Thursday, August 24, 2006

August 15, 2006

We had blue sky our first day in Beijing, and blue sky returns to see us depart today. Coming back to Beijing after having traveled for two weeks, the city seems a little more navigable, and the few Chinese phrases we’ve learned do us well. Our plans to visit the Great Wall were stymied by constant drizzle, but staying inside and catching up with friends has been wonderful. For the past three weeks, I haven’t slept more than two nights in the same bed, and I’m looking forward to going back to home and real life, but there’s so much here I’ll miss. The food – from nice restaurants, to street stalls run by members of China’s Hui Muslim minority in Xi’an and Kaifeng – has all been good, sometimes spicy, sometimes comforting, but all good. Knowing that I can’t just wander out and find a bowl of fresh hand-pulled noodles with beef and bok choi for under a dollar, that’s depressing. I’ll miss the people – the language barrier made it difficult to connect with at times, but never impossible. I’ll miss the friendliness and the bluntness I’ve come to appreciate. I’ll also miss the sights: old people doing tai ji on random scraps of grass in the midst of the towering gray city; temples full of ancient statues and modern worshippers; even the frantic growth of buildings and businesses, feeding on the shared belief that China is the future and the future is now.

I’m exhausted from the struggle to do simple things like get on the right bus or buy a cold bottle of water, but my two-word Chinese vocabulary has grown, as has my confidence. Today, Colin woke up early and went on a walk, past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, to a group of elderly gentlemen sitting with pet birds. “Zaijian” one of the birds squawked at Colin. It means “Goodbye.”

August 10, 2006

We’re here. We’re finally here. The Terracotta Warriors that I read about and saw pictures of ten years ago are now meters from my face. And they look amazing, overwhelming at first for their number and then for their individuality. The statues stretch on for the length of several football fields, and each one’s hairstyle, body, and facial expression is distinct. That one has a mustache. That one seems to be smiling a little. More than anything else on our trip, this sight has been a tangible goal for me, and it’s kind of odd to realize that we made it. Granted, it took an airplane, a ten-hour train trip, and a grueling, elbows-out-stepping-on-children fight to board the public bus, but we finally got here. And, to be fair, the train trip from Kaifeng was kind of great – we shared sunflower seeds with the woman across from us, and communicated in giggles and gesture, while passing corn fields and permission orchards.

Looking out over the sea of clay bodies before us (and looking back at the sea of tourist bodies behind), China seems . . . big. Big in numbers of people and big in square miles and big in thousands of years of civilization. Its sheer heft hits me hard, and despite the thousands of cameras clicking and the utter inanity of the audio-guide (actual quote: “On his left, you can see his left hand”), I’m in awe. After walking through all the tombs, we sneak back into the first, most impressive hall. Colin has brought his i-Pod and we each pop in an earbud, tuning out everyone else and, listening to music in our 21st century way, we stare again at the warriors from 246BC.

August 5, 2006

Lessons learned in Xiamen, a primer:

Our two-day trip to Bangkok to see friends was supposed to end in a flight back to Macau, but the flight was cancelled because of a typhoon. So, we walked into the office of the Thai budget airline we were flying and asked where else they flew in China. The answer? “Xiamen. Next flight leaves in an hour.” “Great,” Colin said, and changed our tickets. At which point, I opened up the Rough Guide to find Xiamen on the map. Oh, so that’s where we’re going, I thought. Which brings me to

Lesson One: You can’t get what you want, so hope you like what you get.

Traveling through China with no grasp of spoken or written Chinese quickly brings you to a land of zero control and constant surprise, with sometimes wonderful consequences. For example, our first night in Xiamen, we walk into a street café at midnight and point to line in our phrasebook – “What are your local specialties?” An hour later, full of freshly killed (trust me) frog, eel, clams, and fish, we we’re delighted. It wasn’t what we had planned to eat, necessarily, but it was wonderful.

Lesson Two: When in doubt, follow everybody else.

There is a ferry from Xiamen to the nearby Gulangyu Island, a pretty and popular tourist spot full of colonial architecture. When Colin and I reach the dock, we (at my urging) follow the (rare) English sign saying “Gulangyu Island Ferry.” We end up on a ferry with perhaps three other people. Next to us is a ferry with perhaps one hundred people. I start to wonder if we’re on the wrong ferry. A new ferry arrives next to us. Tons of people start streaming on. I wonder more anxiously. At this point, a man on our ferry hands us a pair of binoculars and communicates that we are on a 40-minute ferry ride to look at Taiwan through binoculars. In the remnants of a typhoon. At which point we leave and go follow everybody else.

