(In)visible cities: A late morning in Wudaokou

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

September 1st, 2018. My first day at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Everything was ready, or at least I thought it was. I had arrived in China two weeks before the start of the classes, I had bought all the stuff I needed for my room, I had gone to the orientation meetings, and I had read the freshman students guide at least three times. The night before I had carefully chosen the clothes, put the books and the computer in my bag and set the alarm at 6.15 am. I had prepared every single thing to avoid any kind of unforeseen events

However, that morning my alarm didn’t work. I started panicking. The only thing I could think about was the 3.2 clause of the student’s regulation: “No delay admitted”. I quickly got dressed and left the room. It was 7.33 in the morning and Beijing life was going by as if I didn’t exist. No one was bothered by my visible desperation, and no one stopped to ask me if I needed help. I was staring at the huge mass of people crossing the road in one of the most populous zones of the Haidian District, incapable of moving a step. On the opposite side of the Wudaokou crossing, the lights of the Lush club were still on and some drunk students were walking out wearing sunglasses and pretending nothing ever happened. A strong smell of something burning was coming from East. When I turned my head, I saw some old ladies selling smoked sweet potatoes. They were wearing old and dirty clothes, and their oily hair collected in a tiny ponytail made me think that they probably hadn’t had a shower in a long time. Their faces were full of wrinkles and their skin color was quite dark for the Chinese standard. A man with a blue suit, a white shirt and a pair of Balmain black leather shoes passed by; he was shouting at his phone and his tone was getting higher word after word. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I recognized a strong Beijing accent; his sentences were full of “er” and his pronunciation of the “w” sound was quite hard. He was probably going to the bank district, which was only five minutes walking from the exit D of the Wudaokou metro station.

Suddenly, an acute and thunderous sound caught my attention. In a few seconds the sound stopped, and a female voice began speaking; she repeated the same sentence three or four times, then stopped. “欢迎观临。物美超市等着你们” – “Welcome. Wumei supermarket is waiting for you”. After a few times, I realized that it was Wumei supermarket advertising. I had never heard it before, but at the orientation meeting other students were complaining about its volume. 

When a young lady bumped into me, I woke up from my state of trance and got back to reality. I started looking for the map of the area in my backpack, but I couldn’t find it. I had probably left it on the bed. So I was late, I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t have a map. I was about to start crying when a young, tall, European guy asked me if I needed help. When I started speaking, I was so nervous that my voice was trembling, my English was even worse than usual, and probably the flow of the sentences didn’t make any sense at all. After a couple of minutes, he stopped me and, with a huge smile and a soft, calming voice, told me that the best solution was to take a taxi, so that I could arrive on time for class. He helped me find one as he probably realized that even a small and simple task such as taking a taxi would have been unbearable for me at that moment. As the taxi arrived, I thanked him, scanned his Wechat QR code and promised to contact him to have a beer together. After getting into the taxi, I gave the driver a crumpled piece of paper with some Chinese characters on it and told him to bring me there. The taxi was smelling like fish, and looking around seeking the source of that smell, I noticed a small plastic bag located just under the handbrake. There was a big image of a fish and a piece of tofu and the writing 豆腐干 (dried bean curd) on it. I had seen that snack before, but I never had enough courage to try it, as the smell was pungent, and the texture seemed to be too gelatinous. 

It only took 10 minutes to get to the university building, but to me it seemed like an eternity. When I got out of the car, I gave 100 yuan to the driver even though the price of the ride was only 57 yuan. I rushed to room 105 following the signals in the campus and, just a second after I sat in the only desk left, the bell rang and the teacher entered the class.

Maria Stella Burgio

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