I am walking through the hutongs in Beijing on my way to an English tutoring appointment and a man comes outside and spits. “Oh, the spitting, and they walk outside right when I walk by just to spit. Not in the kitchen sink, of course not.” Muttering to myself I shake my head and chuckle. Then, another man comes outside to spit in the sidewalk. I laugh hysterically, and it’s unbelievable so I think that I should take it personally due to either my gender or race, but I’m not sure. I notice a fruit shop and buy one orange for one kuai. The fruit seller cuts me a deal. I didn’t think the spitting had to do with locals reacting to a foreigner until a recent paranoia.
I walk in the public restroom in the hutong. Hutongs originally had public restrooms, and the locals would have to go outside during the winter season to use the restroom, and also take showers. Many local people have chosen to sell their hutongs back to the government, and for a very high price, in exchange to move to an apartment. In the public restroom I’m repulsed by a filthy squat toilet. Waste basket full and overflowing with a mix of bloody napkins and used toilet paper. It’s a rank smell of urine that’s aged over time. At least I don’t fall over and soak my clothes. To a novice this kind of experience with squatting and toilet paper isn’t easy, with many people requiring a full shower afterwards.
Continuing on my walk the alleyways are full of local delicacies. Very famous for Beijing is the duck heads, necks and other chopped whole body parts, all sitting separated in metal bowls on the side of the roads. The smell of grilled meat fills the air with large gusts of smoke from charcoals. I have to walk by with disgust, knowing that what is commonly referred to as lamb meat is actually rat meat. What to speak of the incredible night markets selling scorpions, centipedes, and snakes to try on a stick. It’s not only insects and meat that they do terribly on a stick either. There are some nice things served on a stick too, like pineapple and cantelope. It’s nice to scope the occasional fruit cart on the street corner with pomegranate juice and fruit on a stick. It’s not all bad.
The street food vendors operate so that you try at your own risk. Often at dawn, I see locals with the cover off of the sewer dipping large spoons or buckets to get this gutter oil, afterwards it’s boiled and processed to look exactly like regular quality cooking oil. I avoid the street food at all costs. The gutter oil that they use is siphon from the gutters or recycled from restaurant fryers or grease traps. When walking into a normal restaurant, there are various certifications that the restaurant can be graded based on following food regulations. If they are caught with gutter oil they are given a lower certification, of course street vendors have no certifications.
Getting a bowl of noodles isn’t difficult, and then using the chop sticks to eat the noodles is trying. I manage to order mushrooms and rice noodles, but it’s impossible to pick them up with the chop sticks. I somehow manage to accidentally drop half a noodle outside of the bowl, which then by force drags the rest of the noodle out of the bowl and into my lap. I pick up the two foot noodle and simply throw it up in the air so it hits the floor. The rest of the splish splash of noodles flop out of my chopsticks and back in the bowl. The red chili sauce patterns my shirt and jacket with tiny red dots. Luckily with noodles it’s a personal dish. Unlike the Chinese eating culture with the round table. . Aside from that, ordering chicken intestines, dried duck blood, pig brains, turtle soup, for example, are just a slice of the cornucopia of dining adventures one can have in Beijing. Frequently eating around a round table requires some vaccinations, otherwise it’s paranoia to share the saliva of 8 people all at the same table dipping their chopsticks into the food and into their mouths. The dishes are either oily, fried, or dropped into scalding water.
It’s rush hour in the morning so I decide to take the subway instead of a taxi. Traffic in the morning can be 15-20 minutes for one stoplight. Only Beijing residents are allowed on the road. The traffic regulations allow even and odd numbered license plates to operate on different days, but then Saturday and Sunday everyone can drive. Crossing the hutongs to the subway, I then squeeze on so that there’s no room left. I’m pushed and squeezed into other people until we are standing with no room in between. There is the heavy smell of breath wafting over to me, and the car is too warm overall. We stand together waiting the 6 minutes until the next stop when everyone piles out and new people pile in again. There are 18 lines in the subway, and I’m on one of the more crowded lines, the line 2. In Beijing, they destroyed the old city walls to build the second ring road, and then they built the subway underneath it. Then the build concentric circles of roads and subways within the city. Above ground, several of the towers were left from the city wall, but the rest is gone. I stand for a while on the subway until I get a seat. The girl sitting next to me is watching an T.V. show with Chinese subtitles. There are a few guys sitting staring at me, and the look like villagers from their wrinkled sun roughened faces, huge green duffle bags, and durable worn clothing. One guy picks up the phone and starts yelling into it.
I leave the subway and again put on my hat, sunglasses, and my “techno” brand respirator mask. I look like a cross between Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter in it. No one can see my white non-Chinese face and hair as well, which is an added benefit. I even wear it indoors at times when the air pollution is really high. I check aqicn.org today and notice PM 2.5 is at 247 and the PM 10 is 124, which is high for PM 10. On the website are various numbered tick location marks for each of the air quality monitoring stations, and each is showing purple color of higher than 200, which is very unhealthy and health warnings of emergency conditions. PM 10 are particulate matter up to 10 micrometers in size. The previous year had unusually good “weather”, we say instead of saying the pollution was low. We had mostly sunny days, which seemed a combination of dry weather and low precipitation. This year things may shift again away from clear and into hazy if not misty and snowflake like.
I walk into the Sinopec offices, which is China’s biggest oil company. They scan my badge and take my ID’s to check. I lay down a handful of environmental articles on the table. The president of the company sits down to begin reading. He reads them out loud until he gets to a word he can’t understand. His English level is advanced so tutoring this class is difficult, as I have to have a high vocabulary. The first article was about electric vehicles. He had never watched “Who killed the electric car” so I started telling him the reason why electric cars weren’t on the roads nowadays. He’s clueless that the pollution is even bad for one’s own health, and he doesn’t have an air purifier. We look over the edge of the window down towards the white haze covering the cityscape. I walk out of the office and catch a taxi back to the dormitory where I live.
Mr. Wang arranges my classes at Sinopec, and is a cunning business man. He is no doubt profiting hugely off of me and others like me who are willing to teach the class for 30 dollars an hour. I decide to quit because he doesn’t want to give me a raise to include the commute time. One of my co-workers described the job as a low paying escort job. Teaching English to adult men is kind of like that, so I decline from now on when Mr. Wang asks me to do it. Teaching English is one of China’s slacker jobs. Unfortunately, it also creates huge amounts of native English speaker priviledge in Beijing. I have similarly run all around Beijing doing modeling and acting, showing up to be the white face amongst the Chinese crowd. At times I feel like part of my student stipend is simply to pay me to be a difference race here, which ends up being alienating enough socially. Most of my friendships have been based upon helping Chinese students improve their English. People don’t approach me for friendships as much as simply wanting an English language partner. I oblidge them usually because it makes me feel useful and they are so sweet offering tea or spending time with me.
Going out at night there are plenty of bars with foreigners and locals. Most of the clubs play lousy club music. The nightscape changes and the haze makes the atmosphere seem textured, with the buildings lingering in a soup of haze. Deeper into the cities core the haze becomes darker and darker.