#OnlyInBeijing

2012-05-09 05:52

The silver lining to jetlag is that you can sit up at 01h00 in the morning and recount your 24 hours in a place that took you all of twenty hours to get to. I am in Beijing.

Getting here via Dubai proved to be less of an ordeal than I imagined. Emirates is widely known as an airline with decent in-seat entertainment and air hostesses that actually pitch up when you ring the bell. Even if you’re in economy class.

So I arrived in Beijing in a much better mood than I expected and when my friend, who’s a local here, pitched at my hotel to show me around, I was ready for adventure.

This is my first time to China Proper. They say Taiwan and Hong Kong don’t count, and I can see why.

Beijing is like New York, only better organized, cleaner and, of course, full of Mandarin script. Hardly anyone speaks English, and even hotel staff struggle to understand your accent if it is not American. Which mine distinctly isn’t.

So during the balmy evening my friend and I walked through a thoroughfare that looks like Disneyland for grownups. The Chinese are not afraid of bling. Billboards and well-lit signs for Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Dolce&Gabbana hit you as you enter the main shopping street in the Wangfujing district, where my hotel is.

I expected to be elbowing out people who are half my size, because I always imagined China to be crowded, but thankfully it seems not all 1,3 billion people come out to play at once.

We eat at a place where bullfrog is a gourmet dish on the menu, and all the dishes come before you even opened your Coca-Cola. Service here, and elsewhere in Beijing, is blissfully quick, but don’t expect niceties like the waiter opening your can and pouring it in a glass. In fact, a glass does not come automatically, you need to ask for it. So the attitude is clear: I’m here to serve you, not to baby you.

Okay then.

In my hotel room a letter welcomes me with instructions on how to use the internet, which is wireless, lightening fast and very stable. But it also darkly warns me not to go to websites “not allowed by the PRC (People’s Republic of China)”. Then it hits me. They don’t allow Facebook here, following the 2008 uprisings in Tibet. And then the death knell - no Twitter.

For most people this microblogging site is a news aggregator, a way to check on celebrity scandal and, for some, live out their racist selves.

For me it is a crutch. One which gets me as a political reporter through long boring speeches because then I can vent my frustration about the selective quoting habits of the speaker. And through press conferences where one can paraphrase political rhetoric into short, understandable, bite-size chunks like “ag man this is bullshit”.

So the conference about media coverage of China that I’m supposed to attend, suddenly becomes a strange scary place. I had no idea.

In the Peace Ballroom we gathered on Tuesday morning. Yes, in one of the biggest cities in the world there is a Peace Ballroom. But I suppose Confucius had to make his mark somewhere, didn’t he?

It is a select group of delegates, with us Africans standing out like sore thumbs amongst the dozens of Chinese academics, journalists and government spies – I don’t know the last ones for sure, but there was a contingent of youngsters who clearly only spoke when spoken to.

I put up my hand to ask a question, and when I’m handed a microphone, the chairperson stops me.

“Not the Chinese lady, let’s give our African participants a chance.”

I had no mirror close by, but I’m sure I looked ashen. Me? Chinese? Me, who is twice as big as any Chinese I’ve seen. Who is also 20 shades darker than the average Chinese person and clearly less calm and collected than Confuscius would have wanted?

The chairperson must have noticed my facial expression because she hurried over after the session to apologise, and even rubbed my shoulder to say sorry - the first time I’ve seen a Chinese person touch another human being. They’re not a cuddling nation. Another delegate felt it necessary to come over and ask if I have an Asian grandparent because that would justify my “Chinese features”. As they say in Twitterverse *drops mic and walks away*.

So, as always in times of crisis, I reached for my cellphone, scrolled down to that friendly blue bird icon and clicked. And it worked! I could access my twitter account through my cellphone, which is under South African jurisdiction (and crippling roaming costs).

So for now the world is again as it should be, and I will live to tweet China for another day.

 Follow Mandy on Twitter: @MandyRossouw.

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