A trip to the geek mall

Yesterday we got up intending to go to Tiananmen, but it was raining. So we thought we’d go on a geek pilgrimage to what we read was like “Beijing silicon valley” in Haidian district, a ways out of downtown past the 4th ring road. We got in a taxi and pointed to the address, bascially the intersection of Zongguocun and Zonguocun Lu streets. Zond-7 and I liked the feeling of just getting in a cab and trusting to fate and our wits to get us home again.

About 40 minutes and 7 bucks later we were dropped off at an insanely busy corner, at an “Easy Joy” gas station. With a big crowd of people we surged across the street. There was a big plaza with several buildings all covered in ads for computers and techie gadgets, mp3 players, cameras. We followed some loud pop music up to a booth that was so crowded I couldn’t see inside; it was a video game demonstration. A couple of guys tried to herd us into the building. There was a ramp… so… why not? We followed a bunch of people onto an elevator and got off at the 2nd floor which was full of glass cases of tiny shops with computer stuff, mostly mac and ipod and ps2 and wii sort of things. I could get an ipod touch for around $150 (I did not try to bargain, but I didn’t buy it either). Back on the elevator, we got off where everyone else did, at the 6th floor, adn went down a narrow hallway full of grungy small offices. People were eating noodles, talking, sleeping, building computers, unpacking boxes… and at the end of the hall we turned left into a GIANT MALL of only electronics. Booths, stalls, glass cases, everything was piled high. It felt a bit unofficial, like a flea market, and most people were very young. Every booth had a group of people just hanging around and mostly playing video games or surfing the web.

I get a nod of recognition from guys with slightly long hair (popular alternative style is much like Rain’s haircut, alternative but not too outrageous) and from ever so slightly gothy looking chicks. There are some skateboarders who definitely look me over and seem to want to talk (but I am with this big tall guy in a SUIT.)

Here is a little part of Beijing I was looking for, and found, on the 6th floor of this electronics flea market mall behind the winding hallway of grimy offices:

Geek plaza in Beijing

The next building over had a starbucks and a mcdonalds – we didn’t go into that one. Across the street there was an even bigger building with a giant “e” on it. Its first floor sold laptops of every kind, very fancy, with classical music playing way too loud and an oppressive atmosphere like a boutique department store or a car sales lot. We got out of there as fast as possible, to the elevator, and the basement which was labelled “cool comics zone”. Dance Dance Revolution! an arcade! Better music! No one bothering us! an online gaming room! and then another whole building full of mobile phones and gadgets. Clearly if we came back at 9pm this place would be hopping with teenagers. The 5th floor was all a huge food court and I liked it a lot. The booths mostly had raw food which the cooks prepared in front of you. Nothing was in English, but sometimes there were photos of the different dishes. Or, the food was laid out raw on a plate covered with plastic wrap so you could see what it was. We ended up eating in a small Korean restaurant. I had grilled eel bibimbap, which was totally delicious, and the thousand year egg out of Zond-7′s noodle soup. The 4th floor of this mall was also nice, the “DIY” floor with computer parts. I liked the section with clear shells and light-up stuff for modding your desktop computer.

There was a very big plaza or balcony on this floor, where we overlooked the small park and plaza and the Sino Steel building. Below, we realized that getting a taxi would be hard. There were tons of taxis, but they were mostly full.

The plaza was pretty and full of people strolling around or sitting on the benches. We sat to people watch and to decide on which toddlers in fancy outfits and pigtails were the cutest.

I can’t describe this well, but here are my general observations and impressions on the character of the city. I like Beijing, and I feel at home here. It has to do with how people treat each other and their expectation of how they will be treated. People aren’t snotty, but they seem to feel entitled in a way I find familiar, or pleasant, or easy to deal with. Everyone is thinking of themselves, for example in crossing the street or in a line, there is no false deferential politeness. But people aren’t rude about it either, or pushy. I like the loving respect that shows in how people treat their children; in the park and elsewhere there were many times I would see a small child choosing what to do and the parent following along and supporting them, or lifting the child to where she wanted to go, or to see a new thing. So I like the freedom and encouragement that people seem to give their children. Also, in every situation where I have *not* been in a “fancy hotel” environment, people just act like we are all human beings, and no one either acts snotty, or kisses my ass. Zond-7 says it has to do with not acknowledging class differences, or those class differences not meaning that you have to act a certain way. People don’t act blase, or indifferent, or self-important, like they do in New York and San Francisco.

That is my one-day impression! Take it for what it’s worth!

Geek plaza in Beijing

I know that we don’t know how to read people and neighborhoods. And I’m very curious… for example as we drive past a neighborhood I keep wondering “and what stereotype of people live here? What do people say about them?” Like how we talk about “Mission hipsters” or what San Franciscans think of people from Los Angeles, and vice versa. That is the local geography I would really like to know, but it only comes when you’ve lived in a place for real.

