Wednesday, August 12, 2009

(On) A More Sober Note

Living in Beijing for the past year has, for the most part, been a very safe experience. There are, of course, the ever-present fears of pickpockets or becoming a victim of vehicular maiming and dismemberment, but overall, it's a safe city. One of our Chinese friends once quoted a Chinese proverb to the effect of "No one tries anything at the foot of the emperor," as her explanation that Beijing was indeed quite safe.

On Sunday evening, some of the guys in my small group and I were heading out to grab some food when we noticed a crowd gathering outside the gate of an apartment complex. As we approached, it looked like a man was beating a three-wheel cart with a wrench. The four of us slowly realized the horror of the situation, and ran up to see what was really going on. We were pretty sure that there was a guy in the cart; we couldn't see him from our angle, but he must have been beat up pretty bad. As we ran closer, the guy with the wrench and his two friends threw a few parting kicks at the guy in the cart, and took off running. The injured man stood up, covered in blood, and stumbled his way toward some of the bystanders, who tried to convince him to sit down and wait for the police to come. Meanwhile, dozens of Chinese onlookers just stood around gaping in shock. A police vehicle and ambulance drove past, but the police took several minutes to actually arrive on scene. My friends and I left the scene, unsure whether we could actually help by getting involved.

The experience was surreal. Maybe it's that I've seen so many Chinese movies with this exact situation that when it actually does happen in real life, it's hard to believe it's real. Or that I never expected to be a witness to something like this and feel so helpless about it. I don't know how the system works and I can barely blurt out a full Chinese sentence. I wasn't even sure which of the four emergency numbers to call.

It's been a few days since the incident, and I've noticed that my experience of the city has changed. Maybe it's overly dramatic to say it, but it was traumatic. Is the city still (generally) safe? Yes. But for months I've had the impression that most Beijing residents live with latent anger management issues, simmering until some final straw brings the rage to a boil. A shouting match on the side of the road as two angry drivers argue about who is at fault. Vendors arguing over prime street positions to sell their wares.

My entries are usually pretty light-hearted. For me, humor can contribute to just about any situation. But this experience has left me sobered. I wasn't really sure how to write this up without having it be a jarring transition from most of my (not so) recent entries, but I'm coming to realize that as we keep this blog about our experiences here in Beijing, these awkward incongruities will happen. If only because urban life (especially life in a city which is at once so very prosperous and desperate, hilarious and horrific, pragmatic and absurd) is itself so full of these switchbacks and surprises.

So there you have it: a more sober note. And a commitment to be honest with you about life in this city, be it comic or tragic.

4 comments:

Katrina said...

beijingdou, do you think its maybe time for newyorkbean????

cc said...

yikes...makes me a wittle pah-pah. glad you are okay!

Ingrid said...

your blog is my very favorite in the universe

Sariah said...

Dude, sorry to hear that. I can't even imagine what that would feel like.

I saw a pedestrian get hit by a car and that was surreal. It was hard to register what I had just seen. I pulled over but 2 other people were quicker than me to get out their cell phones. I wanted to stick around to see how it turned out but the pedestrian seemed to be ok. I felt bad leaving, but I also felt like I couldn't be of any help.

On a different note, Happy Belated Birthday! We didn't get to talk to you on your birthday. We need to set up a webchat.

Love and miss you guys.