A Canadian in Beijing: A Must Do = A Shidu Picnic

The second last day of the holidays and I was invited to go on a picnic in the outlying areas of Beijing with one of my new friends, Rui, and several of his friends. I was the only foreigner (non-Native Chinese speaker) and so I was a bit nervous. Still, Rui’s English is excellent and I only hesitated for an instant before accepting the opportunity to see some of the outskirts of this city and to meet a new group of people.

We went to an area called “Shi Du” which means the ten ferry district. It’s about an hour’s drive south of Beijing and it leads into ten separate valleys around small, jagged mountains which each include water access and stunning scenery. Because it’s become a popular travel site, there are also shops and various other leisure activities locate in each.

This is a time in Chinese history when people from the city have enough money to actually visit the country as a leisure activity – to enjoy the fresh air, the open skies and the natural wonders that lie outside of the concrete and glass. As a result, we were not the only ones with this idea!

We arrived at the fifth “du” and walked along the rocky ridge of a beautiful lake and scoped out our picnic site. We were about twenty feet from another group and the lake was full of people on leisure rafts with large sticks to propel them forward. When everyone was satisfied with our choice of location, all the men then went back to the cars to get the food and coolers and other items while the women stayed with the dogs. I stayed too, of course, considering my gender and the complete surprise that I garnered when I offered to help too!

When they returned, there was the typical arguing about where to put the cook stoves and then the men all mutually failed several times at starting the fires. I had to laugh. Everyone had a better idea than everyone else and it was just comical. It could have been happening in any country, in any language. Eventually, the coals took and the cooking began, as did the laughter and the good times.

Here in China, it seems as though picnic blankets aren’t the norm. Instead, plastic is used. Large strips of cheap plastic was pulled from a roll and was laid out flat and held down with rocks. The food went on top of it – a veritable feast of kabobs and salads and beverages. My friend had stocked up on vegetables from the market that morning and so I ate vegetable versions of what they were eating. I tried my best to overlook where they had been cooked considering my status as a guest and my desire not to stand out any more than I already did.

Besides, I had a hard time with the language. I couldn’t have explained myself properly even if I had tried. Everything happened so quickly that I often found myself the only one not laughing at a joke I hadn’t understood. It was hard, but they were all really nice and Rui translated as often as he could. Eventually the group was offering to teach me Chinese. In fact, they said “you don’t need a school! You just need to hang out with us!” That felt good.

Across from the feasting, we could see children playing in large, thick, plastic balls that were floating on the surface of the water. It looked like an enormous amount of fun – like those huge indoor walking wheels for pet mice but big enough for humans. They were tethered to the edge of the waterway so that they couldn’t float away and I could hear the laughter bouncing off the liquid sunshine.

After the food, my friend and I walked down to the edge talking about music and lyrics. He sang a few songs to me in Chinese and then started to share all the songs he knows in English, most of which were incredibly cheesy and huge hits from the past. He sang them word for word (sometimes the wrong words in misunderstood English) and I joined in when he sang that Jack Wagner song “Nothing’s Gonna Change my Love for You” (made famous again by Glenn Mederios in the 80’s), Richard Marx “Right Here Waiting for You” and George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” (I’m pretty sure he was still with Wham at that time!)

Imagine us: me, the only foreigner for miles around and him, a young Chinese man without any kind of self-consciousness, singing his heart out on the edge of a lake. When I sang along, our voices reverberated against the cliffs and echoed over the water. No one stared any more than they already had been staring. In fact, we were even interrupted by someone trying to get us to buy time riding on a horse. So, I guess we weren’t being so “xiguai” (or strange) after all. Either way, there’s an absurdity that I felt in that moment that still makes me laugh at the thought of it.

One real downside to the day was the waste everywhere. I saw so much litter — so many wrappers and plastic everywhere. It was sad to see such a beautiful landscape with such dirty evidence of previous picnics.

