I explored a few of the hutong neighborhoods in the area bordering the Forbidden City , eschewing the persistent entreaties of the rickshaw drivers that I could have an “Obama friend discount, 3 CNY!” (the cost of a non-Obama friend rickshaw ride is also 3 CNY). I like to walk, or, more accurately, wander. It’s how I get to know a little bit about a place. A bus, or taxi, or bike, or even rickshaw ride blurs the scene and doesn’t permit me to focus on the little things, the details that make a place.
In Shanghai, I have been reluctant to enter the alleys behind the Shikumen buildings that comprise the traditional Chinese neighborhoods; Perhaps it is the guards that are sitting by the gates, or just my view of myself as a laowai; I’ve skirted them, but not entered them directly. In Beijing, the hutongs are part of the tourist map with rickshaw drivers pedaling their mostly Chinese tourists through these narrow alleys. On foot, I was able to go my own way, turning down this side alley and that side alley, getting lost in the narrow maze ending in dead end siheyuan .
I was rewarded with the everyday life of a Beijinger: a tailor repairing a garment in a shop no larger than most closets, a cobbler fixing a shoe as he sat with the shoes owner smoking cigarettes together, a worker pushing a cart loaded with sand, an elderly man walking home from market with a couple of sacks of vegetables, a knife sharpener pushing his bike and clanging his bell, shooting his presence to residents in need of his services, men gambling on a street-corner card game, parents waiting for their children to be dismissed by the afternoon school bell.
The houses are different from the places that I have lived, but the people are the same.