An uncle who has lived and prospered in a non-Anglophone country told me before I moved to Beijing that the “language barrier” is mostly mental. Which is not to say that it’s mad, but that it exists in one’s own head. Thus, it is bridgeable, jumpable, walk-aroundable — the very opposite of insurmountable.
I thanked him for the advice, filed it away under platitudes, clichés and sundry stupidities other people had mouthed at me — “You’re taking your dog? They eat them there!” — and got on the plane.
Where, after an admittedly difficult week or so, I discovered the essential truth of what he was saying. Especially now, with smartphones and translator apps and taxis and food available on order, you’d have to try really hard to feel unmoored. Whenever it looked like we were finally at the “alien terminus”, at that moment when interlocutor and self were looking at each other in mutual incomprehension, there’d be the gent at the next table, the lady behind me in line, the parent at the stall next door jumping in with “Can I help?”
Some of the local channels even show Chinese movies with English subtitles.
But there is one thing I miss, and its absence is palpable whenever I’m in the metro, on the road, in a store. The faces on the billboards are still largely unfamiliar. The kids are humming songs I don’t recognise. The meme the person next to me is laughing his head off over may as well be from a different planet.
I am so far behind in cracking the popular culture of this place.
Imagine not recognising Shah Rukh Khan, not knowing the Amul girl or Air India’s Maharaja, not getting cricket at all. No matter how much high-culture you immerse yourself in, how many “conversational” language classes you take, how “authentic” you want your experience away to be, if you don’t know what makes people laugh and cry and pull together even when they’re in their own homes: are you getting that place at all?
My mother often told me that reading the comics of the time helped her settle in to life as a non-English-speaking teenager in the US in the early ’50s. It was a point of entry into conversations and friendships, and what are those if not gateways into a new world?
Comics were, of course, still in their “Golden Age” then. In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay , Joe Kavalier negotiates being a wartime refugee in the US by joining his talent to the insatiable demand of the American public for “escapist” entertainment. When I read it, I remembered my mother’s stories about her encounters with a world that was still very new through bold volumes detailing the lives of men — and the odd woman — who preferred their underwear on the outside.
Beyond the merely popular, there are many subcultures in Beijing, some of which I’ve been able to glimpse, even if fleetingly. There’s a bustling underground music scene, with lots of bands playing in Chinese and English. Publicity is done word-of-mouth, or rather word-of-Wechat (a Chinese social media app that supports translation). This comes with its own issues if you’re a newbie.
China’s online conversion, in fact immersion, is streets ahead of India’s. Thus information is targeted rather than blanketed. The problem with this model is that if you don’t already belong to a particular circle, there’s very little chance you’ll ever know it exists.
An intriguing paradox at the heart of this digital world is that something which is in theory so democratic, with such capacity to unify, should in fact be so fragmented. Communities of the like-minded existing in their own ecosystems is where we’re at.
Which is just another reason why we still need friends.
I’ve been fortunate to meet good people here — writers, artists, musicians and the like, who are just as interested in making Beijing’s many delights more available to non-locals as Johnny-come-latelies like myself are keen to sample them. Because the reality of it is, you still need help. It’s all very well using the in-app translator once you’re in the group; how do you search for the group in the first place, if you don’t know its name?
These friends have been important also because they’ve lifted me out of my comfort zone. One of the issues with being part of a functional expatriate community is how easy it all is. Once you’ve gotten settled, worked out the groceries, the four-ball, the nearest bars and the guys you’ll hit up those bars with, that could be your life till it is time to leave. To make your way past the merely impressionistic takes time and effort.
Identifying the celebrity shills on the road and on TV serves a purpose, which is to make me feel more at home here. Once I do, once they’re part of the background furniture — as the Khans are back home, as cricket is — I’ll probably stop paying them any mind as well. But till I can, it is important.
Every part of a new place, including the trivial, is a piece of the jigsaw that you’re assembling while you’re there. Being in a position to make new friends is a privilege as well.
To forego either would be a mistake.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing