Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I go walking, after midnight; or a new look at an old place

2006-4 night pictures 032
Originally uploaded by ebenlindsey.
Last night, while wondering the Tsinghua campus playing with my camera, I had the opportunity to see a different side of a neighborhood I consider myself quite familiar with. That is, the neighborhood between my apartment building and the Erxiao Men (pictured in the previous post, this is the old school gate and still lies on the equator of the campus, separating the "residential" southern half from the academic and dormitory buildings of the northern half. I guess it should be explained that students live near the class rooms, while the southern half of the campus is inhabited by professors, workers, shop owners, retirees and the like. But I digress.) While my neighborhood is made up of cookie cutter five and six story apartment blocks laid out in regular rows, this neighborhood is dominated by one story brown brick courtyard houses separated by narrow alleyways and small streets. The inhabitants of these residences have set up a variety of businesses, from dry-cleaners, and seamstresses, to print shops that advertise good rates for photocopies and digital photo printing. In general any service neglected by nearby supermarket and post office provides a cottage industry for the neighborhood.

While my elderly neighbors have all turned in by eight at night, these was a surprising variety of activity going on in this area after midnight. I noted, as I passed the windows on a small street, seamstresses finishing up dresses at their sowing machines, I saw a man in his mid thirties smoking and working on a computer in the print shop, and I even saw a woman asleep, sitting up in a small lit booth from which she sold egg pancakes during the day.

At the end of the street I found a Kodak shop (pictured) that I wanted to photograph. As I was struggling to level my tripod I noted that this part of the street was particularly active with people walking by every few minutes. It was not until I saw a gentleman a little older than myself tromp by in polka-dot pajamas that I realized the building next to the shop was the neighborhood bathroom.

After standing there for about twenty minutes a young lady who had been watching me from the bathroom entrance (I must have looked odd) came over and after greeting me in English, proceeded to question me in Chinese. I am quite proud of myself that we were able to carry on pretty well. When she used an unfamiliar word, she was able to supply the English equivalent, "hobby", which to my mind recommends a pretty high level of education, although perhaps informal.

It seems that she lived in the neighbor, which she exclaimed dated back to before the schools founding, and were some of the original building used as residents for teachers and administrators. It was not until after she left that it occurred to me how remarkable she was, or at least that she represented a somewhat remarkable phenomena. By American standards, or even Beijing standards, living in a coal heated brick house without a private bathroom would suggest poverty. But here was a neighborhood, that although outwardly shoddy, was positioned in the middle of one of the greatest institutions of learning in the country, and populated by hardworking and reasonably educated people.

I walk through this neighborhood several times a week. I have never given it much of a thought, except maybe once or twice when I was buying an egg pancake. It's nice to live in a place that confounds and confuses you.


At April 22, 2006 4:25 PM, Blogger leahchick said...

EBEN! Eben, eben, eben! I am so pleased to see a new post (3, if fact!) show up here. I check every couple of days or so, but I've been looking at the same damn thing for so many months that I'd almost given up. Thanks for the update.

I'm deep in thesis siberia - 6 days and counting.



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