When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.
While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.
About thirty months ago, a few weeks into my Beijing life, I wrote what was to be my first and only “Beijing Update”. I sent it as an email and posted part of it on my blog, as a list of weird things I’d learned about Beijing.
While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:
- Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
- IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
- Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
- Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
- Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
- Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
- Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.
I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.
Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian
“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.
Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.
Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.
I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.
A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.
“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.
I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.
She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.
“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.
“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.
The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.
She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”
“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.
“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.
“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.
‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian
I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.
Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.
As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.
At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.
When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.
During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:
I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.
Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”
Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.
With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.
I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.
Reading this in China? View Narrate China on youku
“It was a very peaceful place… and up ahead, we hear this blood curdling scream”. When he met a traveller on the way to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Tom accidentally got more than he bargained for.
In this video, Tom thinks back on an old story from his early days in China as he packs up to leave after living in China for eleven years.
In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.
Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.
Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:
So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.