I was told off as soon as I began “shaking” the WeChat app on my phone at a McDonald’s outlet. My 21-year-old Chinese friend grabbed the phone off my hands, and squealed with laughter, “Don’t do that! Or some old guy will come say, ‘Hi!’”
The “Shake” option on this app on which nearly everything gets done in China, including scanning one another’s QR codes to become friends (also my most favourite pastime!), has now morphed into a strange “dating situation”, she said. But it seemed to only catch the fancy of creepy old men. “Just don’t shake it!” she warned.
Days later, while walking towards the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she would tell me she is in a “WeChat relationship” with her long-distance boyfriend, posted in the Sichuan province. “You know, the land of spicy food?”
We queued up to buy burgers with cash, while the Chinese around us tapped the digital menu, paid with WeChat Pay, and instantly picked up their Macs, fries and soft drinks. Next up, the whole lot of us — 49 journalists from 48 countries — were headed to the “Happiness Store”. The aisles were taken over by non-Chinese people, searching for, maybe, a word in English. Toilet brushes were passed around with great enthusiasm. Was that really yellow dal or crushed corn, the South Asians wondered. Someone was practising on loop the one Mandarin word he knew: buhaoyisi (excuse me). The cleaning machine aimed for his feet.
Three days later, I would be back there with my Maldivian colleague looking for tamarind — the most important ingredient in almost everything I cook well. She swiftly fed the word into Google Translate, luo wangzi, the audio offered, and the phone was passed among the shop assistants, to be met with giggles. One person asked us to follow her, navigating aisles and shelves to finally land upon multiple packs of what looked like figs. “No, no,” I smiled and walked backwards waving my hands just the way the Chinese people did everytime I asked for something in English: “No, no, not here,” a coffee shop assistant told me when I asked for coffee. But at the Happiness Store that morning, a tall lanky Chinese man, with long hair bunched in a ponytail, who was studying different varieties of oil before we thrust a phone in his face, showed us a translation app on his phone: “This is the Happiness Store. Try the Friendship Store across the road,” it read.
Despite the Beijing smog, my first week has been exciting. But in between the bursts of adventure, there have been one too many instances of me on the couch with the metaphorical sound of crickets.
The reality of the teething phase is this: hours spent at home alone, not knowing a single word in Mandarin, shaking my WeChat, and destroying my non-stick pan. In a soap opera I watched, a wrinkled Chinese grandmother, whom I grew very fond of, said many things which, though I did not understand, moved me to tears.
Much of my time was also spent discussing secret servers across the world that would allow me to lift my digital-invisibility cloak. As a friend here says, the task to get past the Great Firewall is like a “cat-and-mouse game” and, at times, you have to (virtually) travel to Los Angeles to look up Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s Instagram.
On Day One in Beijing, baffled by the Chinese numbering system, I attempted to break into an apartment door marked with a combination of numbers very similar to my own. The couple of blurry-eyed confused Pakistani journalists, my colleagues for the year, who answered the door were quite amused.
Then there was the ride on an electric scooter, a symbol of Chinese defiance in the face of a red traffic light, which is fitted with coats to keep out the Beijing winds. At the end of that journey, I learnt table manners in a crowded dumpling-place, somewhere in old Beijing, where I encountered the toughest task: learning to delicately place chopsticks between fingers and feed myself. You cannot use chopsticks to point and talk, you cannot poke it into rice, you will have to place it over the bowl when it is served, or when you are done. On an unrelated note, you cannot gift clocks in China as it signifies bad luck. The Mandarin word sounds too similar to funeral rituals.
At that restaurant, I was fascinated with the Chinese youth ordering on their phones, sipping Yanjing Beer in between dipping sticks of chicken feet into a spicy hotpot, and scanning QR codes to pay the bill. And, I thought, my using the Uber app back in Delhi was cutting edge!
Here, I commute by subway. Each station clearly marked in Chinese and English, with alphabetically-ordered exits. Yet, as a foreigner who cannot say more than xie xie (thank you), I find it unsettling not to be able to strike up an easy conversation with a co-passenger. Recently, I walked in silence down a tunnel in a subway station with what seemed like every Chinese millennial, short videos explaining how dumplings are made keeping me company.
Language was definitely an issue when explaining to a technician scanning my kidneys, as part of a medical check-up required for a permanent visa, that I only have half on one side. My playing dumb charades, while lying on the table, had no effect on her baffled expression. On the way back, in the bus, I listened to Ae Watan from the film Raazi (2018) and gawked at Chinese bridge infrastructure. It felt like every Bollywood movie montage of Indians abroad checking out a new city. Except I wasn’t here to play hockey.
More than a week into Chinese life, I have a translation app which takes pictures and tells me what the labels say. I finally found a moisturiser and plain yoghurt, on my walk home one night in the cold after missing the last subway. The search for tamarind, however, remains. But I am on every Indian WeChat group in Beijing. And, the best part, WeChat has a unique take on “ghosting”: you either receive messages, or you don’t. No blue ticks, no “last seen”, just matter-of-fact Chinese.