I love it that Zond-7 and I were perfectly happy going to a random destination in the suburbs. It is as if someone came to San Francisco and instead of seeing any of the tourist sights, went to Hillsdale Mall and Fry’s.

So, back to our adventure in the park. We watched a roller-blading guy set up small cones and practice a set routine. We smiled at babies. Then we headed to what we thought might be a hotel but which turned out to be a grocery store underground and then a huge huge mall with brand name Western stuff like Izod and Adidas. “Middleclasstastic!” Zond-7 pronounced… But next to us there were just a few, very non-middle-class, street vendors with skewers of meat and giant sweet potatoes roasting on steel oil drums on the back of bicycle trailers. It took us a while to get a taxi.

Then our taxi driver got a bit lost at the end after negotiating rush hour with awesome skill. We could only point to the tiny map printed on the card from our hotel… he pulled over, called the hotel, cussed cheerfully I think at our stupidity and the hotel’s; we finally got there and I tipped him 10 yuan extra hoping that would make up for it all. He said no at first, but then took it and seemed rather surprised and cheerful.

Oh! wheelchair notes! So far, my wheelchair has fit into the back of every kind of taxi. IN the smallest ones, I have to take off the footrest, but that is easy – it’s quick release, and I only have one footrest. My chair is a Quickie x frame. Your mileage may vary. Taxi drivers have been super nice about folding up my chair and stuffing it carefully into the trunk.

Some hotel bathrooms, like the ones in the airport, are very accessible. Some are not! Out in the geek malls, the bathrooms would have a wheelchair-access sign, but then were not at all accessible. I parked my chair, went up a step into the narrow stall, held onto the plumbing pipe for dear life, and squatted. If you can’t do that, you will run into difficulties; stick to bathrooms in big hotels and very fancy western malls.

Here is another random observation: people hand business cards with both hands. I keep forgetting, then noticing again. Offer your card with both hands and also accept other people’s cards with both hands.

As I wander all these malls and see the general prosperity of the millions of people in Beijing I think of what I would read about China in the 1980s. That if you came as a visitor, you would get a military escort or a “tour guide” who shadowed you and would not let you do barely anything; that you’d be shown “model” projects and Potemkin villages. 20 years later, that is not the case. But I still have that history in mind, and feel lucky to be here.

Another observation on character. There seems to be more public space, and the feeling towards public space is somewhat different than in the U.S. Public spaces are slightly less commericalized, less determined. Where in the U.S. it is hard to find a place that has not been overdetermined as to its use and what you are “supposed to do” there. Some of that attitude towards public space might be that people don’t have a lot of private outdoor space, while in the U.S. you might have a tiny backyard or in a big city might consider public space to be “unsafe”. So, I am not romanticizing it, but I like the feeling that people just go outside and hang out.

Back to my description of the day. After a rest we forced ourselves to go out, to get more familiar with the neighborhood and to look for dinner. We realized suddenly we were right on Wangfujing street, which is a giant pedestrian outdoor mall, a section of street that goes for many blocks with no cars. TV billboards, and brand name stores, and giant pharmacies, ice cream places, all a street for chinese tourists coming to shop and gawk at life in the big city. To the side there were little alleys with booths — a whole street with just meat on skewers, meat of many many kinds, and another with just booths of tourist tchatchkas like stuffed pandas and small replicas of the terracotta warriors.

As we got further and further from our hotel I realized I was freezing, my neck hurt so much I couldn’t push my chair anymore, and I was exhausted. All the jet lag in the world hit me at once and I felt sort of helpless and weepy and unable to think. I felt super scared that tomorrow (now today) I wouldn’t be able to be independent, or go out, because my arm wasn’t working very well. Zond-7 nicely gave me his warm sweatshirt and pushed me back to the hotel, remarking that my body thought I had just stayed up all night and it was 10am. The restaurants all seemed either too huge, touristy and bustling, or too pissant and empty like the one across the street. So we tried the hotel restaurant on the 2nd floor.. but it not only sucked, but was closing for the night. I slurped some cheap slightly nasty noodles, giggling in despair. We went up to our room, where I had a bath and passed out within like 10 minutes.

My arm is still a bit wobbly (old neck problems flaring up) but I think it will be okay. I just need to be a little more conservative and not wheel myself up curbs and ramps and endlessly everywhere for 8 hours straight. We’re going back to the conference today. I hope I can go out on my own again – but maybe will save it for Tiananmen tomorrow.

Everything in the guidebooks has has been hopelessly silly, wrong, and pointless. Misleading, overdetermined, ignorant, and with dumb generalizations, full of all that.

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