2. Travel to a place where the language isn't as easy to learn: Anywhere in the Far East, for example, or maybe Russia.
In many ways, I wish I'd visited China ten years ago. The country it was then, as seen by my parents, didn't bear much resemblance to the way it is now; English was less widely embraced, construction and refurbishment was less widespread, and the nation didn't yet know that a decade hence it would be preparing to sit in the global spotlight.
Yet on the other hand, I'm thrilled to have seen Beijing as I did, in the throes of a transition as it prepares for the Olympics to arrive on 08/08/08 -- a date chosen for its numerical symmetry and the repetition of the digit that symbolizes prosperity.
This is an entry I had to wait to write for a while, but also one I dreaded tackling because there's no way I can say it all, recount everything, or fully convey what the trip was to me. Where to begin, I didn't even know. But, buoyed by a back issue of Sports Illlustrated about the Olympics, I decided to start there and see how it flowed.
The entire country is crazed for the big event. Outlets hawking expensive Olympic gear -- about the only thing you can't haggle for in a given market -- have popped up in malls, at major attractions, and even at tourist spots in other cities, the discordant equivalent of Las Vegas putting up a giant store selling Chicago 2016 souvenirs. Giant billboards scream, "ENGLISH FIRST!" Everyone's eager to stumble upon a tourist on whom they can practice the language, thrilled to be making progress. An enormous English-language bookstore allayed my fears that, with my first full day in China coinciding with the release of the seventh and final book, I wouldn't get to read the conclusion to Harry Potter until I got home ten days later and possibly got myself spoiled simply by logging into my e-mail. (Employees handed out books dressed in Harry Potter cloaks and spectacles. My wait was 30 seconds.) Kevin wondered why he got so many laughs when he introduced himself, or why so many of his local co-workers chose "Kevin" as their Anglicized name, until one art student we met finally explained that Kevin is the main character in their English-language textbooks.
But these enthusiasts were not without guile, at times. Though two 18-year olds we met on the way to Tian'anmen Square bubbled over with pure excitement about using their English and bid us adieu when they turned up into the Forbidden City, that aforementioned art student -- on a different day -- led us a "back way" to the City entrance that conveniently went past the store where she and a male friend worked. The art inside looked like every other print you'd see anywhere else, but they spun a tale about trying to raise money for travel in America -- which might be true -- and tried to convince us all the work is theirs, the labor days-long, and the prices special. They give tea and a spiel, and either you buy it or you don't. We didn't.
Click here for The Forbidden City.
The subways -- and this may always have been the case, but still -- all have stop names written in letters as well as characters, for easy navigation. And in order to prepare for the culture clash, the government has named the 11th of every month National Queueing Up Day, wherein the Chinese must practice lining up at places like payment windows and waiting their turn (something they do not currently waste time with now). The 11th was chosen because, and I'm not kidding, the number resembles two little people standing in line together.
Impatience reigned the first few times we dealt with people barreling to the head of a queue, elbowing past us regardless of how long we'd been waiting, and shoving onto the subway without allowing passengers to disembark. There is a lot of pushing, actually, because the Chinese are bred with a different sense of personal space than we are. It's not right or wrong, it's just not the same. That was actually the big lesson -- not to think of their customs as rudeness, because it's not like they're standing there making a conscious choice to be impolite. They're not thinking, "Hmm, you know what? I'm going to be an ass today!" Rather, it's just an alternate way of doing things that is ingrained in them just as surely as the opposite habits are taught to us. And, of course, once we learned there was no reason to hang back and wait in a line at any tourist attractions, it made things move faster. On National Queueing Up Day, the Chinese must be thinking, "Seriously, these Westerners waste SO MUCH TIME standing around."
Vitally, though, the summer of 2008 is first time such a glut of attention will be so singularly focused on Beijing, and China is determined for it and other major areas to be as spit-shined as possible. The government wants people to come away impressed, so they're trying to curtail behaviour that would be perceived as discourtesy by the media that's covering the event and the athletes competing in it. Spitting in the streets, once rampant, is now illegal (though still common in the tiny, winding hutongs, or alleys). Construction on new buildings is proceeding at a blazing rate; most major attractions are undergoing varying levels of refurbishment, and the government has said it will take 1 million cars off the road next summer in an attempt to lessen the traffic that chokes Beijing's thoroughfares. China will allegedly pay for inconvenienced workers to travel another way, or work from home. During a test run, one of our tour guides said, the city streets looked almost empty by comparison. I can't imagine anything like that ever working in Los Angeles. People would be like, "NO BUT SERIOUSLY. My CAR. I NEED MY CAR."
