I live in Beijing, a city of 20 million people, the capital of the Earth's most populous country and a center of massive cultural, political and economic influence. I've also lived in Shanghai, the financial center of China. So why was I so shocked to discover a clean, sit-down toilet with toilet paper in a run-of-the-mill cinema just a hop, skip and a stone's throw away from Beijing?
Well, maybe a hop, skip and a stone's throw might be a bit of an exaggeration. The truth was, I was in Hong Kong, and the only thing more shocking than the sit-down toilet with toilet paper was my degree of shock upon finding it. I wasn't just pleasantly surprised, which might have been a more typical reaction, but was shocked enough to exclaim a reverent, "Oh, wow," which is surely more than what most toilets hear under normal circumstances.
The rest of my short stay in Hong Kong was consistent with the theme of shock and surprise at the city's multi-faceted dimensions. I expected a concrete jungle full of bustling business people, but instead, I got a concrete jungle full of bustling fashionable people decked out in the latest runway collections of the season, running to beat the red light in their towering heels and designerlabel purses. I expected taxis to be expensive, and they were expensive at a flag-down fare of HK$20 ($2.6) but did not refuse passengers, unlike the infamous Beijing taxi driver's "bu xing, bu xing" ("no, no")—and they knew where things were.
A hike up Victoria Peak showcased rolling hills covered in lush greenery, a mere 20-minute bus ride away from the Central Business District. Oh yes, the buses. People often remark on the great extensive subway system in Hong Kong, but the public buses are just as remarkable. There was a bus schedule by each stop and they came on time. It was remarkable.
A trip to Hong Kong's most popular beach, on Repulse Bay, was nothing short of awesome given that I had already tackled my city pursuits and nature climbs in the same city. There were tall lifeguard towers housing young lifeguards vigilantly watching the waters, though it seemed to be a slow day. Sunbathers in teeny bikinis and rolling paunches littered the beach here and there. I even spotted some women dressed in traditional Yunnanese garb laughing, taking pictures and wading in the cool waters.
Across the street was The Arcade at 109 Repulse Bay Road, Repulse Bay Beach's own swanky country club-esque paradise. A stroll around the area revealed a tiny self-sustaining village with a supermarket, restaurants, bookstore, doctors and dentists' offices and more. A plaza in the center allowed residents and visitors to relax and have their cups of coffee while the kids tried to convince their nannies that they absolutely needed ice cream from the ice cream shop across the square. The predominant language was English, next was French, followed by Cantonese.
Truth be told, I felt like a country bumpkin visiting the big city for the first time. How can this be, given the enormous global influence of the city I lived in and that Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the same country?
My biggest shock was the degree of ease living in the city had. True, you had to dodge the Mercedes and Rolls-Royces coming at you, just like dodging cars and motorbikes in Beijing. But if you died, at least you got hit by one-of-a-kind Alfa Romeo.
Country bumpkins are the stereotype, but city bumpkins could be a growing breed. The ease of living is one aspect Beijing is challenged in. Admittedly, this makes getting through a day all the more triumphant and it gives the city a charm that keeps things ever so interesting. But when will it become not just the big, capital city with city bumpkins, but the city where getting through a day is not a challenge? Given the speed of growth Beijing has experienced, the answer is most likely: relatively soon.
In the meantime, I would be perfectly satisfied with finding toilet paper in a semiclean bathroom every once in a while.
The author is a Canadian living in Beijing
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