A Visit With My Son in Beijing
As the plane climbed through the smoggy mist early the morning of our departure, I looked down onto the streets of Beijing and my eyes slowly began to fill with tears. Two hours earlier I said goodbye and hugged my son Dan after spending the previous seven days staying with him in his apartment. Dan showed me, my wife, and her parents his new life in this city by taking us to some of the places he visited in his time off during his first 6 months working as a teacher at the Beijing World Youth Academy. When we exited customs into the main airport terminal upon our arrival, we saw Dan and Anna, his girlfriend, holding a sign, ”Welcome to Beijing” with each of our names written below the welcome in the Pinyin alphabet. This is a system used to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet to help teach Mandarin in China and other Asian countries. They presented each of us with a home made paper lei, then it was off to catch a taxi. We needed two taxis since it seemed all of them were only capable of carrying 4 passengers and our group was 6. Anna took my wife and Dan’s grandfather in one taxi and Dan took me and his grandmother in another. Since Mandarin is Anna’s native language and she was born in Beijing, she had no problem hailing a cab and getting underway. Our taxi driver at first seemed cooperative, but when we started to place our luggage in the trunk, he suddenly drove off, with the trunk still open and empty. He apparently changed his mind, leaving us standing in the road. Our next taxi was more cooperative, albeit anxious, since he started to drive off while Dan’s grandmother was only partially seated and one foot was still planted on the pavement outside the open rear door. Dan impressed me with his fluency in Mandarin when he started to argue with the cab driver because he refused to run his meter so that he could charge us more than the typical fare, which he did. None the less we all arrived at Dan’s apartment without further incident.
The Morning Market
The first full day in Beijing started after an unsuccessful attempt a full night of sleep. Dan gave up his bed for us to use that week while he slept on the futon. I call it a bed, it was actually only a box spring, stiff and hard, but he was used to it and unaware that it was just a box spring and not actually a mattress. We visited the morning market which was across the street from Dan’s apartment complex, a group of about 4 or 5 25 story buildings. Dan lives on the second floor allowing convenient use of the stairs rather than waiting for an overused elevator. The morning market was kind of a combination farm market and flea market, but mostly food piled on tables arranged in aisles under a patchwork of tarps and other improvised roofing material. The aisles were crowded with shoppers who were bargaining for the best deals on fruit, vegetables , spices, grains, eggs and meat in the loud carnival like atmosphere. The sellers were shouting the deals they were offering, trying to convince shoppers that their product was better or cheaper than the same thing offered by competing sellers only across the aisle or at the adjacent table. The salesmanship was aggressive and so was the bargaining. The conditions were not really what I would call sanitary but the meat and produce appeared to be fresh. The variety and uniqueness of the produce was impressive with many fruits and vegetables unfamiliar to me and a variety of unique live and butchered meat products such as crayfish, turtles, a variety of live and dead fish, lamb, pork, and chicken. After the morning market experience we strolled through a nearby mall which was really a collection of small shops in booths on every floor of the 5 story building. Then it was lunch at the hot pot restaurant. Hot pot is a container of boiling spiced and flavored liquid similar beef or chicken soup stock into which you place a variety of meat and vegetables allowing them to cook before eating. The pot can either be a shared container for all the diners at a particular table or in this case individual pots for each diner. I enjoyed this lunch, it was tasty. Following a much needed afternoon nap, we traveled by bus to the Beijing World Youth Academy where Dan teaches. We visited the large main campus which was being renovated to earthquake-proof the buildings and also visited the temporary campus where he expects remain for the duration of his contract which expires next June. The temporary campus was just two rows of steel buildings separated by a courtyard covered in green indoor/outdoor carpeting. It was not as impressive as the main campus but it was clean and well organized. We finished the day by meeting Anna for dinner at a popular Korean barbeque restaurant. Getting to this restaurant required 2 taxis once again. Dan rode with his grandparents in one and he was able to give directions to the driver in Mandarin. My wife and I rode in the other taxi, whose driver received direction via a cell phone call to Anna. We were not really sure we would arrive at the correct destination, and at first we entered the wrong restaurant, which I walked through looking, trying to find where she was seated, despite the protests of the hostess. Dan called me and we eventually found each other and Anna in the correct restaurant. Dinner was very good. A variety of meats grilled right at the table accompanied by several side dishes and condiments. There was nothing too unusual, but some things were not immediately identifiable. I ate them anyway.
Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City
The next morning we got a fairly early start to travel to Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City by subway. By now it was becoming apparent that hot coffee in the morning was a necessity we would have to do without. Cold coffee beverages would have to do but I don’t think they really provided my required daily dose of caffeine. The day was hot and the smog was heavy. The first subway line was clean and modern and fairly crowded. The transfer line which brought us almost directly to Tianamen Square was older and more crowded but still fairly clean. Today I was to learn more about the culture in Beijing. I always assumed that Asian cultures were submissive, polite and patient. The experience of entering and exiting the crowded subway car seemed to indicate otherwise. Despite markings on the platforms which directed entering passengers to board along the sides of door and exiting passenger to depart through the center of the door, the whole process was chaos. Most of the time passengers, whether entering or exiting, clashed at the door, ignoring the directions marked on the platform and refusing to yield right of way to each other. The clashing, pushing and shoving seemed to be acceptable however. I witnessed few flaring tempers. Tianamen Square was basically just a large area of stone tile situated between some official looking buildings with a huge crowd of people just milling around. We spent only enough time there to be spotted by the one of the few people selling souvenir hats and postcards. After lightening my wallet slightly we headed across the street through a crowded underpass to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a huge complex of buildings, hallways and brick courtyards with lots of stone carved stairs and interesting Chinese architecture. One could spend the whole day just wandering around and exploring if it were not for the enormous crowds of people that make you want to push through as quickly as possible just to get out. The afternoon brought with it increasing temperatures and humidity which made navigating the complex tiring and trying to maintain a minimum amount of personal space frustrating. We exited the complex on the opposite side and had to walk back to the subway nearly a mile away. Dan tried to get us a rickshaw ride since his grandmother has some difficulty walking. We ran into another scam, which seems to be quite common in Beijing. We followed a fellow several blocks in the wrong direction on the promise of a ride to the subway side of the complex. When we finally arrived at the place his rickshaw was parked he wanted to charge us for a tour of the Hutongs (traditional narrow alleys of Beijing) and refused to take us where we wanted to go at a reasonable price. Again I was impressed with Dan’s fluency in Mandarin. He carried on a conversation, more of an argument really, with this guy for twenty minutes before we finally all walked away. On the walk back to the subway station we stopped at a tiny market for some cold drinks. As we were seated in the rickety chairs on the side walk outside of the establishment I noticed and attractive young woman in a pink dress crossing from the opposite side of the street at the intersect. Moments later when I looked back I found her standing right next to me. I began to wonder. To my relief she was just selling sightseeing tours. She showed some photos of the great wall and because her command of the English language was limited she could only recite words like beautiful, peaceful, you like. When I took her business card she told me her name was Juicy, and I suspected someone else may have had a little fun suggesting she take that name, after all it kind of sounds like Lucy, and since she was limited in her knowledge of English names she didn’t object. The other cultural observation of the day was the way children of the recent generation seem to really disrespect their parents, exhibiting behavior that normally would not be tolerated in the U.S., especially in public. I assume it can be attributed to the one child rule which results in that one child being completely spoiled by two sets of grandparents and one set of parents. And with the booming economy, materialism and peer pressure are also factors in creating a generation of spoiled brats. For dinner in the evening Dan took us to his local Chuar restaurant. Season and grilled meat, chicken and lamb, on a stick, accompanied with roasted corn and bread. Quite tasty.
We met a fellow at the Forbidden City whose was about Dan’s age, who was trying to sell tours to the Great Wall. Actually we met several people, but this guy seemed pretty easy going and spoke pretty good English. When he found out Dan had only been living in China for 6 months he said that he’d been studying English (by watch Conan, Survivor, etc.) for 12 years and Dan’s Mandarin was better than his English. Today we decided to book a Great Wall tour with him for tomorrow, then we were off to visit the Wal-Mart. I don’t particularly like Wal-mart in the U.S. but I thought this would be interesting. Another crowded bus ride and we were soon just a few blocks from a shopper’s paradise. Perhaps I should mention here another thing I noticed. I was under the mistaken impression that Beijing had many western non-Asian residents. Many people stared at us when we were noticed, we did stand out. But they quickly looked away when you returned the favor. A few times during our visit, a parent would bring their child to us just to speak English. Maybe it was pride that their child was bi-lingual, maybe they just want them to get some practice. One time, as we were sitting on a step near a café in the Forbidden City we heard a small child say “Mommy, look at the foreigners”. Dan translated this to us of course. I didn’t mind, none of it seemed to be disrespectful. The Wal-mart was definitely Chinese but something seemed detestably familiar. The same merchandising format, similar feel in the store layout, many of the same Chinese made products but labeled in Chinese, store lighting, Chinese parallels to the class of the US clientele that typically visit the store. The thing that was different was the number of employees was far greater, which is something I had noticed everywhere in China. There is a job for everyone, even if it means doing nothing all day. We then walked to a nearby mall and had dinner at a Japanese restaurant, probably the worst meal I had in China. Along the way we passed an old blind fellow playing an instrument, and begging for coins. The instrument was a two stringed violin type of thing that may have been called an Erhu. We rode the bus back to Dan’s apartment for a nap, which turned out to be more like a coma really, since we all slept for about 5 hours. That night we stayed in.
