The beaded Mao tassel swung rhythmically from the rearview mirror as we came to a stop in the Beijing traffic. The air conditioning was too cold, but I savored the goosebumps. Even in the airport, it was obvious that Chinese people preferred the heat over the cost of comfort. The drivers waiting by the welcome area had folded the bottom of their shirts over their chests, leaving their stomachs free to the humid air. I later discover the fashion statement has been dubbed, the “Beijing bikini.” (This trend was also prevalent in Guilin when I visited last summer.)
The difference between Guilin, a “small” city of four million people, and Beijing caught me off guard. The greenery of Guilin disappeared in the big city and the density of the people made it difficult to cross the road. It was also hard to miss the fact that the road signs were taken as mere suggestions as cyclists and people alike dodged veering cars. Mopeds honk in hoards, maneuvering around the pedestrians, hurrying to their destinations. Sleek malls plastered with bright advertisements towering over run-down local shops just on the other side of the street.
About 15 minutes away from the mall is BLCU. The school itself consisted of a comfortable campus with dorms scattered around the main teaching buildings. The canteen is probably the busiest place on campus. The first time I waded through the wide plastic strips (which hang from ceilings and often act in the place of doors in public areas), I was overwhelmed with the noise. Each section of the cafeteria acted as individual businesses, causing the same yells from the cafeteria staff as you would hear from street vendors, each beckoning students to their own food spots. This strategy of attracting customers is common throughout Beijing and I’m still learning to adapt to their urgent calls.
On one of my first outings, I joined three other foreign students in exploring Tiananmen square. The line to the entrance was full of local tourists, Chinese IDs in hand. As we approached the attraction, a security team came into view. They checked IDs and motioned us to throw our bags onto the security belt to be scanned. After walking through the metal detector, a woman waved her security wand to quickly pass over my body again. The square was not barren, as I had imagined it. Two rows of trees lined each wall as we followed the path between them to Mao’s benevolent face. It seemed that everyone was eager to take a selfie with the giant portrait, excitedly trying to find the best angle for both faces.
Although Tiananmen is probably where the largest portrait of Mao stands, it certainly isn’t the only one. Mao is a popular subject for artists and I’ve even seen bobble heads of him, wobbling pleasantly on the shelves of vending kiosks. I remember last year in Guilin, a homestay family hung his picture proudly on their walls. I had forgotten about his popularity in China until I saw the faded portrait, hanging from the rearview mirror of the taxi I rode from the airport.