The toilets, too, were just cement blocks surrounding pits that were absolutely FULL of human waste. I could barely walk by them without gagging, let alone use them. Eventually, though, I had no choice and I’ve discovered that I’ve become particularly good at holding my breath. Even thinking of it now makes me queasy, though. I’m not immune to disgusting toilets yet and perhaps I never will be.

We climbed back to the picnic site and had more food before helping clean up.

One of the women had laid out plastic “blankets” for the dogs and was desperately trying to convince her dog to lie down on this “blanket” to stay clean rather than laying in the dusty dirt. The dog was not interested and eventually settled right beside the blanket much to her disgust.

(At the end of the day, I watched her clean him with a wet napkin — a “moist toilette” and they’re very popular here. She washed his underside from paws to buttocks while her husband held him in the air. Then he was deposited in the vehicle without much ceremony.)

The group just piled the waste in a large central area after everything of value was gathered, and then left it there for hovering “recyclers” to sort through. Just like in the city where elderly people collect bottles and recyclables, I had noticed several older people eying our picnic and awaiting our departure.

I have such a hard time with this coming from such a beautifully maintained country, especially our forests and provincial or national parks. We have so much education about “no trace camping” and having a “light footprint” on the earth. I am conscious that these recycling people will extract the valuable recyclables but then leave the plastic bags and food waste there to rot (or collect dust because they aren’t biodegradable) like all the other small piles I saw.

I left with my friends feeling a sense of guilt towards the earth and a helplessness to relieve it. I also felt incredibly grateful to have been given such a great opportunity to see a part of China that I wouldn’t normally have seen. Everything is a mixed blessing and I try to feel the balance at the best of times. I’m not sure how to reconcile it all.

We drove onwards and stopped to photograph the “shidu” or “tenth ferry.” There were cable cars here and a bungee jumping platform. There was also a small island and a lake filled with pedal boats and happy vacationers.

One the way home, I noticed that this section of one of the “shidu” lakes is a popular car-washing spot. People drive their vehicles right into the water and then wash the cars right there. You wouldn’t see this in Canada!

The long ride back to Beijing was quiet. Everyone was exhausted by the sunshine and the large amount of food intake. I smiled out the rear window of the vehicle and felt a sense of pride at being invited and included in such an outing. I felt like I had been adopted by this group and given a true modern Chinese picnic.

Next time, I’m going in those water balls!

A Canadian In Beijing: Two-Wheeled Matrimony

I’ve been here for three weeks and I’m pretty sure that yesterday was my first “bad day.” Okay, perhaps “bad” is the wrong word for it. I’d have to say that what started as a good day became a low day, a sad day, a frustrating and annoying day. . . a day when I wished I were home and not here. . . for just an hour, perhaps. I could have even found solace in twenty minutes. (They need to invent that transporter device from Star Trek already!)

The air was thick with a mixture of pollution and desert dust and there was a cool wind. Beijing was crying for rain but the tears wouldn’t come from the sky. Wind cut through my clothes as I went to fetch my new bike (second-hand – thanks Sarah! – but new to me) so that I could take it out on our honeymoon ride.
I am very happy to have a bike. It gives me a chance to explore the far reaches of my neighbourhood and have more freedom time-wise than walking gives. Yesterday, I decided to seek out the “Lotus in Moonlight Vegetarian Restaurant” that I was told about by one of my Chinese friends. He even drew me a map and it seemed easy enough to understand. I got on my bike and pedalled in the direction of food. My bike and I were getting along beautifully.

I got to the area where the restaurant was supposed to be and this is when my day started to twist and turn. Sometimes I think that people here get a kick out of misdirecting the foreigner. I’ve been cynical enough to wonder this because it’s not the first time that I’ve been pointed the wrong way by a local and have had to re-trace my steps. My language skills can’t be that bad!

This happened three times. It took me a half an hour of navigating several office building parking lots and busy side streets before I was confident that I had the right building. Why was I confident? Because I had asked three different people. I was tired of trusting solitary answers. I started to approach asking directions with skepticism rather than trust. That was probably the place where my day descended: my attitude.