Lesson Three: Chinese TV is nuts.
The English-language programming is edited so poorly that it’s difficult to follow a movie you’ve already seen and is being broadcast in English. The Chinese programming has fascinating ads for the Community Party featuring violinists in red-sequined bikinis and beautiful young women singing a pop song about the wonders of the CCP, as images of the Forbidden City swirl in the background. Although, silly as I find it, I have to admit the US invented the patriotic bikini, so I probably shouldn’t be talking.

July 30, 2006

I don’t get Hong Kong. I like Hong Kong, I certainly am enjoying Hong Kong, but I don’t get it. It’s sleek, modern, and, previously unbeknownst to me, full of trees and great for hiking. On a purely physical level, it’s such a contrast to the China we saw on our bus ride here. The trip is only a few hours, but it passes through several worlds, from the giant city of Guangzhou to the suburbs, to the urban/rural hybrid that dominated most of the trip. From my window on the bus, I could see tiny farms with ancient brick houses, flanked on one side by the six-lane highway and on all others by rising concrete apartment complexes. I can only imagine what this all looked like ten, twenty years ago or what it will be in the future. From the comfort of my bus, it’s easy to romanticize the back-breaking life of a peasant, but it’s hard to be happy about the omnipresent smog or the clumps of white tile buildings with reddish brown streaks under every air-conditioning unit. It looks like the buildings are sweating rust, I think. Then, I think, don’t begrudge them their AC.

Hong Kong has so many things the rest of China seems to lack: beautiful buildings, large parks, Western-style entertainment (at Western-style prices), and enough freedom of the press for the local newspaper to cover protests over illegal conditions in a plastic-toy factory on the mainland. Interestingly, it also seems to lack some things Beijing has like an interesting contemporary art and rock music scene. But, despite their differences, Hong Kong is still a part of China. Sort of. With separate currency and a trip through immigration. I start wondering if China needs Hong Kong like a dry country needs its county-line liquor store: control can be maintained precisely because there’s an outlet. But mostly I don’t get it. As far as my passport’s concerned, I am no longer in China. I don’t know if China would agree.

July 28, 2006

I’m a lot calmer, a little hungrier, and in a completely different city. The calmer is partly because we landed in Guangzhou yesterday, and it feels saner and more manageable than Beijing, and partly because after my taxi-based freak-out, Colin and I spent a day roaming around on borrowed bicycles and suddenly Beijing felt more real. We most rode through ancient alleyways between courtyard neighborhoods called hutongs, where people have been living for thousands of years. The hutongs are beautiful to ride by on a bicycle – how I’d feel about living without indoor plumbing is another thing – and most of them have either already been torn down or are slated to be. I wish there were a compromise between ancient-but-decrepit and modern-but-soulless, but I can’t say I have faith in the current architectural climate to find it. Riding through the hutongs made Beijing feel human, though, and made me feel a little more human, too.

Guangzhou is a city of food. The major item on our itinerary when we were planning a trip to Guangzhou was “eat” and we are succeeding admirably. Last night, we spent two hours searching for a restaurant our Rough Guide told us was “probably the best restaurant in Guangzhou” but didn’t label clearly on tits map. We tried to get there via the clean, efficient subway system, which worked right up until the part where you get off the subway and have to walk on the streets. Long story short, everyone we met was extremely helpful, but to people who can’t read, speak, or understand Chinese “Chongxin Lu” sounds an awful lot like “Qianjin Lu” and we ended up with a detailed map and several people’s kindly mimed directions to the wrong street. So, that took a while to fix. But, finally we made it there, we ordered our dinner with the help of an English speaker pulled from a nearby table and it was yummy, all the more so because we had earned it. This morning we go out for dim sum. A block from our hotel is Da Tong, one of the most famous dim sum establishments in town and we show up hungrier than made sense after all the food we ate the night before. We eat dumplings after dumplings, custard tarts, sweet and savory filled buns, almonds, and finish with ginger milk pudding. It is perhaps the best breakfast imaginable, and I’m very sad to think about it being halfway around the world from my normal life. This beats the pants off brunch.

July 24, 2006

I am sick of taxicabs. Sick, sick, sick of them. I am sick of watching this city whiz by me in a sea of gray buildings against gray skies, or worse crawl by me in a traffic jam, so I can distinguish restaurants from parks from foot massage parlors, but in which I still have absolutely no idea where I am. Ever. I can’t say the name of the street where I’ve been living for the past four days and, even if I could say it, I couldn’t tell any of the many cabdrivers I keep encountering where it is, partly because I cannot communicate at all, and partly because I don’t know how to get there. From anywhere. So I hand cabdrivers little scraps of paper with directions in Chinese written on them or else hand them the cell phone that we have borrowed and stay out of the way. I have never experienced a new city this way before. Usually, I get out my guidebook and walk around or else take the subway or buses, but all of our friends swear by cabs, and, given how sprawling this place is and how unfamiliar, I understand it. But I’m frustrated at being permanently discombobulated, and it makes me feel like I don’t know Beijing at all. I have my fuzzy impressions of cars and bicycles and carts and people and building after building after cranes and cement trucks building more buildings, but I hate feeling lost and I feel lost all the time. And I’m sick of cabs.

