A revolution at the visa office

It’s 4.00 in the morning and I’m slowly driving on a narrow street behind the Chinese Embassy in Bucharest.

I feel a rush of blood in my cheeks. There’s no one here, I’m the first!

Oh wait, there’s something across the street – five people in a circle, shriveling between some parked cars. Well, it’s not that bad to be the sixth, I’ll surely make it in today.

Good evening, I say, where’s the list? They chuckle – there it is, beneath that rock.

I lift the rock with a heavy heart. It’s my fifth morning in front of the embassy. 15 people can apply for a visa each day, and the list decides who the lucky ones are. I take a look, gasp and put it back under the rock. I’m number 28.

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Wait a minute. There are only 6 people here. Where are the other 22 on the list?

The bastards went to sleep, while we’re waiting here like some dogs, answers an old man with a moustache. He’s extra angry with the travel agents, who always register first and go in with a suitcase full of passports, choking the list and sending te rest on another night shift.

After a couple of nights, people get kind of desperate. Everyone here spent hundreds of euros on planes and they’ll lose it if they’re not higher on the list.

Let’s make another list!, says the moustache guy. He’s very determined. He was in a mountain rescue unit. He getsa piece of paper and we write our names on the new list. We’re the good people, the ones who don’t sleep in their bed. I’m number 12.

People keep coming in, we tell them about the two lists and they put their names on both, not to take any chances. Everyone agrees that the new list is the moral one, but no one dares to destroy the crooked one.

Until a guy shows up, puts his name on the new list and just rips the old one to shreds, then throws it in the bin.

The sun is rising and we just made a small revolution.

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But then one of the guys on the old list shows up and tears apart our list!

A moment of panic. Without a list we’ll probably have a fist fight when the doors open. So we rewrite the list, but with the gutsy guy in the first place. This ruins the ethical purity of our list, but preserves some sense of social order.

And right then he comes, in an angelic white shirt, the private security guard who takes charge of the list and makes it official.

It’s nine o’clock and the hucksters start showing up in their fancy cars, well rested and clean, smiling until they hear about the brave new world.

Now they’re furious. They’re shouting. The gendarmes calm them down (they were secretly on our side). The guard at the office across the street calls the police because we were allegedly blocking the parking. The police comes and instead gives them a fine for the illegal parking lot they set up.

There’s a genuine scandal and at last the cogs of the system are getting greasy.

The consulate guard announces that the people on the list who don’t make it today will be first tomorrow. No more sleepless nights! And then a second desk opens, with a nice young boy who gives visas to everyone.

Welcome to China.

Ni hao!

The curtain’s falling

It’s midnight in Beijing, 7 p.m. in Bucharest, and my hands smell of Tsuika.

The day before, in the taxi to Otopeni, Vlad took over the navigation. The driver had given him his smartphone to guide him through side streets and avoid the traffic jam.

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On the highway the driver, a permanently yelling, heavy set guy with boyish looks, said he couldn’t go faster than 60 or the car would flip over. There was some defect on a wheel. Or maybe this is just what they tell him to keep him from speeding.

As we arrive at the airport, we pay him, get out of the car and only by knocking at the Dacia’s window we can stop him from driving away with our carefully packed luggage.

So yes, some choices in life are not yours to make, and you can save money and plan a trip for months and clear your apartment and say good-bye to your mom and your girlfriend and then a broken Dacia flips over on the highway or a fast-talking driver disappears with your luggage and you’re back before you left.

But this is not why I’m telling this. It’s because now that we’re in China – I’m sure there is no lack of crazy taxi drivers here either – we can’t just look up the route on the driver’s phone, we won’t be able listen to him yelling at his daughter on the speaker and won’t be able to tell him he still has our luggage in the trunk.

Because from now on we’re amongst people we share no common language with. Even in Beijing hardly anybody speaks English. Once we’re riding our bikes through the countryside we’ll have to rely exclusively on smiles and signs and gestures. This will be one big pantomime marathon.

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But it’s part of what we want to find out: How can we communicate without words, how much talking do you need to get to know something about people from a different culture and which gestures are universal.

Because it’s not just about making us understand, it’s also about understanding what Chinese transmit.

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First day in Beijing though we spend with a journalist from Bucharest who has been living here for a year. Besides, her mother is visiting right now for the first time. And the first thing she did was taking down the curtains to wash them. Why this is so important her daughter won’t understand, with or without words. At least mama brought a big bottle of Tsuika.

The Great Journey

How can you get along with Chinese people?

During this trip we won’t be able to talk to people – almost nobody speaks English or any language that we can understand. Not even sign language is the same!

But people are people and somehow we’re going to get along. Maybe we will even get a deeper understanding of the things that can’t be said.

So I started filming all the interactions around here. My camera is hooked on my shoulder, so you’ll experience our adventures from a first person point of view.

