A cluster of people were staring intently at a grassy hillside in Beihei Park, so I stopped to look as well and there was a colony of fat, peaceful, sleeping cats. There were dishes of food put out for them and they seemed quite pleased with their lot in life, while everyone looking at them seemed quite pleased to see them.
The profusion of healthy, well cared for domestic pets came as a big surprise to me--not because I buy into the stupid jokes about pets served up as lunch in China, but because attractive, pampered animals are still exotic in Bangkok. The cats that live on my soi are skinny and slinking and savage, while the kitten I have had since Halloween still bites me with great pleasure and monotonous regularity. The white, fluffy kitten on the neighborhood street that I saw in Beijing I would never see here, or the spaniel perched proudly on his post above the lake, or the man with his magnificent Siamese cat taking the air at sunset. When I think of why I love Beijing, I think of these pictures.
"Beijing is not China,"I've been told and I'm sure this is true--Bangkok is not Thailand, New York is not the United States, Seattle is not Washington. These are all places that define the countries--or states--that they are in, however, and are where the country's culture thrives, and where people who live in that country want to go--if only for a little while. In their singularity, they nourish an ideal view of what life can be.
And in Beijing, the life I saw was a life I yearn for. I miss the stoneware jugs of yogurt that persist among the Pepsi bottles in stands across the city, I miss seeing people browsing at book carts and reading wherever and whenever the mood strikes, I miss the fast-moving. crackling, kinetic energy of the place and the open-hearted generosity of the people who shared their city with me.
One night as I walked down the neighborhood street where my guest house was, an old man fell into step beside me and asked me if I spoke French. Painfully resurrecting the years of French from school, I held a conversation with a Beijing man whose accent and vocabulary were infinitely better than mine. Later in a park a man of the same vintage asked if I spoke Spanish. Since what I know is the hillbilly variety of Puerto Rico, I was reluctant to place it beside what was undoubtedly his pure Castilian. But their desire to connect and communicate makes me eager to learn Mandarin.
It's interesting to me that many foreigners in Beijing seem to have made an attempt at that language while few foreigners in Bangkok have a proficiency in Thai. I--who speak Thai to the housekeeper, food vendors and taxi drivers only-- chalk it up to the friendliness and curiosity of Beijing people as opposed to the taciturn treatment foreigners receive in Bangkok. If nobody speaks to you, why the need for language? Whereas if people search for a common language to hold a conversation with a stranger, then learning Mandarin is not just a courtesy but a kind of passport to entering a culture.
When I return in March, a Mandarin tutor is high on my list of priorities. After all, if I'm going to entice kittens on the street or sleeping cats in a park, I'd better know how to extend blandishments that they will understand.