This evening my friend took me to a bar street in Beijing. It was very pretty. We chose a bar with a fairy-tale theme and sat in tall, elegant chairs framed by purple velvet curtains. I noticed the dim lighting, cocktail list, and loud music – with sit-down toilets as the only place of escape. This is not aimed at Chinese people.
As the night drew on, the bar started to fill. Wave after wave of white faces passed our window, but the only Chinese people I saw were those calmly leading their pack of whites to the desired drinking destination. It is very pleasing to share smiles with other white people and sit in an environment that reminds me of fun nights out getting drunk. But at the same time, I know how fake this place is.
Bars apparently came to Beijing just a few years ago. They have increased along with the number of tourists – and I can understand why. Travelling is so easy these days that we have less appreciation of the distance covered and differences that exist. This isn’t a criticism – people are brought up in a certain environment and can’t adapt to a new one that quickly. It is also natural for people to expect their environment to stay much the same. It does most of the time, after all. Bars are synonymous with fun in western culture – so wherever there are Western tourists there will be demand for a bar.
Most Westerners I see in Beijing do not seem open to the differences here. Often they are in groups that cling together for security – and the groups either try to dominate their new world with loud shouting and joking, or they look around in nervous fear. Any Westerners on their own seem to pretend they are not here: They never look around (and consequently I never succeed in exchanging glances). A couple of westerners were exceptions to these rules…but they were drunk. Does any of this sound familiar? Chinese nationals visiting the UK will separate themselves from us in a similar way. Chinese people are not like that here. The white people are. Oh, how the tables turn.
Back in the bar, I realise that I could easily be one of these other people: I could have gone on a tour trip to China, or got a group of friends together for a holiday. I recognise that the way I have done it makes me very different. I am the only one here sitting with a native of this city – or even of this country! I am the only one not with other Westerners. And I am the only one that watches, and hesitates, before simply doing what I am used to. I constantly try to adjust my behaviour to fit with my surroundings. Among a crowd of tourists – I am the only real traveller.