Let’s start off with our journey there.

The Great Metaphor

As I was climbing up the rocky stairs, I wondered, like any human, at the monumental effort undertaken by some people to keep other people away.

And whenever I wanted to take a picture, I felt someone biting me by the ear and saying: hey, it’s already been done. You can find a bad shot in the thousands of holiday albums; a good one is on google images. What’s the point?

When I let doubt creep into myself, I can’t shake it off. I was climbing up the rocky stairs and wondering: will the people I left at home be able to do all the crazy things we had planned? Will I be able to manage around here? What the hell am i doing after all?

And so on, until darkness settled, the cable-car stopped and the last bus left, and I reached the top and remembered Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish guy who wandered the world as a special reporter during communism, and wrote beautifully about it and then he died. But first he made it to China and walked to the Great Wall and told a story:

“As the days went by, I started thinking about the Great Wall more as a Great Metaphor. Because I was surrounded by people with whom I couldn’t communicate, there was a world around me I couldn’t penetrate. My situation was becoming weirder and weirder. I was going to write – but about what?”

It started getting cold and my cheeks turned red. No one knows what they’re doing. I might as well take a picture.

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I’m from radish

Yesterday, at a small eatery in Beijing, I saw a girl cutting some curious looking vegetable. I opened the Google translate app on my phone and held it to her mouth. She said “金針菇” (phonetically: jin zheng gu), which means needle mushroom. It’s only three syllables and I instantly repeated them, speaking into my phone. But what I said – and thought it would sound pretty similar – got translated by the app as “Golden Monkey treasure bar “

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“德國” (duh gwoh) means Germany – only two syllables but yet I just don’t manage to pronounce it correctly. Most of the times I say “radish” instead, according to Google translate. At least “I’m from radish” is always good for a laugh.

But altogether moving around Beijing is easier than I expected. Most of the street names are subtitled, in metros and buses there are English announcements. And even though only very few people speak foreign languages, the omnipresence of smartphones makes it possible to somehow communicate.

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And it’s not just that. Since 2014 Apple sells more iPhones in China than in the USA. The number of internet connected Chinese people has risen from 253 million in 2008 to 688 million last year. China has now overtaken the United States as the world’s largest online retail market.

With a growth rate of some 33%, it is also the fastest-growing such. This is also very interesting because the revenues of online retailers are almost exclusively revenues of private companies – not state owned enterprises – so this indicates the rapid change of the economic system.

In Beijing you’re never too far from a Starbucks, KFC or McDonald’s. We went shopping at Decathlon and ordered an Uber when we missed the last metro at 11pm. The driver had a new Toyota and listened to Rihanna. You can pay with your smartphone at the tiniest shops. And while we mossbacks still type names into our phones to add someone on Facebook the Chinese just scan the QR code of their WeChat profile.

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What surprised us, and in hindsight it sounds really stupid to say this, is how jolly and cute and open the Chinese we met so far were. I feel like I want to stroke someone’s head every couple of minutes.

If you’re honest, people dancing on the street is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a sort of a communist dictatorship.

But the Chinese love to dance, obviously. Wherever there’s music you’ll see couples of old ladies or young lovers, rows or meticulously aligned formations of people dancing simultaneously in public places, at work, on sidewalks, to pop or folk booming out of a box or the raucous amp of an improvised band.

Bulks of men sit around tables and play cards or badminton on the street, between traffic and garbage. Crowds cheer at spontaneous karaoke performances. The other day at Carrefour half of the staff of the electronics department giggled at the Jackie Chan movie that ran on one of the big flat screens on display.

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Later that day I went to get a haircut. At the salon the hairdresser also used an app like google translate, the Chinese version looks just the same. So I described how I want it to be cut and he pretty much did as I asked. About 20 very slim young guys worked in the salon, all of them dressed in black slacks and shirts, sneakers from Nike or Asics. They looked like a knife-snapping street gang (with very accurate haircuts though).

When my hair was cut the question of styling arose and my various non-verbal accounts to refuse any further treatment proved to be insufficient. While one guy still worked the hairdryer on me, another one asked via the app how I wanted my hair styled. I typed “It’s good like that” but he didn’t understand.

He spoke into his phone, then showed me what’s written on the screen: “Do you want to blow like him?” He pointed at his colleague and both were smiling and I decided that it’s too much to ask of the app to explain why I had to laugh. The real Great Firewall just seems to be the language.

School’s out in Zhouzhou. Kids run onto the street where grandparents or parents wait for them. A girl is doing her homework on the back of a tricycle. A boy in a Bart Simpson jumper queues up for candyfloss. We buy roasted chestnuts and 5 fried quail eggs on a stick with strawberry jam. “Let’s go, before we buy some balloons”, says Vlad.

