Initially I thought I must have been killed by a rogue firecracker and reborn as Brad Pitt. It’s the only way I could really explain all the attention I’d been getting in Beijing.
We arrived in China’s capital just as New Year (also called Spring Festival) celebrations were getting under way. From our 69th floor hotel room it sounded like the city was being bombed. In fact it was: By fireworks. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life – children running down the street with armfuls of explosives, balls of fire erupting out of every apartment building in sight, deafening bursts of sound and clouds of smoke everywhere…and that was just the warm-up.
My friend Heather, who lived in Beijing for several years, suggested that we make our way to the Bell and Drum Tower area and find a dive bar in the surrounding hutong (small alleyways crowded with ancient buildings) to watch the commotion.
After spending January 1st in a food coma, I had resolved to have a more exciting New Year’s Eve the second time around and for that Beijing did not disappoint. As midnight approached everyone evacuated their bar seats and headed outside. As I stepped out the door I realized why. Midnight is when the pyrotechnic mayhem really reaches a fever pitch. Everywhere you look something is exploding. It’s absolutely mind-blowing – especially when you’re good and drunk.
We awoke the next day, around 8am, to the sound of fireworks again. Apparently it’s auspicious to begin blowing things up immediately upon rising on the first day of the new year.
I later found out that street cleaners in Beijing picked up 60 tons of firecracker shrapnel from the city’s sidewalks and roadways on the first day of Spring Festival alone.
Later that day we made our way down to the Forbidden City where I got my first taste of celebrity. It started with a woman, baby in tow, tapping me on the shoulder as I was attempting to buy a pair of mittens. She used the universal “take a picture?” sign language so at first I thought she might want me to pay to have a photo taken with her adorable infant (stupid, I know, but there are a lot of hustlers around the city’s monuments), then I thought maybe she wanted me to take a photo of her family. As I went to grab for the camera, her father shuffled me beside his daughter and her baby and began snapping shots. And that was just the beginning – it continued with other families. Craig and I were even photographed flanking an elderly lady by her elated son.
I wasn’t quite sure what this was about so the following day, on our way to climb The Great Wall, I asked our tour guide. She said that because of the holiday many people from the countryside had travelled to Beijing for a visit. She explained that many of these people likely have never seen a Caucasian person before. They also admire white skin, blue or green eyes, light hair and a big nose. They actually have a name for us: “Dabizi,” which apparently means “the giant nose people”. The more you resemble a “typical” Caucasian person, the more likely you are to be stopped photographed. Bonus points for spotting ol’ big nose I guess.
It’s funny to think that I’ll probably make it into someone’s family slideshow in rural China. It’s also quite ironic that in this city of extraordinary sights, I would be picked out of the crowd for the very reason that I’m quite ordinary.