Today was our last full day in Beijing, and it’s the day in which I have experienced more discomfort than any previous days. Discomfort based on cultural differences, or more likely, my own lack of cultural proficiency. I have felt profoundly like an outsider.
This afternoon we toured the Hutong district of Beijing, one of the oldest continuously occupied residential areas of the city. It’s in the center of the city, and in the beginning the homes were in the inner ring of the city, where the wealthy families resided. The homes were small buildings arranged around courtyards, and in those early days, toilets and kitchens were common areas shared among many households. Today, the homes are occupied mostly by those with little means. The outer walls have been declared historic (that would be the term we use in the US, not sure if that’s the appropriate term here), so the outer structure of the buildings cannot be altered. Inside, it’s possible to install a kitchen, or a shower, or a toilet, but our guide estimated that up to 80% of the homes still use the common toilets, which are at some distance from some homes.
We rode through the area on rickshaws, using tickets purchased from the Hutong Tour office. The streets are narrow, barely enough room for two rickshaws to pass, and the residents live outside their homes as well as inside. Groups of people were clustered in social activities, watching children play, playing cards, talking and visiting. Many little sidewalk businesses are evident, one with a chalkboard advertising English tea and cheesecake–a delightful combination, in my book! We also visited in one of the homes. The owner is a retired worker who is restoring her family’s courtyard where her father, age 92, and some of her siblings and their families live. She talked with us, showed us family pictures, and was gracious in answering questions.
The discomfort came from seeing in such an “up close and personal” manner the very intimate details of these families’ lives. As Chelsea said, it’s a really good reminder that all of China isn’t like our hotel. It felt somewhat exploitive, or at least like an invasion of privacy, to ride the rickshaw through the neighborhood. We all hoped that the fee to be on this tour works its way back into the lives of the residents.
We ended the afternoon at the Silk Market, a huge building of six stories of merchandise. It’s crowded, noisy, and the price for everything is negotiated. Some members of our group loved it; I did not. I discovered I don’t like to barter, and I’m not good at it. I don’t have to do this in my daily life, but bartering is the major system for buying and selling in many cultures. Another lesson in cultural proficiency….
We leave tomorrow for Xi’an, where we will meet with university faculty, take a Chinese language and culture class, and visit schools. I suspect it will be much more comfortable for me, simply because it’s school, and there are some characteristics of “school” that will transcend nation and language. Another lesson in cultural proficiency….
Posted from Beijing, Beijing, China.