July 22, 2006

Tourism! It begins today. Alison lives a few blocks from the Forbidden City, so we wake up this morning and walk there, clutching our street-vendor egg sandwiches and dodging the persistent “art students” inviting us to come see their shows. Thanks to the vendor onslaught, I learn my second bit of Chinese: “Bu yao.” It means “I don’t want any.” And it proves useful, especially as the Forbidden City is completely and totally packed. It’s the summer, it’s a Saturday, and as all the Beijingers will point out, it’s a “blue-sky day” something I don’t even think of treasuring back home, but which is apparently extremely rare around here. And so, temporarily, free of care and pollution, we, along with a hundred thousand of our new best friends visit the Forbidden City. Which is enormous. Our audioguide comes with a helpful map that lights up as you walk along, so I can tell if I’m in the Hall of Enduring Harmony or the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Although, given the fact that I’m trudging through the halls and the gate, surrounded by people talking, taking photos, and tour groups with loudspeaker-ed leaders yelling “Mr. Wang, Mr. Wang from Chengu, please come join your group,” it feels at times less like Supreme Harmony and more like Supreme Irony.

The Forbidden City is beautiful and its scope summarizes far more accurately than any textbook the breath and power of the dynasties that inhabited it. Trying, for a moment, to erase the bustle and the matching parasols and Mr. Wang from Chengdu and imagine it as a real, separate world of concubines and eunuchs, state secrets and palace intrigue is hard, but fascinating. The strangest thing about the Forbidden City is how empty its museum rooms are. Despite the immaculate care with which the imperial buildings have been and are being restored, they house exhibits that are, well, kind of lame – a few dusty objects, a couple lines of captioning. It’s not until dinner that night with Eric’s Chinese fiancée Joy that I learn the explanation – the Palace’s true opulent treasures were either stolen by the Japanese during invasion, taken to Taiwan in 1949, or else are sitting currently in rooms deep below the City, covered in layers of dust. It seems that some things about the Forbidden City stay forbidden.

July 21, 2006

We’re here, really here, in Alison’s beautiful apartment, about to pass out, but we made it. Okay, I did fall asleep in the back of the taxi from the airport because we were stuck in an hour-long traffic jam, and I did have to scream “Ni hao” for ten minutes before we were let into Alison’s courtyard by her neighbor. And, yes, right now Beijing is a blur of lights and traffic and heading either to or away from some sort of “Ring Road,” but we made it. We even got to see some art.

Alison works as the International Programs Coordinator for the Beijing Modern Dance Company, and the night we arrive in China is a performance there by company members who are recent graduates of the Beijing Dance Academy. Thanks to traffic and a small bout of taxi confusion, we get there a few minutes late, but I still get to see several pieces. In addition to being gifted athletically – they leap through the air, flip, spin and generally gymnastic their way all over the place – the dancers also seem to be exploring subjects important to them. Teen angst, suicide, young love and sex are all up there, but the most powerful sequence by this group of early 20-somethings is about school examinations, graduation, and entering the work force. The fear of not passing exams, or not being good enough is palpable, despite the fact that the performers have already made it. They graduated, they are all members of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, but the stress has yet to evaporate.

After the show, we go to dinner and then to a lovely bar, where I fall completely asleep in my glass of grapefruit juice. Thus back here, and to bed.

July 20, 2006

I see Beijing before I experience it, from the window of our nonstop flight from Newark. Clusters of tall buildings appear below, in seemingly random and impulsive groupings: six identical apartment buildings here, twelve matching office compounds there, as though the city were an urban-design video game being played for the first time. “Colin,” I whisper to my husband, “it looks like Sim City.”

We are visiting China to see my friend Alison and Colin’s friend Eric, who have both been living and working in Beijing for the past four to five years. I had taken a semester of Chinese history back in high school, but except for a vague recollection of successive dynasties and a picture of the Terracotta Warriors, I know very little about China and am unsure what to expect. Third world chaos? Oriental splendor? Whatever I was expecting, though, it wasn’t matching apartment buildings. I only have so long to contemplate what the buildings will look like from the ground or what they mean for modern China because our landing plane suddenly starts lurching toward the ground and I’m distracted by airsickness.

Head firmly in lap, my stomach somewhere near my tonsils, as we make our bumpy descent into Beijing, I hear the teenage American boy sitting next to me mutter, “I hope this is worth it.” All I can think is “You and me both, kid.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In the meantime . . .

China posting to come (promise, promise, promise), but, for now, a welcome back to our neighborhood.

Sometimes, you read The Onion. Sometimes, The Onion reads you.