Great Wall Tour
We waited at the bus stop near Dan’s apartment for our Tour guide and van driver to pick us up. This was the only blue sky, clear day we were to have during our trip. It was supposed to be an 8:00 am pick up but they finally arrived at 8:30. The driver spoke little English but the tour guide could communicate fairly well although she struggled a bit. She explained what we had scheduled for the day. First it was a stop at the Jade market, then the Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu, more distant but less crowded than Badaling, the other access point near Beijing. She explained we would have as much time at the wall as we wanted and then when we were ready to leave it would be lunch, a stop at the Silk market, a Tea Room and then the Olympic Park. The cost of the tour was 400 RMB (roughly 60 US dollars) which included the driver, the guide, and gasoline but we had to pay any road tolls. The tolls were not much, a few dollars maybe and for $60 total for the five of us it was quite a bargain. The guide had been to the wall over 1000 times so she was not particularly enthusiastic. As I suspected however, each of the additional stops included in the “Great Wall Tour” were opportunities for us to spend some money. I think the tour company received some kind of kick back for bringing us to these places, but at each place there was a short presentation on the product they sold and how it was produced. The information that was presented proved to be interesting and the pressure to make a purchase was not excessive. At the wall, the wide pedestrian pathway leading to the chair lift which took visitors up the hillside was lined on each side with merchants selling souvenirs. Here the pressure to purchase was high if you showed the least bit of interest in something. The wall is truly amazing. It apparently spans a total of 6000 km. We walked maybe two. Every couple hundred meters there was a guard tower like structure that you had to pass through to get to the next section. Usually there was a person with a cooler selling water, soda pop, and beer at each one. Some of the structures reeked with the stench of urine. There are no restrooms on the wall! Now I should mention another observation. It seems that women in Beijing always get dressed up to go out in public, no matter where they are going. A nice dress and high heeled shoes were typical, even when hiking the Great Wall. The men however, for the most part, did not really care about appearance. T-shirts or polo shirts were typical and were frequently rolled up to fully expose the belly. I’m guessing this is because the weather was hot, but maybe it is some odd fashion that women find attractive. That is hard to believe and is certainly viewed as peculiar by western visitors. One more thing, spitting! Mostly men, but sometimes women also, will hock up a big wad of snot and saliva and let it fly, indiscriminately splattering the sidewalk with blobs of slime. Now back to the travel log. After taking photos and hiking the wall a bit we took the toboggan ride back to the bottom of the hill where we were to meet our tour guide for lunch. The ride was basically a semi-tubular stainless steel chute on which single passenger sleds with rollers can be ridden. The sled could pick up a hazardous velocity were in not for the braking lever which could bring it to a complete stop if needed. It was a fun ride. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant where the proprietor netted a rainbow trout out of a small pool next to the building to grill for us. It created somewhat of a spectacle. Apparently the trout is not frequent selection for diners, even though it was suggested to us by an acquaintance. After we consumed the fish Dan told our waitress, in Mandarin of course, that there was a problem. He said, this was not our trout, ours was much bigger and had pretty colors on the skin, but this trout is gray. She seemed puzzled and didn’t know exactly what to do until Dan told her he was just joking. Then it was a ride back into the city and a visit to the silk market and a tea room before ending at the Olympic park. Our driver’s skills were proficient although he seemed somewhat reckless to someone not used to the habits of Beijing drivers. Passing on blind curves, playing chicken, and failing to yield to bicycles or pedestrians is common place. The silk market and tea room were interesting and we did make some minor purchases, but the day was getting long, now approaching 10 hours into the “tour” and we were getting tired. We were then taken to a room at the Olympic stadium where each of us received a ½ hour foot massage along with a high pressure pitch on the herbal ointments and remedies they were selling. The foot massage was great and I felt refreshed, so listening to the pitch was worth it. We were dropped off near Dan’s apartment. It was a long but a good day.
