September 25, 2011

Sweating Out Beijing

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Beijing, the “northern capital” of China, is, among other things, one of the hottest cities in the world. When you factor in Beijing’s distance from the equator, it easily ranks among equatorial cities where the heat sticks to you at all times, where you dry off with sweat and humidity after your third ice cold shower, where meat spoils before it reaches the butcher’s knife: a heat that inflames the passions and slowly melts away the brain.

Beijing sleeps with three blankets each summer night. The first is composed of pedestrians and bicyclists. The constant comings and goings, the teems of people ascending and descending the subway steps, the petty motorists weaving in and out of cars, the old ladies biking with their grandchildren on their backs. The constant motion of these elements creates a heated friction unique to Beijing’s forest floor: a suffocating pressure that herds pedestrians in from the street into an elevator, where any floor besides the first ought to cool the Beijinger off.

But as you climb the stairs of any Beijing building, and enter into the understory and canopy layers of the city, you simply transition into another zone of heat: the layer of smog that hovers just at and above the city’s monotone skyline. On a clear day you can see the end of the concrete horizon, where the expanse of communist era high rise buildings finally meet the sky. On those days it seems that even the smog has tired of the city’s humidity, and retreated to the outskirt hills. But in its routine, the smog shrinks the Beijinger’s world. The sheer heat of the land, bubbling inexplicably at such a high northern latitude, compresses the smog to a degree where even the best vantage point yields no more than a one mile view in any direction.

Beijing residents are conditioned by the city’s airtight urban atmosphere. Over time, they have developed bizarre habits that allay the heat’s impact on the mind and pass the time. The following habits are the most frequently observable:  Ma Zhong — On many corners and in many alleys, the tourist will find a group of locals crowded around two individuals playing Ma Zhong. Ma Zhong looks engaging, but is coded in Chinese characters, making it hard for the outsider to easily insert himself into the group and wager his own predictions. Ma Zhong distracts the old men of the neighborhood; not even a flood or revolution could interrupt the game.

Smoking — Beijingers love to smoke, males especially. Unlike the French, who have the ability to make smoking look urbane, leisurely and sophisticated, Beijingers inhale their smokes with no regard for space or time. China knows few laws that prohibit smoking inside. Restaurants and most other public indoor spaces allow smoking, a major convenience for the large proportion of Chinese men and women who smoke. Cigarettes can be found on almost every street in a shop with a green sign. No neighborhood lacks a cigarette and white alcohol distributor.

Spitting — In certain public areas in Beijing it is illegal to spit. This is because all the heat and smoke causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs that is most conveniently alleviated by spitting. Older men and women of Beijing summon gigantic loogies from their throats to their mouths. The noise echoes through Beijing’s many apartment complexes; they serve as an alarm clock for a late afternoon nap.

Cooling off —“Cooling off” yields the most utility to the outsider and is the easiest habit to adopt. As a measure of cooling off, Chinese men roll their shirts up to rest on top of their gut. You might say that one would do this anywhere, but in Beijing the practice is ubiquitous. There is no deep reason as to why all Chinese males do this. One young man explained it succinctly: “liang kuai,” he said, which means “cool,” in reference to the temperature.

Public Urination — It’s actually quite common to see a mother letting their young child take a leak on the sidewalk, on a crowded street, almost as you would see a dog-walker in Buenos Aires look the other way as their pet shits all over the sidewalk. What seems like an exceptional oddity at first sight becomes routine as one sees it repeated elsewhere, until a woman shaking the pee off her son above a trash can in a crowded subway station seems the logical thing to do.

Line Dancing — Beijingers, and perhaps Chinese more generally, enjoy line dancing in the evenings, when the sun and haze have relented and the moment to escape air conditioning presents itself. Beijing has a rich stock of public parks, which at night are full of ladies dancing in rows and columns in perfect uniformity.

Heat causes a number of distinct behaviors in crowded Beijing. If the skeptic rejects that heat explains each of these idiosyncrasies, it is only because heat impairs the judgment of the observer. What is that element that takes the most ordinary, mundane and regimented activities and makes them seem utterly chaotic, what is that which creates madness in an organized city like Beijing if not heat?

Heat wears on the memory and glues together a city of disparate events, and possesses a totalitarian power that can explain the most logical and the most absurd. It induces delusion and weariness and distorts any attempt at a comprehensive study of life there in the summer. Beijing is hot pot of water with a tight lid on it, slowly cooking the lamb’s stomach, raw meat and mushrooms inside, constantly threatening to boil over, overcome its restraints and evaporate completely.

Original Author: Joey Anderson