MADDY KING is currently living in Beijing as part of the College of Asia & the Pacific’s Year in Asia program. She shares with us some observations based around a pretty important word in the Chinese language – renao (热闹).
Having just ordered a little after dinner snack serving of dumplings from my little local restaurant, I sit inside on one of the small flimsy chairs and wait for them to be freshly prepared. The scene here tonight is the usual local Chinese restaurant scene; waitresses are yelling across to each other about mixed up orders and adding dishes, middle aged men are sitting together smoking cigarettes and everyone else is eating and talking in equal measure and vigour.
In the minutes that I wait, a chef emerges from the kitchen with a dish, yelling out its name and waiting for the person who ordered to respond. Eventually a couple wave their hands and the chef with his white hat walks over through the narrow walkway, loudly kicking aside the flimsy chairs with his feet as he goes to make way.
A young man then strides in from outside with a big grin on his face and without even needing to stop in front of the counter, he has already ordered and is getting out his wallet to pay. He sits down as one of the older workers resumes her infinite task of cleaning the floor with a sodden mop, black with dirt, while people walk over it, making new footprints.
Next, two businessmen saunter in, looking ready to finally have a late dinner after a day at the office. They order and then light up their first dinner time cigarettes. Soon the small restaurant becomes hazy with cigarette smoke, all the while the buzz of chatter and laughter surges with the clatter of chopsticks knocking together.
Then, having enjoyed my little dinner time spectacle, I get a tap on my shoulder, the waitress utters one of my favourite phrases in Chinese, “your dumplings are ready”.
A Chinese restaurant is not a place of peace and quiet, it is of noise and excitement, an alive and spirited affair. There is a word in Chinese called renao, 热闹， which means lively and bustling with excitement. This word sits along with the simple greetings of ‘hello’,’goodbye’and ‘how are you’, in its frequency of use in day to day life. It is part of the psyche of Beijing and it its meaning itself is what greets you every day, just as much as people saying “hello”, or 你好, to you does.
Coming from the relatively unpopulated country of Australia, and within that the small city Canberra, Beijing was quite a change. I was expecting a large population in this city, but I was still blown away by the fact that everywhere there are people. Everywhere you go, it feels like everyone else in the city is coming along too. With a population the size of Australia crammed inside the sprawling city’s periphery, your personal space bubble is shrunk, popped, in fact. After the initial novelty of people being everywhere wore off, I found myself feeling uncomfortable and tired of always being shoved and squeezed onto the subway, people yelling in restaurants, trying not to get hit by bicycles walking through campus and waiting in traffic on a bus. But something happened some months ago that I didn’t realise. Suddenly, none of this stuff bothered me anymore, it just became a part of what you need to do, and a part of Beijing life.
I have come to appreciate what makes Beijing the wonderful, exciting and always interesting city that it is. It’s the life and buzz injected into it by all the people moving about everywhere, going about their daily lives. It seems like the place is always on the move. Waiting for a bus late one night at 10.30pm, another bus pulls up. It is packed with people, without any possible space left for extra passengers. At that moment I suddenly thought of Canberra’s ACTION buses and how at 10.30 at night you would be lucky to have more than a handful of other passengers on your bus. This city is always moving.
It is a certainty that for those like me who seek such renao places in Beijing, one will never run out of places to go, and the journey begins as soon as you step out of your door onto the street. Every morning I ride my bicycle down the road to university, a journey of roughly 20 minutes. Once I have successfully zigzagged my way through the so called ‘bike lane’, dodging everything from little electric-powered rickshaws carrying loads three times their height, and occasionally a donkey with its load of fresh produce, I make it to the university gate. But separating me from the gate is a four lane T-intersection road. The traffic lights enable pedestrians and cyclists to diagonally cross this big road, so when it is time to go – a big ‘X’ shaped transition is made across the road. Waiting a long time for the lights to change and then the patience and skill to not crash into anyone making the journey across, was initially to me was a form of frustration, yet now with my new appreciation in all things renao, I see it more so as an odd and intricate traffic dance.
Last Sunday I took advantage of the good, un-polluted weather to seek out those who do renao best, the elderly people of Beijing. In my eyes, elderly Chinese people are amazing. Rather than slinking away to the confines of their homes to rest and live a deservedly quiet and peaceful life, elderly prefer to get out on the street, in the parks and out with their grandchildren, all the while making a great racquet and having a seemingly wonderful time. This only makes me excited to one day be old and have as much fun as them. As I rode my bike to go on my quest I passed the corner near my flat where always a flock of old Beijing men are sitting together playing mahjong, a Chinese board game favourite, or playing Chinese chess. A typical local street scene. I soon arrive at the destination where I am to find the renao treasure that I seek, this being the nearby park.
A Chinese park is a sacred place for seeking renao, as it is the favoured destination for Chinese elderly to let out some steam and energy through singing and dancing together. I arrived later than I had planned, as it is early in the morning that the park’s renao is brought to life, yet I happily discovered that at 11am, the party was well and truly still on. I walked through the park, watching a group of pairs of people, (not all old by any means) doing the tango together. My ears led me to the next renao pocket of the park, where I came across a huge gathering of people all singing what seemed to be a tradition and old Chinese nostalgic song. There was a band, conductor and sheet music out in the crowd for this seemingly impromptu collective performance. After soaking that in, I ventured into the shade of a bamboo forest, where through the leaves I could hear the wailing of an old amateur opera singer practising his repertoire. I sat by the park’s lake with a smile on my face, thinking of how great it was to see a community of people, not all knowing each other, having so much collective fun!
The fact is that renao cannot be done alone, it is a collective activity – of which Chinese people do so well. What I have noticed here in China is that the idea of a public place is different to a more Western concept of public place. For example on many occasions I have walked past people who are singing out loud, seemingly unaware of everyone else around them, of whom no one else thinks this to be strange. In the West however, this would be considered slightly strange, whereas in public places people keep to themselves and those they know. Yet in China, a public place is regarded more so as a place that you have the freedom to use and do what you wish in, such as singing as you walk.
For me, all the people and all their renao, that at first was a challenge to adapt to, has become the main aspect of my time in Beijing that I will truly miss the most. The presence of renao is everywhere in Beijing, it runs thicker than the thickest of pollution, rides the subways and roads, brings public parks to life and takes hold of the elderly like a virus. Its essence is even embedded in the folds of my dumplings made at my local restaurant. This is what makes Beijing what it is, more than just an ancient, sprawling, oft-polluted city, but a city in which you feel alive and part of something bigger. So come on, let’s get renao!