Adventures of Life in Beijing

Up. Down. All around. I counted 96 security cameras on my morning walk to the park which is just over a mile away. That was on my side of the street. It could have been 95 or 97. I started to lose count after awhile.

Cameras line the streets to monitor traffic.

Cameras record license plates as only certain vehicles are allowed into the city on given days to reduce traffic.

 

Crosswalks are monitored to discourage jaywalking. Sometimes names and ID numbers pop up next photos of the offending pedestrians.

 

Smile, you’re on candid camera.

 

Cameras in restaurant kitchens send a live feed to the dining area. Find a stray hair in your food? Now you’ll know whose it is.

 

I’m not sure I want to know what goes on back there.

 

Cameras are in every school classroom (keep those masks on!), and adorn entrances to hotels, apartment compounds and shops.

 

Entrance to a local store.

 

Mini-cameras hang from rearview mirrors or sit on the dash in taxis and ride share vehicles.

If there’s a place to gather, chances are there’s a camera nearby.

 

A peaceful spot at the park under watchful eye.

 

Since Beijing is the capital, it’s surveillance heavy, with around 1 million cameras watching 20 million people. The city boasts 100 % coverage. Combined with the ever-increasing technology of facial recognition, the use of cameras is a way to keep people in line.

In China, whether you sip, stroll, work or play, someone is always watching.

 

Stone sculptures stand watch

 

Thankfully, I haven’t seen any cameras patrolling the public restrooms yet. Using a sometimes less-than-clean squat toilet is stressful enough. I don’t need an audience.

 

Can I have some privacy please?

 

I’m so used to it I don’t even notice them much anymore. I guess I should put on lipstick or at least comb my hair when I go out for my morning walk.

 

Cameras at the park.

 

I did get a little nervous this morning taking pictures of them taking pictures of me (there should be a word for that).

I’ve been scolded for taking pictures at sensitive places before, like Tiananmen Square.

On one hand, I do feel  safer. I don’t have to worry about anyone spitting in my food when I go out to eat, and if my taxi driver decides to go on a joyride, the whole thing’s on tape. I haven’t seen any graffiti, looting or damaged property. I think there was one murder reported last year in Beijing that I heard about. My biggest fear is someone stealing my bicycle.

Most Chinese people who are interviewed on the subject for local news outlets don’t mind the scrutiny. It’s the government’s job to keep people safe, and the cameras are one tool. Personal privacy is foreign concept in this country anyway.

On the other hand, it’s a little creepy to think Big Brother knows everything about my day, from what time I went to the gym in the morning to what I bought at the grocery store for dinner. If I partake in any suspect behavior, I’m quite sure someone will come knocking.

And I’ve only told you about the cameras. Maybe another time I’ll explain the tracking apps, bank monitoring and media censoring that’s part of everyday life.

How would you feel living under such tight surveillance? Do you think life in your hometown would change if people knew they were being watched? Drop a comment. I’d love to hear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (7):

  1. Jeannie

    October 12, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    I would imagine all of this leads to censoring what people think and say – at least in public. The problems of a society that lives under communism. You aren’t truly free. Sometimes that may be good but to Americans that seems hard to swallow.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:24 pm

      There are some positive aspects to it which I never would have thought.

      Reply
  2. Paula Kasnitz

    October 12, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Quite disconcerting!
    Continue the adventure and remember to vote!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:22 pm

      Already done but no sticker!

      Reply
  3. Janet K Arkills

    October 12, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    You expand my world, and make me know there are real people like you out there, writing about what is happening elsewhere. Keep safe keep writing.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:22 pm

      Thanks Janet! It’s great to have an outlet to share my experiences.

      Reply
  4. Ainslie

    October 14, 2020 at 3:50 am

    When I know people are watching me, I think twice about my behavior. If I approach an intersection with red light cameras, I’m much more careful to stop in time, rather then trying to time the light and make it through just in time. I’m guessing people learn what they can and can’t get away with and where. It’s certainly not my preference to live while being watched. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us! I love to see your adventures. The country is beautiful!

    Reply

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Snake Skin

I’m really sorry I let you down. I made promises I just couldn’t deliver.

If you recall in my last post Chinese Medicine I planned to drink a pot of Chinese herbal tea everyday to try and improve my reptilian skin, itchy scalp and overall parched demeanor caused by Beijing’s cold dry winter. I know you were hoping I could share the results of a miracle cure.

 

Traditional Chinese Medicine moisturizing tea

 

The concoction, brewed from a collection of beige roots and twigs, smelled a bit like a musty wool blanket that had been stored too long in a closet. It didn’t taste bad but as the holidays approached there was too much competition.

My first-ever  homemade eggnog with a splash of Captain Morgan’s did nothing for my skin, but it uplifted my spirits tremendously in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

 

You can’t buy eggnog in Beijing, but homemade was so easy !

 

Then there was the buttery yellow Chrysanthemum tea given to me by a friend. The color just made me happy, and I’d choose the floral aroma any day over the musky medicinal potion.

 

Chrysanthemum tea

 

And then there was the treasured Cadbury’s hot chocolate mix, which felt like such an indulgence topped with homemade whipped cream.
(Instant hot chocolate is a foreign luxury good, not readily available.)

Peet’s Coffee made its debut in Beijing this winter, and Santa brought me a shiny red mug for Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to fill it with Moisturizing Yam Tea.

 

 

With all of the competing beverages, I just couldn’t face another cup of astralagus root and dried yam tea.

In an effort to soothe my winter-weary skin, I turned to another (this time external) popular Chinese remedy: snake oil.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s what those fly-by-night traveling salesman used to sell at carnivals in the early 1800s, right?

Actually, it turns out that snake oil has a long history of popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Made from the oil of water snakes, this omega-3 fatty acid rich substance has been used to soothe skin, cure dandruff, relieve split ends and reduce arthritis.

A quick visit to Wal-Mart and I strike gold: there’s snake oil cream right next to snail slime extract. Maybe these cold-blooded creatures can help.

 

 

Online shopping offers more choices, from Snake Oil exfoliating gel to Snake Oil hair removers and whitening creams.

 

I’ve ordered a moisturizer and a scrub. I passed on the snail slime. I’ll check in again in a few weeks and let you know things are coming along.

 

 

Pick up Sticks

Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?

From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


Travel the Globe

Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.

Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.

Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.

If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.

Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).

 

Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.

 

 

For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant  to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.

 

Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.