The Lives of Others – a brief thought from Beijing

His arms swinging agitatedly beside his barrel chest, the middle-aged man strode quickly down the cracked cement alley. The scowl on his face marked his sour mood, and the barking shouts of the woman emerging from the alley behind him revealed its source. The woman – dark-haired, petite, and cleanly dressed – paced after him, arm outstretched accusatively. Though I understood none of her words, her vehement tone and rapid pace told me all I needed to know about the monologue. In fact, I already knew too much.

Having procured a ticket for the overnight bus to Inner Mongolia, I decided to take a walk. A few hundred meters down the street, I spotted a busy market and decided to investigate. Crossing a busy street of cars, scooters, and tuk-tuks that had no intention of stopping for pedestrians, I joined the flood of patrons rushing along the market street. Wagons and tables of fresh fruit and vegetables dotted the north side. Small shops and eateries lined the south. Scooters and cars squeezed down the lane, honking their horns to alert the mass of pedestrians that somehow parted just in time to make room. Little boutiques with steaming dumplings, frying pancakes, and boiling eggs increased in number. On my left, a large square of food stands became visible, and I examined the frying meats, baking breads, and boiling soups with hungry eyes. I made a note to return before my bus left as to have a full stomach for the long ride ahead.

Overwhelmed by the detail, I stopped in a side alley to retrieve my camera from my bag. Reentering the street, I snapped a few wild shots of trays of meat and patrons examining produce. Each time I lifted my camera though, I looked at my subject and saw discomfort. I could feel the eyes of intrigued locals upon me, a strange sight with my brown hair, long face, and large travel pack. I could feel the eyes not only on me, but on my camera. The discomfort prevented me from even bringing the eyepiece to my face.

This was wrong. These people were living out their daily lives in no special fashion yet I was capturing them like performing animals at a circus. In no way was that my intention, but perception is reality. Had they known that my only intention was to show my friends and family some of the cultural differences that I had seen during my time in abroad, perhaps they would have entertained my hobby willingly. However, that consent was impossible to obtain because I could not communicate with them.

The area of Beijing in which I found the long distance bus terminal was not the affluent city center that I had seen while wandering the area around the popular attractions like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was a part of the city that was home to thousands of people who had yet to feel the comforts that China’s rapid industrialization had made available to many. The travelers I saw were people who could not afford to fly to their destination. They came with cinched and taped burlap sacks and heavy boxes on their backs. The people of this small market made their living selling snacks for less than a dollar a piece. They lived in homes of loose brick and crumbling concrete, electricity a recent improvement and hot water a luxury.

In this area clothes hung on lines drawn across narrow alleyways. The dirty concrete path turned to mud with dirty water and bodily fluids. Thin, hungry dogs sniffed up the short steps to the eateries, hoping for a bit of scrap. People walked and rode their bikes, the shining new cars that lines the streets financially out of reach. They lived in the shadows of towering new apartment buildings, separated by tall brick walls and long sheet metal textile factories.

After only a few moments, I put my camera back in my bag, but I continued to wander. It was only a few more steps before I heard the shouts of the woman from a side alley. Her husband storming out past me, she in close pursuit. Neither gave me a glance as I passed them, but I made eye contact with a large young woman as a crossed in front of the alley. Presumably their daughter, she followed reluctantly, perhaps frustrated at yet another of her parents’ fights.

This was too deep of a look into the lives of others. In this crowded world of the lower classes of Beijing, privacy was a luxury many could not afford. Their dirty laundry literally hung out for all to see, even this curious foreigner became privy to the most embarrassing parts of their lives.

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