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Beijing – the king of renao

By Maddy K | | Updated: 2017-11-01 15:23

Beijing – the king of renao

Maddy K. [Photo provided to]

Having just ordered a little after-dinner snack serving of dumplings from the local restaurant, I sit on one of the small, flimsy chairs and wait for them to be freshly prepared. The scene here tonight is usual for local Chinese restaurants: waitresses yelling to each other about mixed-up orders, the sound of the kitchen at work, and customers eating and talking in equal measure and vigor.

In the minutes as I wait, a chef emerges from the kitchen carrying a dish to give to a young couple, loudly kicking aside the flimsy chairs with his feet as he goes. A young man then strides in with a big grin, eagerly saying his order before even stopping at the counter. He sits down as one of the older workers resumes her infinite task of cleaning the floor with a sodden mop, all the while people walk over it, making new footprints. Next, two businessmen saunter in, finally able to have their dinner and crack open their beers after a day at the office. Soon the small restaurant is alive with dinnertime chatter and laughter surges with the clatter of chopsticks.

Then, having enjoyed my little dinnertime spectacle, I get a slight tap on my shoulder and the waitress utters one of my favorite phrases in Chinese. “Your dumplings are ready.”

A Chinese restaurant is not a place for peace and quiet. It is a world of noise and excitement, a lively and spirited affair. There is a word in Chinese called renao, which essentially means lively and bustling with excitement. It is part of the Beijing psyche and its meaning is what greets you every day here, just as much as people saying “Ni hao,” or hello, to you does.

Coming from a small city in the relatively unpopulated country of Australia, Beijing was quite a change for me. Here there is no real concept of a personal space bubble. It is normally popped for most people once you’re out of the Beijing airport. At first I found this funny, but then the novelty wore off and I became tired of being shoved on the subway, hearing people yell in restaurants, and trying not to get hit by bicycles. Then some months ago suddenly none of this bothered me anymore. It just became a part of what has to happen, a part of Beijing life. It is part of the renao.

For those like me who seek renao places in Beijing, one will never run out of options, and the journey begins as soon as you step out of your door. Last weekend I set off 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, the elderly prefer to get out on the street and in the parks, being with their grandchildren. All the while they make a great racket and have a seemingly wonderful time. This only makes me excited to one day be old and have as much fun as them.

The fact is that renao cannot be done alone. It thrives in public places, which is a different concept in China compared to the West. On many occasions I have walked past people singing out loud, not caring what anyone else thinks. In the West however, this behavior would be considered slightly strange, as people are more reserved in public. Yet a public place in China is really a “public” place – in other words where you can make public your skills, such as singing while you walk.

For me, all the people and all their renao was a challenge to adapt to at first. But now it has become the main aspect of my time in Beijing, and if I leave I will truly miss it 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 the dumplings made at my local restaurant. This is what makes Beijing what it is, more than just an ancient, sprawling and oft-polluted city. Renao makes Beijing a city in which you feel alive and part of something bigger.

For many people reflecting on Beijing who have lived here over the past years, those who keep coming back will tell you it is this renao -- this energy and dynamism and spirit -- that keeps pulling you back. Beijing is the king of renao.

The author comes from Australia and first came to live in Beijing as an exchange student in 2014. After enjoying it so much she stayed on to pursue her master's degree. She has graduated and now works in Beijing.


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