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„Don’t come! They want to kill you“

Don’t come! They want to kill you

So it turns out we made a couple of friends last night in Xushui. That’s 130 kilometers south of Beijing, a city with 600.000 inhabitants. We didn’t want to stay there. But who can say No to a dance? Well, we couldn’t. Even if we’d wanted.

img_4167Vlad, please don’t make such a sensual expression

The boulevard was an alley of gigantic chandeliers. This looks like a ballroom, Vlad said. There was this public place. In front of a mall. Big rotating advertisements illuminating a group of guys who beat huge spinning whirl gigs with big whips. Like they were chasing raucous rats. Behind them a tricycle with a boom box. Couples dancing a sort of a Chinese tango. A soldier standing on the side, watching.

Don’t go better into the night

A man with a big golden ring on each hand pulls my sleeve. Dance, dance! With his other arm he gets a hold of a woman in a black dress and overcoat. 1,2,3 – 1,2,3. She is leading generously. A guy plays trumpet. We waltz over the parking place, the night swirls around us.

Where to sleep?

img_4168The music pauses and people group around me. They wave their smartphones. They want to become friends on WeChat. Vlad is calling me on the phone: Come over here and beat the whirl gig! I can’t, I say, I’m in the middle of something.

Have a chance to Xushui, I served you

WeChat! WeChat! Scan QR code. Add friend. Add friend. Add friend. The guy with the golden rings, he made a video of me dancing with Lady Waltz. Vlad joins us. The music sets in again. We swirl. Vlad has a Lady Waltz too now.

Put on more clothes on

She wants to take a photo. Everybody wants to take a photo. Ookaayy! Ookaayy! They put our arms around them. We make some 30 selfies and go.

Where are you two?

img_4169It got too late to ride our bicycles to the next village as planned. We search for a hotel. Vlad, I think, this is the red light district. In the lobbies girls in very shot skirts sit and rub their smartphones. Three hotels send us away.

Foreign friends. You sent a big red envelope

One of my new WeChat friends texts me in Chinese. He video-calls me. He is lying on his bed, wearing a bathrobe, licking his lips. Come here, his index finger says.

Still, I’m the police. Let you call her sister

Another hotel owner won’t take us. But this guy, he says, he can take you. This guy is a slim man around 35 years old, dressed all in black, wearing a huge golden ring. Dead drunk. Oh, yes, you  my friend, he says. He has very soft hands. This looks a bit shady, Vlad says.

Someone call the police

Lady Waltz sends pictures. „Last night went to the station to send sister dance shoes need them“, she writes.

We get a lot of messages on WeChat now.

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In Beijing I stayed with an American guy and a Honduran woman, both of them teachers at one of the best highschools in China.

The guy told me that when school starts, the censors verify his school books, and whenever they find a page they disagree with, they paste a white sheet over it. This way, they indicate to students the most interesting pages, that they can easily read if they put their phone flashlight under the page.

The teacher doesn’t put ideas in their heads, but rather teaches them critical thinking, how to question things, how to articulate their own point of view, while also understanding others’ perspectives.

He hopes that by doing so he’s plating the seeds for a change in mentality in China.

“But are you not concerned,” I asked him “that they’ll bust you?”

”As long as the children are on my side, I am safe.”

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Beijing would be a dream-like city

Beijing is the most systematized city I have ever seen. Its map looks as if a spider has drawn it.

Each place has a guardsman perched on a footbridge, with an umbrella above his head and a stick in his hand. They’re stationed on the streets, at the subway, in front of banks, in market squares… they look totally harmless, more like students-on-duty rather than cops.

The police officers rarely show up, they ride around on bikes, or drive in tiny cars stamped with emoticons that tell you what to do. Everything is under surveillance and guarded, but in a very cute way, like soft power 🙂

The only menacing things are the cars. They don’t stop at pedestrian crossings, don’t give right of way, and they honk non-stop… they’ve discovered, just like we did, that you’re super cool if you’re sitting in a metal box. My luck is the agility I acquired in Bucharest.

As for the rest, I never felt unsafe, not even at night on dark and narrow streets where people sharpened knives.

The Chinese I had in mind were sullen and glum, probably because I had only seen the exploited workers at the Red Dragon Mall. Those whom I met here are super gleeful and friendly, they play on the street, and dance everywhere.

Beijing would be a dream-like city if it weren’t surrounded by thick clouds of smog, through which you can’t even see the colour of the sky; the sun looks like a lamp behind a bed sheet. In the days with heavy pollution, people wear masks and keep their eyes in their iPhones, as if it’s the end of the world. But even the masks are cute and coloured like in cartoons. The Hello Kitty apocalypse.  

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Flat tire #3

– You should put more air on your tires
– I don’t know. The last two days I ran with less tire pressure and haven’t had a flat tire since
– God help!
– Jesus und Maria!
One (1) minute later:

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