. Western style supermarkets on the other hand still have a ‘market’ approach but they try to have a more sanitised layout. Although I am not vegetarian and I love a good burger from time to time, the meat section in Chinese supermarkets is something I would not recommend for the faint hearted. For this reason, I only managed to take a photograph of the Carrefour butcher section as the Chinese market one was too much for my fragile heart (and nose!).

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Butcher section at Carrefour

At the same time though, the over sanitised aspect of some Western supermarkets gave me “Chinese angst”, as I call it. I would describe ‘Chinese angst’ as the feeling of being in an ultra-modern, sanitised place —what the French anthropologist Marc Augé defined as ‘non-space’— that does not comfort you with Western familiarity but makes you longing for the messy and more real Chinese approach to retail, and life in general. It might also be that our packaging sensitivity is very high due to all the campaigns made to limit the use of plastic, but in Chinese Western supermarkets everything comes wrapped or in a plastic bag/box.

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‘Chinese angst’ at the supermarket

Despite seeing many people going to these types of supermarkets, the most fascinating food-related experience was to hunt for more traditional food on the streets. When I was living in Tianjin back in 2012, on many occasions I had lunch with the noodles made by this tiny lady on her kitchen-tricycle. The price at the time was 7 kuai for a portion, something around 0.70£. These food stalls are still very present in Beijing and many people get their dinner from them on their way home. Although this food is indeed tasty, I am not sure how one’s liver can survive on a street food diet before giving up.

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Food stalls on the street

My days in China were of course also spent working (sigh). The National Library in Beijing is the third biggest library in the world (it has a dedicated metro stop!) and it deserves a visit just to understand what ‘big’ means. I got lost a couple of times while looking for the microfilm room, but I managed to find 1930s magazines that I couldn’t get hold of in the UK. It might have been just my expectation given the size of the library and the amount of materials, in Chinese and other languages, but I couldn’t find a single person that spoke English in there. There are some signs in English here and there, but they are definitely not enough to allow you to work smoothly if you don’t speak Chinese at all. I would also strongly recommend to do a couple of hours of intense meditation before going as I almost suffered a mental breakdown when the librarian (one of the many) told me, after one hour and a half on the tube to get there, that on Saturdays the newspaper archive is closed. I couldn’t find any info about this on the website, which again seems to be quite a common thing in China. Websites are not usually up to date, so do not rely on them too much. If after all this struggle, you are still up for a taxi ride, I would suggest to go and relax at the Vade Whisky Bar in Baochao Hutong (宝钞胡同). I know, why would anyone who lives in Scotland drink whisky in China? Well, just trust me on this one, ok? They don’t make the ‘Lost in Sichuan’ cocktail in Edinburgh.

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The inside of the Vade Whisky Bar

Due to these kinds of ‘minor’ delays caused by cultural and linguistic differences, I can say that doing research in Beijing is not for the faint-hearted nor for those who are not comfortable arguing in Chinese, but it is nonetheless a very empowering experience. After cracking the Chinese online catalogue of the National Library, surviving the unpredictability of Chinese taxi drivers and the ridiculous amount of fake banknotes I got from the ATMs, I am confident that I will be able to overcome whatever difficulty might appear on the PhD horizon, human or technological.

I would like to say a big thank you to the SGSAH for the scholarship as it allowed me to go to Beijing and collect the materials I needed for my study. I would also like to mention the friend, more a saint really, who hosted me while in Beijing. Elisa, you are the greatest friend and flatmate one can wish for. Lastly, I feel compelled to mention (and show you) the cutest interference to my work I could have hoped for.  He chewed my iPad, my book on Chinese black and white photography and walked on my laptop at the most inappropriate moments. (He looks innocent enough in the photo, but don’t get fooled!)

To you Lord, 谢谢.

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My name is Caterina and I am doing a PhD at the University of Glasgow. My research focuses on how the Chinese Communist Party used photography as propaganda tool during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). If you have any comments or questions about life in Beijing or the reasons why you should take the Speaking My Language course (isn’t it obvious that it is an amazing opportunity?!), please feel free to drop me a line. You can find me on Twitter @ducky_cat.  All photos were made by me.

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