Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Neighborhood Watchdogs

I recently wrote a short “what to expect when coming to China e-mail” for a professor of my institute who was expecting two foreign summer interns. I included the detail that it’s not uncommon to see vibrant slums standing beside shiny modern luxury apartment complexes. She stopped me on the way out of the institute, and we chatted about the e-mail amongst egg-plants, carrots, and chili peppers spread over the sidewalk by vegetable vendors from the suburbs. She said that even after living in Europe, she had never noticed the affluence discrepancy. She explained that being poor was part of everyone’s childhood in her generation. So actually, she doesn’t notice the slums, period.

When I first came to China, the unkempt, cracking concrete soviet style buildings of no particular aesthetic value put me on edge. Having emerged from a bubble of small town USA neighborhoods, perfumed by an aroma of fresh lawn clippings and fabric softener sheets from dryer vents, I was trained to believe that “rundown” conditions of a neighbor probably equals crime, guns, murders, and packs of marauding males intent on doing me harm. But in China, rusty, discolored, and water damaged, well, perfectly describes my perfectly comfortable neighborhood.

It took me a while, but I stopped seeing the general sliminess of my neighborhood and started noticing the signs with which I associate safety, security, and community: familiar smiling faces; grandmas with their infant grandchild out for a stroll in the pitch dark at 1:00AM; harmless neighborhood gossip; food gifting; a kid practicing his trumpet, and general neighborhood nosiness!

I rest assured knowing that I have a brigade of retiree watchdogs keeping astute monitor of building 22. I can hear conversation in Beijing bravado during their voluntary shifts from 5:00AM to Midnight, while they play cards and mahjong, exercise, and wash and peel vegetables. They do take an hour and half break mid-day for lunch and a siesta. This must be the time when they tell secrets, because everything else they say can be clearly heard on the top floor of my walk-up flat.

I learned quickly that they keep track of everything, including me! They sit under the trees on a patio directly across from where I lock up my bicycle, meaning that I rarely enter or exit my building without a little chat. As I round the corner on my bike, I quickly calculate the ratio of their degree of absorption in their card games to length of my skirt and strategically time my dismount accordingly.

On my way in they ask if I have finished work, where I have been, what I have purchased, how much I paid, and then advise on where I could get it cheaper. Sometimes I even get my vegetables inspected. On the way out, they ask me where I’m going, what I’m throwing away, and if there are any recyclable bottles in my bag.

If I don’t appear to be in a hurry, they press on: “Have you found a new job yet?” “Where are you going,” “Are you going to play soccer, I heard you play soccer (with thumbs up because girls don’t play soccer in China).” “Don’t you take a nap after lunch?” “Did you bring an umbrella?” “Have you found a Chinese boyfriend yet?” “Where did you get your flat tire fixed on your bike and for how much? You didn’t ride your bike for five day you know?”

I judge that their involvement in my business is a manifestation of their concern at best and condescension at worst. Unfortunately, I interpret their questioning as the former or the latter based on my mood and how many similar questions I have endured that day. I have never tried firing questions back. I wonder how my lack of inquiry into their semi-private lives is interpreted. Thoughts?

The picture is of a few of these ladies when they were actually, officially, "on patrol" during the weeks of congressional meetings in China (as if any top officials would visit our tiny complex in a remote corner of Beijing.) But, they do the same thing all day anyway, just without the red arm bands.


  1. You have had wonderful grandparents who check on you and watch out for your safety in both the east and the midwest. East grandparents plus midwest grandparents = a loved and safe young woman!

  2. In China, we call them “居委大妈", which can be translated into-instead of "Neighborhood watchdog"- "Grandmas of Neighborhood". When I lived in our old apartment, I used to have those Neighborhood Grandmas and very few of Neighborhood Grandpa inquire about my extremely personal staffs, just like what you mentioned above or even worse. I never even thought how to inquire back (or fire back?). One common character of Neighborhood Grandma is that, they like asking questions to young people, who are just newbies in this complicated world in their eyes, and share their rich experience with newbies (like where to buy cheap vegetables... ). Thus one major reason for them to ask so much is because they think they can be helpful. And they are helpful, more or less. So just give them your smile, nod and "thank you" is enough to satisfy them. Or you can try to inquire back. The result you can get from that is a myth though. But, almost for sure, your questions along with their potential meanings will be spread widely among neighborhood grandmas. : )

  3. I love this post -- the picture reminds me of so many neighborhood retirees I have remembered from China. But when I was living there, it was often the guy at the gate (门卫) who loved to ask me 20 questions about my life. And yes, quite often, he turned out to be helpful. ;-)

  4. Thanks for the comment Jocelyn. They are quite endearing. Where were you in China and when?

  5. This story made my heart glad with wonderful memories of my time in China. Your other accounts too, but this one in particular with it's photo reminded me of the Elder Chinese Gentlemen that sat in the Courtyard of the apartment we stayed at. They would always ask questions, and were always playing checkers. At first I didn't know what to think, but I came to look forward to seeing their smiling faces every morning and every evening. I indeed felt safe, and cared for. Thank you for sharing your wonderful stories!