Friday, October 18, 2013

Guest Post: A Kenyan's Tales from the Beijing Subway

This guest post is courtesy of Bob Wekesa, Kenyan journalist and Ph.D. candidate at China Communications University.
When I first came to China in the autumn of 2011, it was with feelings clear as mud. On the optimistic expectations continuum, I was all upbeat about imbibing a new culture framed as mystical and mysterious. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I was wary of China’s reputation as a communist state. My mind raced hither and thither even as the Emirates Airways taxied on the runways of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi bound due East.

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport on the evening of September 8, I and would be classmates at Communication University of China were received by volunteer students. I was mesmerized by the sheer smoothness and neatness of the roads as a courtesy bus conveyed us to China and Asia’s foremost media and journalist school. The more distance we covered away from the airport toward the university, the more I was charmed by the complexity of the road network: underpasses here, flyovers there; endless road safety rails that would long have been vandalized were it in Nairobi; service roads aplenty, name it? 

Something else struck me – the absence of pedestrians on the airport highway! Wasn’t this the capital of the world’s most populous nation? Hadn’t I read that Beijing itself was on course to top 20 million residents in short order? Where are the Chinese ‘commoners’, I mused!

The answer to my bewilderment over the absence of Chinese pedestrians would come to me powerfully once I settled down on campus and started venturing out. My very first encounter with throngs of Chinese was within days of arrival when colleagues from Tanzania, Belarus and Nigeria went to the Sanilitun diplomatic enclave to register our presence with our embassies. 

Two young Chinese students offered to help us reach our embassies. At the Communication University of China station on the Batong Line, we were baptized into the Beijing subway culture. Although we left for the diplomatic district mid afternoon that bright October day, we found the trains packed to the brim. Drive on Mbagathi Road in Nairobi any working day morning and what strikes you is the great number of manual laborers walking to Industrial Area work from Africa’s largest slum - Kibera. Aha, when you don’t see the Chinese on Beijing highways, they are commuting underground in their millions! 

It was evident that some of the Chinese passengers were encountering black people for the first time, judging from the glances and gazes we were attracting. I am not too sure if I am less conscious today than I was two years ago but it appears there are fewer darts directed at me nowadays when on board the subway. The number of Africans (or blacks for that matter) coming to Beijing has shot up over the past two years. New African students mingling with Chinese people must have helped break cultural barriers in a way that a television feature can never do.  

The Beijing subway is a study in convenience if one gets the hang of navigating it. Peak hours are to be avoided like the plague on account of the jam-packed crowding, and cramming in Beijing takes on a particularly buffeting quality! Five pm is particularly rough as commuters often stampede into the trains where one has to reckon with being squeezed as well as the resulting odors. This is when you come face to face with the foibles of living in a populous nation, notwithstanding the many positives of ‘strength in numbers’. Off peak however, the subway is less packed. Thus, unless absolutely necessary, many foreign students plan their sojourns away from universities between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm or any time after 7.30 pm. 

A journalist colleague has pointed out that the number of skyscrapers in Beijing could be as many as the number of high rise buildings in all the African cities together. This claim is rather hyperbolic. But the fact remains that locating a building on your own in Beijing is a complex affair on account of the many buildings in the sprawling city. Here, the subway comes in handy in that it serves as a location marker. I have found it convenient to be directed to any rendezvous by for instance arranging to meet a contact at the entrance/exit of a subway station. It’s not uncommon for one to pose: “well, this building is near which subway station?”

Quite apart from the fact that I get fewer quizzical looks when I use Beijing subways nowadays, I have gained other sociological-cum-psychological insights, albeit neophyte. As a rule of thumb, when a fellow Chinese subway commuter fixes me with a glance, I look back straight and he or she will surely avert his or her gaze. Better still, if someone looks at me a little bit intensely and we are within short distance, I will offer a greeting. Often ‘ni hao’ leads to some conversation; in once case, I have developed a long term relationship on the basis of a mere subway greeting. However, if I am not up to any of these strategies, I opt to whip out my phone and delve into any online engagement.

Chinese kids are particularly flummoxed when they meet an African, on the subway, in a public park or elsewhere. The trick, I have learned is to be playful with the kid and even make faces and the kid is your buddy (often the parent as well). I have also learned that older folk are likely to give you that quizzical look than are the middle aged Chinese – I propose the younger people have witnessed China’s opening up relative to older folk. I also now know that most of the subway commuters who seem so mesmerized by Africans would be new to Beijing, visiting from other Chinese provinces or the outskirts of the city where exposure to Africans is less. 

Just so that we could test our thesis that ‘Beijingers’ in the outer districts are less exposed to Africans, a colleague from Lesotho and I recently commuted to Tuqiao, the terminal of the Batong line in East Beijing. There we went into a restaurant and ordered a drink but the surprise written on ‘fuyuwuan’ the waiter’s face as well as other patrons at the bar served to confirm our suppositions.    
In a nutshell, the Beijing subway has countless tales to tell.

The author is a Kenyan journalist and PhD in communication candidate at Communication University of China. He is also a fellow of the China-Africa Reporting Project at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Contact:                              


Chef Jack said...

Great post, whilst reading it I felt like I was there! I particularly loved the part about how you deal with those curious gazes, very positive. I found the same when I was there :) Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting story :)

Anonymous said...

keep up the good work