All you need to write is the bare minimum: a desk, a chair, a pen. But another indispensable utensil has been added to this bare-bones tool set since my residency in Beijing: now I absolutely have to have the double-walled tea glass with a screw-on lid that I purchased at a tea shop near Beixinqiao metro station. Now it’s always within reach next to the computer, sometimes filled with tea, though usually just with hot water. Hundreds of Beijingers have convinced me: there’s nothing doing without a handwarming tea receptacle and a steady supply of hot water. So my working day has become one quarter more Chinese. Unfortunately, it’s harder to export some of the other remarkable and delightful customs of this pleasure-loving people: wearing pyjamas in the street; serving a smorgasbord for breakfast ranging from wonton soup to baozi and pastries; gleefully singing and dancing everyplace and every chance they get; and – absolutely vital – WeChat. For, just as there’s nothing doing in Beijing without a tea receptacle, this inconspicuous app is used for everything here: making contacts, sending photos, calling a cab, ordering food, paying. Once you’re on WeChat, you’re in China. And not before, as I found out the first few days after my arrival.
I flew to Beijing as a greenhorn, with a cheap telephone whose every service ran on Google. I had already heard of the Great Firewall, the virtual pendant to the Great Wall which shields China’s World Wide Web from unwelcome foreign influences. I was nevertheless surprised when, after I’d inserted a Chinese SIM card with Internet credit on it, nothing worked. It took a few days and plenty of tinkering by Nicolas, an experienced assistant at the Institute for Provocation, to get me back online and to set up my WeChat account. In cities of manageable proportions like Berlin or Munich, people have no idea how indispensable this app is to survive in China – and to have any social life at all. E-mail and text-messaging have long since become passé in the Empire of the Middle. You’re not fully-fledged friends with anyone till you’ve scanned their WeChat ID into your data pool. Also gone are the days of hackneyed emoticon exchange on WhatsApp and Facebook. WeChat puts a full palette of elaborate stickers and bizarre, supercute creatures at your disposal instead of lobbing lame verbiage back and forth across the chatmosphere.
Language seemed lame and inadequate to me since in most cases I dislike language anyway. Whether in a restaurant (baffled by the menu), fruit shop or bus stop: in most situations, hands, feet, fingers and little pictures are more useful than intermediate-level English. And it’s a miracle how far you can get with two words: nǐ hǎo (hello!) and xièxiè (thank you!) are enough to make most Beijingers happy and helpful. Add zài dá (that one!) your third week there and you’ve got a whole communication manual to work with.
Even the intuitive map of my home hutong that took shape over time makes do with a reduced vocabulary. Standing in the courtyard of my host establishment, the Institute for Provocation, and making a date with other Heizhima hutong residents to meet elsewhere, it sufficed to specify places like: at the Muslim place, at the other Muslim place, at the nice-waitress restaurant, at the porridge place, at the noodle soup place, at the tiny soup place, at the Yunnan restaurant, at the brewery. Of course you can also just drop a “location pin” on WeChat. At any rate, what you can see from this map is: the way to China’s heart is through its stomach. Eating is the first priority, in business and as in private matters. And what’s cooking in German kitchens just can’t compare to the variety that Chinese cuisine has to offer.
My internal Dongcheng District-centred mini-map of Beijing, very much charted for daily use, was regularly expanded by outings on an old-school Beijing bicycle I bought to get around town. It’s usually faster to pedal even all the way out to the Goethe-Institut, in Chaoyang District outside the 4th ring road, than to hop a cab – only to find yourself bumper to bumper, advancing at a crawl. Though you’ve got to be inured to the traffic chaos, for rules and mercy are unknown on the streets of Beijing. Mopeds dart out from between parked cars onto the highway, trucks turn their lights off as soon as it gets dark, stoplights apparently only serve to add some green and red colours to the city’s lighting design. Fortunately, the traffic doesn’t usually go terribly fast, thanks not least to the constant gridlock. Avoidance is the name of the game. And: put that breathing mask on because a deep breath of smog really hits the lungs. Think: Beijing cough...
So how did my writing come along in Beijing? At first, not at all. As a newcomer to Beijing, I just had to look and listen for a while – and eat as much as possible. It was listening that fascinated me most and tipped the balance for the transformation of my writing project. To me, out of my linguistic depth there, Beijing was mainly sound: the scales and modulations of spoken Chinese, spitting in the street and slurping handpulled noodles in the noodle bars, almost noiselessly, electric mopeds sneaking up and dashing by, the clinking of bicycle chains in the muted evening atmosphere of the hutong alleys, the computer voice of the dust-cart backing up, the eerie whooshing sound inside the Airport Express, the cacophonous background noise of multiple live concerts in the bars around the Hou Hai. Against this backdrop, my planned play about living there as a foreigner and in transit, among other things, ultimately turned into an audio drama project.
Beijing is sound. And many of its sounds and voices bade me farewell. Now I’m already waiting for the city to call me back.