Lama temple & Confucian temple
This day started with another subway ride to visit two popular temples, the Lama temple and the Confucian temple. Dan had not visited the Confucian temple before so he had to ask directions a few times before we finally found it. The Confucian temple is very near the Lama temple but the entrance is located on a lesser side street and both are not easily spotted from the streets because they are hidden behind more modern buildings. Both had beautiful architecture and courtyards. I’m not sure exactly if it was worship to Buddha or not, but there were ordinary people burning incense and praying in the Lama temple. We met a man and his young son who were from Tibet. I was resting on step when he and his son approached. The father wanted his son to practice English. He could speak fairly well but was shy, and his father did most of the talking although he was not a proficient as his son. It wasn’t long before he started to mention the political situation between Tibet and China. China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign country and considers it part of China. I understand the turmoil has been quite tense at times. None the less I enjoyed the discussion. We had lunch at vegetarian restaurant, it was chicken and beef and a few vegetables. I guess it wasn’t strictly vegetarian. The Confucian temple was very much like the Lama temple in architecture but I did not see worship happening. I didn’t take much time to read about Confucius as we toured the temple, the day was starting to get long. By this time in our visit I had begun to realize the Dan’s was quite capable. He navigated and guided us to many different places without error and made sure we all stayed together in the crowds and crossed streets safely. It was an unusual feeling to trust my well being to someone who I had safely taken care of for so many years.
Temple of heaven
The Temple of Heaven was one of the last tourist sites we visited. I was ranked fairly high on the “must see” lists for Beijing. It was a very well maintained, very large and very peaceful park-like setting. Dan’s grand-parents sat on a bench in a quiet area of the park while he, my wife and I walked the extent of park. It contained some flower gardens, some very old trees, some structures with the typical architecture we’d become used to seeing, and many paths smoothly paved with stone tiles. It was a cooler day and only one small section of the park was very crowded. It was a pleasant experience and I could have probably spent the whole day there but we were headed that evening to a Peking Opera and getting there required some walking, which was by now at a very slow pace.
I was not really too interested in seeing a Peking Opera, but Dan wanted to go and so did the rest of our group. We had to walk a ways through a…let me say, not so well developed area, to get to the show. We were getting hungry so stopped into a restaurant that looked like it may be somewhat safe along the way. It had no picture menu and Dan cannot yet read Chinese. Apparently he discovered it only served fish noodles and fish, probably carp, which is popular in Beijing. We found a better restaurant a little further down the street. The food was good, however we did not order any of the more revolting items like duck tongues or intestines. The service was terrible. Our waitress had to be awoken from her nap so that we could get all that we had ordered. In the morning Dan went online and found tickets though a local travel agency for about half price (roughly $30 US each). A representative from the agency met us at the door of the auditorium in an upscale hotel where the show was to take place. When she met us, she took our money and said she would be right back with the tickets. Immediately thoughts of a scam were discussed, and we thought we had just lost about 1000 RMB, but she did return with the tickets and took us to our front row seats. Snacks and tea were complimentary. I’m glad I went. The costumes were colorful and certain sections of the show that were similar to pantomime were entertaining. After, Anna met us and we went for dinner. We took taxis to find a restaurant that would serve Peking roast duck. Not only did we fail for the third time on this trip to get some duck but we were not having luck even finding an open restaurant. It was not that late, about 9:00 pm. Finally we went to a 24 hour hot pot place located on the 8th floor of a down town building. One would never know it was there, no signs or advertisements seemed to be present. Dinner was just OK. After dinner, we took two taxis back to Dan’s apartment, dropping Anna off at her new place along the way.
The next day we stayed near home for some shopping and napping preparing instead for the 30 hour trip we had in store for the following day. We had dinner at a noodle fast-food type of restaurant nearby. It was very inexpensive and a bit tasty but the noodles seemed a lot like spaghetti in a bowl of soup. As I reflected back on the week I was impressed with Dan and his ability to adapt and succeed in this vastly different environment. While we were visiting he took great care to see that we all stayed safe and comfortable, well fed and entertained. Much like a parent would do for a child. As that thought occurred to me I was struck with the realization that my little boy had become a man.