I locked up my bike and I headed inside. (I have since learned that all the bikes are locked here, but often only with this back lock, which is so subtle that I hadn’t noticed it before. I also use a second front lock, as per Sarah’s suggestion.)

This was both a shopping mall and an office building and it was hard to identify where the shopping began and where the offices ended. Escalators brought me up to the third floor where I was greeted by gaudy wrapped pillars and sparsely designed shopping counters selling a variety of specialty items.

The restaurant was one of the corner suites on this floor. It was beautiful and spacious with wide-open windows that overlooked more courtyards to yet more buildings. The chairs were plush and throne-like and the menu was a hardcover book that looked more like a coffee table book of photography than it did a restaurant menu.

The prices reflected the décor.

Unfortunately, the service did not.

It seems to me that I was disturbing the waitress by being there, even though I was one of only two customers. She spoke so quickly that I couldn’t understand her. When I asked her kindly if she would please repeat what she had said more slowly, she actually sped up her speech instead.

Despite this mean-spirited move, I was still able to gather that no food was available as it was between lunch and dinner (about 3:00pm). I then tried to order just a cup of tea, but then certain beverages were also not available and I couldn’t ascertain why they weren’t and why they were. All in all, everything the waitress said seemed to be unclear and slurred. She rolled her eyes with annoyance when I said I didn’t understand. Even her body language conveyed annoyance. After “dealing” with me, she went across the room and complained to her friends and fellow workers who then all turned and stared at me at the same moment.

What was bothering her so much? Was it my presence during an ‘off’ time’? My lack of proficient Chinese language skills? My affluence in being able to walk into that restaurant at all? (And c’mon, I’m a musician and I had already gathered that I’d only be able to afford some tea and some soup there). Or was it my ragged appearance?

Or maybe she was having a terrible day too and she decided that this “laowai” was an easy target for her bad mood. Really, there’s no telling what the reasons were, there’s just the response to manage; and mine was one of dejection and frustration.

I ordered an overpriced juice – 20 kuai – and I drank it, looked out the window for about five minutes, and then I left. I felt mistreated and ripped off at the same time, not to mention still hungry and therefore more irritable.

I was undoing the locks on my bike outside when a man approached me and asked me for money. He gestured to the row of bikes and I quickly remembered that sometimes you have to pay to park your bike in this city. Seeing as this was more of a business district, it made sense that someone was responsible for the bikes outside. It’s safer that way, especially considering the fact that bike theft is rampant in Beijing.

I asked him how much and he said “wu” or “five” and I was aghast. “Five kuai!” I said in Chinese, “that’s way too expensive!” This was the wrong time to overcharge me for something, considering the trouble I’d just had with bad directions coupled with that terrible restaurant experience! My tone was defensive and sharp and I narrowed my eyes at him expecting a fight in my third language.

He looked at me blankly, paused, and then slowly held up a five mao note.

My stony defenses crumbled like a sand castle. I felt so sheepish. Five mao and Five kuai are very different – it’s the difference between $0.07 and $0.73 Canadian. I apologized immediately and handed him my five mao. He thanked me and I said “bu keqi” which is the respectful way of saying you’re welcome and it means, literally, “don’t be so polite” or “no politeness [needed].” I mean, after all, I wasn’t polite to him and so why should he be polite to me? I hoped he heard both the literal and the conventional meanings.

So, I had yet another big lesson about carrying forward negative energy. I took on the waitress’s negative energy and then passed it on to the parking attendant. I can only hope that it stopped there.

Just before hopping on my bike and heading home to some groceries in my fridge, I heard some music that was being pumped out of a nearby outdoor stage. It was Air Supply: All out of Love. I have a big love-on for Air Supply. They’re cheesy and wonderful – lush harmonies and reverb on the drums that goes for days. I know all the words. Total 80’s nostalgia.

I got on my bike and rode the whole way back to my dorm room (about fifteen minutes) singing this song at full volume, not caring who heard and who didn’t.

And I felt better.

“I’m all out of love / What am I without you? / I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.”

I sang it to my bike.

We’re gonna stay married.