If on a snowy day a traveller

photo beijing white

By Tara Dear, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

It’s true, I was prejudiced against Beijing from the beginning. If you’d asked me why, I would’ve told you that it’s too busy, too loud, too dirty, and just too big. Nevertheless, I was resigned to come here on the recommendation of learning the “pure” Mandarin accent, with the plan of fleeing to China’s comparatively cleaner south-west when I just couldn’t take the lack of breathable air anymore. I figured if my brother could put up with this maze of urbanization for a year, I could handle it for a couple of months, so here I am. I confess readily that I boarded the plane with a mindset of endurance rather than anticipation, but just as readily, I’ll admit that I was wrong.

Despite Beijing’s many advantages of culture and variety, I had believed that simple aesthetic beauty could never be ranked among them. On days when the horizon, already obstructed by a sprinkling of skyscrapers and factories, was further smothered by a fog of pollution, I’d grit my teeth and pull out my face-mask. It’s unfair to say that there was never a gleam of blue up above, but after a lifetime accustomed to Australia’s unblemished azure, I viewed even Beijing’s best efforts with disgust. That held true for about two and a half weeks, until last Wednesday, when wonder of wonders, it snowed.

I was amazed. Overnight, the city was transformed – instead of a grimy covering of ugly duckling grey, it had put on feathers of pristine white. My daily trudge to school past objects previously too mundane to attract attention now enchanted me at every turn. Fences lined with barbed wire were softened by their powdery icing, the underside of cars glimmered with icicles rather than dripping oil, trees that had seem stark in their deciduous nakedness bore a frosty foliage I admired more than the evergreen eucalyptus leaves I was familiar with.

My classmates in school weren’t quite so overwhelmed, but then, they were a little dismayed that their European winters had followed them here. For me, though, snow has always meant a special occasion – perhaps a trip away to ski, or a Christmas spent abroad. To follow the same old routine in such a dazzling new place was an altogether unsettling, but delightful, experience. My teachers indulgently showed me the character for ‘snow’ and let me write an invitation for a lunchtime snowball match on the whiteboard, while laughing every time they caught me peeking out the window to check it hadn’t melted yet.

That was about three days ago now, and the last vestiges of Beijing’s makeover have faded away with today’s pale sun, returning the city to its normal state. Strangers I pass in the street are no longer smiling and pulling out iPhones and iPads to photograph the unusual splendor, but are hurrying through their daily business as they head for the invariably crowded subway. Still, as impermanent as the presence of snow is, the impression it leaves is much more long-lasting. The traffic is just as frantic, the smog as impenetrable, but my view of Beijing is just a little more sanguine in Wednesday’s aftermath. I certainly haven’t altered my opinion on sprawling cities for long-term residence, but rather than grim determination, I’m able to look ahead to the next few weeks here ready to enjoy them. A place this big, after all, has to be full of surprises.

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