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The power of pigtails

Updated: 2011-07-14 10:56
By Miri Abrahamsen (

A strange story about how life itself intervenes when you most need it – but least expects it.

Although I had been to Beijing a number of times before, I had never been to Haidian district. And now I stood there with a huge bagpack, gazing with red, swollen eyes at the sign saying : "CAPITALINSTITUTEOFPHYSICALEDUCATION". That was exactly what it said. One hell of a long word. Two seemingly fearsome lions guarded the main gate of my new home.

The power of pigtails
Miri Abrahamsen (C) at a wushu class with her teacher and classmate. [Photo provided to] 

I peeped in through the gate, it was seven in the evening. I was tired, and my Chinese was not good enough to handle a thick Beijing-accent. The expected bunch of tall buildings peeped back at me. I was definitely discouraged by the sight and I did not want at all to ask someone for directions. Anyway I would not understand their answers – all spiced up by the local "ER" – "ER" – "ER"- endings. It was hopeless. I sighed and felt like a 200-year old dislocated farmer who had come to the city by mistake.

Just a few hours earlier, I was eating my last meal in the canteen of Yunnan University in Kunming, where I had been spending a most wonderful year. I mean: I was trying to eat. My friend, Chinese Conlin and my Israeli classmate Gili tried their best to cheer me up as I was shuffling down my daily dose of tofu pi - in between of sobbing. The tears would not stop coming. It was a pretty snotty, miserable lunch.

The mere thought of leaving Yunnan University felt like a little disaster to me. The unique friends, the location, the people, the wonderful Taichi lessons in the lush park with the pagodas, the emerald green Cuihu Lake… should I give up all this? Obviously - yes.

My aim was to go to Beijing in order to pursue a crazy dream; to learn wushu (martial arts).

The whole way, from the canteen, in the taxi, through the check-in, the boarding, and during the whole flight, I was sniffing and crying. As the plane smoothly crossed the whole country, I was wetting meters of tissues, feeling unhappy, lonely and melancholic.

We crossed mountains, plains, green forests and deep valleys - all to the wonderful music of my snotty sobbing. Even when the plane landed in Beijing, through the long corridors of the terminal - and as the grande finale - all the way on the bus, I was still shedding an odd tear here and there.

I got off at Jimenqiao Xi. As I raised my head, I realized I was right outside of the university. The two stone lions with the stern look sat there with gaping mouths, one could nearly feel their breath through the dense traffic.

I was so perplexed that the bus actually stopped at the right spot. That finally shut me up.

So there I was. Outside "CAPITALINSTITUTEOFPHYSICALEDUCATION", I felt a dump sensation in my stomach - it was already time for supper. But first I had to find my building. I felt I was an earthling who had been shipped to somewhere in the outer space. Now I was drifting among those countless stars and planets, and I had to find the way back to Planet Earth all by myself. And I would probably not even understand the language of those outer-space aliens anyway…

I was just standing there thinking about this metaphor. Around me people were running to and fro. Third ringroad at dawn. Hungry, tired people heading for their homes, or to some other place. God knows where they are all going. The weather was damp, the sun bright orange, sending out a tired kind of light that made the city glow through the dust. There was so much motion on all levels. And yet there was a sensation of compact stillness at this spot. I was merely a spectator in the midst of this insane ocean of people, traffic, lights and noise. How long had I been in Beijing? Not even one hour, and I was already engulfed, no - devoured by this voracious city.

- Ni hao! Ni hao!

First I did not notice the little thin voice.

- Ni hao, she repeated.

A small, skinny girl came straight towards me, waving her hand. On her face was a huge, bright smile. She waved in my direction. I turned. But nobody was behind me. It was only me and the two stone-lions. Now she was right in front of me. I opened my mouth to tell her that she probably mistook me for someone else.

- En – ni hao, she said for the third time. – Were you in Yunnan last year?

As she asked, her whole face brightened up, clearly expecting a positive answer.

- Yes, in fact I used to study in Kunming, I replied.

- No no, I mean, were you not going to Lugu Hu, she asked, now even more enthusiastic than before.

- Eeeeeh. Yes, in fact, I went to Lugu Hu… in October – about one year ago, I said.

Now I was starting to feel puzzled. What on earth was this?

- I know! I was at the same bus. I remember you. I remember your pigtails!

The girl in front of me giggled and pointed at my two pigtails that were peeking very optimistically out of my head, like two antennas.

The power of pigtails
Miri (L) poses with her friend Fan Ting. [Photo provided to] 
I had always encountered a lot of attention from adult Chinese because of those pigtails. I never really got the point why - but somehow, I realized after some time in China, that adult girls just don't wear pigtails. Ponytails - ok - totally acceptable. Totally ordinary. Pigtails - not at all. Pigtails are obviously reserved for cute girl-children and the odd foreigner. So those pigtails had put me in contact with a lot of people who often would stop me at the street, pointing, giggling, taking photos, giving me fun comments. I even experienced that people once stopped their car, turned and came back the same way to have a second look. I was happy that my hairstyle could raise people's mood!

- You know, I was at that bus, I remember you and your friend. We were all going from Lijiang to Lugu Hu. And I took a photograph of you, remember?

I could not remember at all! This was one year ago, at the other side of China. This was hundreds of thousands of faces ago. How could I remember? How could she remember?!

However, she did not seem to get much insulted by my tactless memory. She was beaming with happiness. She had remembered something, and she had been right! It was quite incredible.

- My name is Fan Ting, she said.

The girl had a name. There are so many people in China. So many faces. But my new friend had a special smile. And a special name. Now she was no longer just one of many anonymous people that washed against you like a tsunami of faces as you walked the streets of Beijing. Fan Ting. A good name it was.

- Where are you going now? Fan Ting asked.

- I am going to study here, but… I just arrived, and I don't know where I live, I stottered.

- Oh, no problem. Let me help you out, she said. – Come on, let us find your dormitory. Do you need help with the bags?

Five minutes later, she had found the right building, the right floor and the right room.

-I'll wait for you here. Did you eat?

In the heat of the moment, the Chinese favorite question number one had been ignored.

Anyway, this time it was much more than the usual phrase of convention.

- I would like to invite you for a meal, I just came from work myself, she said.

As we walked out of the building, she pointed to the next building.

- I live there, said my guarding Beijing-angel.

I could not believe it. What are the odds for this many coincidences? It seemed like we played roles in a divine play.

We ate, chuckling over the absurdity of the situation, chatting away like old friends. And this time no tears. As we walked back she explained me where everything was, how I could find my way around. She walked me all to the door, making sure I was safe.

I was staring out of the window of my new home in "CAPITALINSTITUTEOFPHYSICALEDUCATION". The chirping sound of a caged bird, whose destiny was much less fortunate than mine echoed through the twilight. I rested my head against the glass, trying to sum up the day. But sometimes reasoning is futile.

Absent-mindedly, I was twisting my pigtails, gazing at the hot, narrow September-coloured alleys of Haidian. The darkness was getting denser - taking huge bites of the last of the dying daylight. People went to their homes after a long day. An old couple walked hand in hand, seemingly having no destination, no aim, they just walked on, because they liked doing so. As I closed the window, the distant tunes of a piano was cutting the night in two, and I thought to myself: This is the way the city greets me. Beijing is smiling to me. And it is a nice smile. Shy, but firm. Not at all bad. If she keeps on smiling that way, perhaps - perhaps one day, I may even fall in love.

The author is from Norway, and she is a scholarship-student at Capital Institute of Physical Education in Beijing.

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The power of pigtails