Beijing: My brush with life on the margins

A local friend in Beijing was named “not as good as” when she was born. She was the second daughter to a rural family that desperately wanted/needed a son. Her uncle thought this was harsh, he modified the name. By the time I met her, her name was Ava. The Chinese call it like it is, they are practical and the people I interacted with were kind. Except my driver. He was nasty every day of the week, but he was playing out the new Beijing image—overly confident and committed to letting foreigners know they don’t need us. Clearly, I’m not as interesting as I think. My driver might be right. It’s been three years since I visited China’s capital and a lot has changed. While Shanghai shifts its topography seemingly every month, Beijing seems to have paved over its heart. I longed to stroll the hutong’s calm corridors, enjoy the bustle of the city’s parks, and marvel at the “quaintness” of Beijing in comparison to Shanghai. Not so much anymore. Beijing slipped into Shanghai’s clothes and they don’t fit. There’s no soul, just a lot of shine. There was something quite sad about this week. Maybe it was just that I was hungry, or because I felt so desperately dependent and marginalized.

Let’s talk about money. Beijing is basically cashless. Everything is done through WeChat. You scan the QR code and transfer the fees through your phone. There’s one hitch, and it’s a big one—you need to have a Chinese bank account to set up WePay on your WeChat. Fast forward to my hotel. It was pretty basic. The wood is actually wood-colored tape (I know because my sink was unwrapping). There were no amenities in the minibar. However… in the lobby and in the halls were vending machines. They only accepted WePay. There was a robot beside the front desk. It only spoke Chinese. Same with the staff. The lobby also boasted an FBI shop which stands for “facility by intelligence.” You swipe your phone, indicate what food you want and when, and then you return to pick it up. It’s fully paid through your WePay. It’s kind of like the old automat meets Seamless, meets a McDonald’s drive-through window. I opt to eat at the restaurant instead, but I need a voucher. Customers can pay with WePay. Nope, that won’t work for me. I offer a 100 RMB note but they can’t make change. I figure, what the heck, I will over pay and use up my paper money—it’s clearly headed for a museum anyway. Can’t really do that either because the ATM won’t accept my card. Credit cards are useless. I am hungry. Since I can’t eat, I wonder.

Next to the FBI is a phone booth. Maybe I can call for a sticky bun. Wait, that’s not a place to make a call, that’s a two-person emergency karaoke booth. I guess it’s there just in case you and your pals want to sneak in a song before setting out to explore the city. I don’t sing, but I do leave my hotel. Alas, there’s nothing at street level. It is a maze upon maze of malls with most of the shop entrances starting at the second or third floors so that 1) you can’t find anything to eat by walking on the pavement; 2) you can drive your car into the mall; and 3) you can enter either tower A or tower B and spend the rest of the afternoon looking for the venue your pal told you is “easy to find” on the fourth level. That’s a lie. And even the locals are lost as everyone seems confused by the interconnecting architecture and lack of creative naming. There are way too many towers called “building A” and “building B.” I guess you can take solace in the fact that WeChat also has a live mapping system that allows you to follow the flashing blue dot representing your pals until suddenly your screen avatar merges with an actual person.

Finding others was very important to me as I was totally dependent on the kindness of friends’ WePay, which I needed not only to eat but to purchase goods, rent a mobile bike or hail a Didi (the Chinese Uber). I couldn’t Google for info when I needed it because…this is China and, of course, there is no Google. The whole economy was functioning fine with me on the margin and when I inquired about the challenge to non-Chinese wanting to enter the system, the response basically amounted to “thanks we are busy enough.”

And busy they are. The city is abuzz with entrepreneurs who are encouraged by the government and supported with financial incentives and reasonable rents. Charity is on the rise as a status symbol, tax break, and reaction to the government saying, “we aren’t fixing everything.” The race to lead in artificial intelligence is clear, though my day at the robot factory confirmed that I can still turn on my TV faster that Fabo even though I am really, really bad at figuring out which remote does what. Fabo is a computer that entertains the family, teaches kids their after-school lessons, offers a friendly metal body to hold the screen that becomes dad’s face when he remotes in and is also…an air purifier. I asked why Fabo was an air purifier. The CTO explained that it’s not easy to knock on the door and have a family let a robot in. However, if you say the machine can clean the air…well that’s a whole other story. Moms love clean air for their kids. Since my Chinese partner gave me a mask upon landing, I can relate to the concern about breathing. In Beijing you can see the air.

Before you ask, I will tell you why Fabo is a male (because I also wondered). Fabo means “fat robot,” a term of endearment that those with XY chromosomes are more likely to accept as positive. I was relieved to know that Fabo is having a hard time with abstract thinking and as a result will not be deployed (yet) as a caretaker for the elderly. Turns out mature folks enjoy conversation. I appreciated the CTO’s honesty about the limits of A.I. and felt more secure in my human skin. My coffee with a Western medical wunderkind further emphasized the importance of lateral thinking, though this time it was in reference to scientists who were having a hard time expanding their reasoning beyond the immediate task at hand. Stereotype alert? Maybe it’s a real problem. Educational institutions I met with reported that they are revising the Chinese curriculum to allow for more reasoning and less route learning. Expect to find a return to, and revaluing of ancient wisdom.

There’s certainly a retail juxtaposition of the old and the new. Coffee shops sit side by side with classy congee counters. My new favorite porridge joint serves tea in a bowl with a Styrofoam cup on the side so you can scoot off with the leftovers. Modern also meets historic when examining the movement to develop “complete streets.” The new policy means there will be less room allocated to cars and more space for socializing, walking and biking. Researchers say this cuts down on auto emissions, insures we hit the beloved 10,000 steps and makes for better mental health as less people are lonely. Sounds like high speed urbanization isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Tell that to the shop that insisted I pay by scanning my palm print! Really. I’m not kidding. As I leave Beijing, I feel bruised having been battered back and forth in a time machine. And I have a hangover. True confessions. I couldn’t resist checking out the hidden bar scene. My global pursuit of speakeasys and hard to find places to imbibe has proven to be really fun and has helped me meet some awesome characters. Last night was no different. I read about a secret bar called Tony’s Workshop. No phone number was listed though one is encouraged to book in advance! The address said 11th floor apartment in block 2. With my fearless Hong Kong-based friend by my side, we found the building. It was indeed residential. The half-asleep guard at the door told us (actually, told my pal, as I can’t speak Mandarin) that the building has several secret bars, but because they are secret he can’t confirm where they are. Duh! We go up to the 11th floor and it’s all people’s homes. I knock on apartment 1111 but no one answers. I hear people talking. Do I rap louder? After all, hearing voices doesn’t mean it’s a public venue. People living there might actually be speaking. We return to the lobby. The guard sees we are serious about our drink. He calls a few places but they all turn us away. Amazing. Two middle-aged women still wearing the clothing from their business meeting hours before and no one wants to let us in. Dejected, we leave. Half way through the parking lot we hear a guy calling out for us. He will take us in. Not to Tony’s but to another spot. We are lead back into the building by a young boy wearing an English language t-shirt that made no sense. Clearly, it’s a woman’s home but she has made it into a bar with the fanciest collection of single malt scotch I have ever seen (beyond my own). We have a pour. The setting is great, the bar is illegal. And the drink is definitely not Caol Isla, even though the bottle and price tag proclaimed that it was. But it was worth it. I finally gained entrance into the secret society—and best of all, they accepted cash!