I always draw comparisons between the places I have lived, and where I live now. I don’t know why I do it; I don’t know why I don’t let each place speak for itself and let it wash over me exactly as it is.
Comparison, so says my little Mac dictionary (so convenient, that–I love clicking on the cute little book icon and having a rush of words and synonyms at my fingertips) is to juxtapose, to differentiate.
The second meaning is “to set side by side with.”
That’s alright, I suppose, but then, last: “be comparable to, bear comparison with, be the equal of, match up to, be on a par with, be in the same league as, come close to, hold a candle to, be not unlike; match, resemble, emulate, rival, approach.”
I don’t really like this. I find myself doing it, though: thinking, “Beijing can’t hold a candle to Paris.”
But why should it? Beijing IS in a different league than Paris, but not a lesser league.
Yesterday as I walked to meet Brett on his lunch break, I turned down a leafy street, a kind in Paris I might have termed “boulevard,” but it didn’t seem right for this road. It was long and straight, and flanked with trees turning gold, and lined up behind them were birches, their leaves still dark glossy green. The trees made stripes of gold and green as far as you could see. The late-afternoon sun lit up the gold till it glowed.
It was lovely, and I flashed back to Paris last fall, with its leafy boulevards and crackling leaves and pruned poplars cut in squares. I felt a pang, and thought, “This can’t compare. It’s not as beautiful.”
I missed Paris then, but then I caught myself. There is beauty here, there is! I had just seen it.
A rusty cart had just jangled by, pulled by a man on a bicycle. The cart was half-filled with empty green beer bottles, and then, facing backwards, behind the bottles, a woman hunched over a baby. The kid was probably less than one year old, and was wrapped in a blanket to lesson the wind’s bite. What arrested me was the woman’s face–merry, cracked in a happy smile, tucked close to the baby’s head, pointing out the sights as they rushed by in the November sun.
Nowhere in Paris would I have seen that. Nowhere in Paris would I have seen an old man in a motorized wheelchair, calmly weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic, in front of a large bus, puttering around honking taxis.
As I turned down the green-and-gold striped street, my eyes snagged on the prissy, ratty dogs so popular here–Chihuahuas, Pekinese–dressed for autumn in sweaters and tartan coats, cut away to reveal rumps shamelessly bouncing with each step. I smiled, and even laughed a little, and realized that really, this sight was pretty similar to Paris. Chinese and French apparently share a fondness for yapping puffball dogs with smashed, panting faces.
[Aside: both these breeds really annoy me, and I’m not sure exactly why. Is it size alone? Because they don’t have the same personalities. Pekinese are spunky and prone to rabid panting and barking. They aren’t short on pluck, but they’re so damn obnoxious! Maybe I’m just bitter because they pee in my elevator…But yes, conversely, Chihuahuas irk me because they’re so often paralyzed with fear. They’re timid and trembly. In conclusion, I dislike small dogs, no matter what personality they have. Give me a Golden, or give me a cat. No puffy rats, masquerading as dogs.]
Parisians also are prone to clothing their rats (dogs?) in little coats, scarves, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled out the leather gloves and top hats (I once saw a man at a bus stop in Paris with a dog in a hoodie. No joke–a hoodie. He pulled the little hood over its head during our conversation. But–I’m ashamed to admit–it was a little bit cute. Barely.)
In Paris, though, I would be afraid to laugh at a dog in a sweater. Parisians are too proud to be laughed at, and to laugh at a French dog is to laugh at its French owner, and possibly France in general.
Here, though, I felt OK laughing. I don’t think they minded.
I kept walking, past the shabby apartments and shopfronts with bright, garish plastic signs and sagging astroturf stairs, past men playing ping-pong on curbside tables. Old men and women sat on benches, watching, or just enjoying the evening. In front of apartment complexes there were the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow painted metal exercise equipment–stairmasters, pull-up bars, exercise bikes. A woman industriously pedaled away on one.
I reached the end of the street and there was a wide, busy road, and to my right, “Pants,” or the CCTV Tower, crouched gleaming in the settling sun. I crossed the street with the other jaywalkers (they can’t hit all of us, right?), and headed north, with Thai food on my mind.
Beijing might not have Parisian charm and elegance, it might not have the Eiffel winking at me from Montmartre hill–it might not have warm buttery croissants filled with dark chocolate and almond paste.
But it has babies and beer bottles in bicycle carts, ping-pong players, whizzing motorbikes, pulsing energy, huge banners beneath halfway constructed skyscrapers that read, “WE WILL NEVER BE SECOND!” Luxury malls on one side of the street, with a huge Burberry poster with scowling sexy models, and on the other a run-down alley selling hot pork-filled buns and steaming noodles, and carts groaning under the weight of plastic bottles to be recycled.
I haven’t tried many of the French restaurants yet (though I shall this month, post-payday!) but the Thai last night was unreal. Crispy egg rolls dipped in a clear sweet-sour sauce, cold refreshing papaya salad with spring onions and fish sauce and cashews, red curry with pork over hot rice.
Other cities have good Thai eateries, I’m sure–Paris included, no doubt. Beijing is a bewildering, glorious hodgepodge, though. You can find any restaurant you might ever want–every cuisine under the sun is represented, and local food cheap, and good.
Not quaint, not laced with a beauty overwhelming, picturesque, and maybe at times almost stagnant–but instead pulsing with a different kind. I think the charm lies more in the people–the smile on the woman’s face among the rattling bottles. She was enjoying the ride.
I am, too.