Traffic there was beyond anything I've experienced even in LA or New York. To drive in Beijing would be to take my life in my hands; even being a passenger in a local cabbie's car felt like suicide at times. The lanes are merely suggestions -- if you can make a new one somewhere, you do it. If you feel like changing lanes, you just go, and figure someone will move for you. Nobody cares about rickshaws, bicyclists, or pedestrians; do that at your own even greater risk. I would choke on my road rage.
Click here for Temples, Temples, Everywhere.
Pollution is rampant; worse than LA smog. Athletes competing in the Olympics are campaigning to stay outside the city and only bus themselves in if they have an event there. The city is not pleased at the idea. Everyone has different reactions to it; many of us got bad feverish flus upon our departures that we suspect was a reaction to coming in and out of that level of muck in the air. At night, parts of the city encased in neon lights, it becomes almost beautiful -- Tian'anmen Square feels peaceful, as locals come out and fly kites and hang out in what, during the day, is a giant sun reflector. Without the steamy heat, you can relax into how impressive it all is.
Click here for Tian'anmen Square.
But during the day, the skies in summer are hazy and gray, and the air oppresses you. My skin freaked out at the dirt, the humidity. My body hated the constant sweating that kept us coated in a damp layer -- unfairly, while surrounded with gorgeous, tiny Chinese women who don't seem to have even one overactive pore, and who can wear whatever cute outfit they want without it being pocked by wet stains. Nobody looked as unpolished as we did.
And yet, we were heavily photographed. Tourists coming to Beijing from more remote areas of China commonly get excited at the sight of anyone so obviously Western, and eagerly beg for a photograph. This happened to my parents in 1998, to crew members on Kevin's show, and to us when we traveled together. It's certainly not because I'm such a looker. They're just intrigued by what they don't normally see in rural China; for natives, and for whatever reason, Westerners are almost as much a part of the tour of Beijing as the city's attractions themselves. A mother asked me to stand with her young boy; a woman threw her arm around me on the Great Wall of China, and in the same place, an entire class swarmed me and Kevin while their teacher took pictures and video.
Click here for The Great Wall of China.
All of them are friendly and delighted to be sharing the experience, yet more thrilled if they can offer up a "Hello" and "Please" correctly. I said the easiest word ever -- "Xie Xie," which means thank you -- to one woman after she snapped my photo and she lit up like a Christmas tree and beamed, "Oh! Your Chinese is so good!"
But cab drivers still need your destination written in Chinese characters if you have a hope of getting anywhere. Most hotels hand you business cards with their name on it, and space on the other side for the concierge to jot down the translation of where you're going. Getting around without basic Chinese is easier than ever, but this is still a necessity for making long drives from A to B. At street markets where haggling is the norm, shop-keepers use calculators to punch in the numbers for negotiating if the language barrier is too stiff for you or for them.
Click here for Beijing Miscellany.
And boy, is the haggling intense. They are, as a people, incredibly adept at acting offended when you low-ball them -- but, low-balling is what you have to do, whether you're in a tiny side-street or in the giant six-story Silk Market, where we saw the highest concentration of American tourists. Here is where you get fake purses, suitcases, and designer clothes, as well as kitsch souvenirs and, yes, silk, though over the years that's become such an afterthought compared to what people convince themselves are genuine Prada bags at deep discounts. When he offered 10 yuan for some Mao playing cards -- about a dollar, the same price he paid elsewhere and still possibly more than he needed to pay -- a woman screwed up her nose at Kevin, put her hand on his arm in mock-concern as if she had just noticed his face was peeling off, and barked, "Are you okay?" Elsewhere, the woman who sold me my two delicious fake purses whimpered at Kevin, "Your wife is so nice, why are you so mean? Do you hate me?" Two seconds later she told him he was as handsome as Tom Cruise. She then proceeded to hold a cigarette lighter to the purses to prove they weren't made of plastic, and admitted to Kevin, "Okay, sure, they're probably fake, but they're real LEATHER!" She was throughly amusing. It was twenty minutes of bargaining, and ultimately we paid $20 apiece for the bags (down from $200) simply because she was amusing. We actually could've gotten them for less, but she played her part so well, the least we could do was reward her.
It was a fascinating cultural immersion, truly. The national broadcast stations featured one in English that was a mix of news and propaganda, like the piece about the Yangtze River flooding project and how the man heading it up considers it the greatest honor of his entire life, and how lucky he is to be part of the most important thing China has ever done in its entire history. The ones in Chinese featured things like an awesome game show where everyone was dressed up in spacesuits, and one challenge pitted two thusly clad women against each other in a contest to see how fast they could count a stack of newspapers. Later in the hour, two teams raced across a sandy desert in SUVs, only to get stuck; realizing they could only escape by working together, they did Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide whose car would get pushed out first. With the eventual winner totally glossed over, the message seemed to be that individual achievement matters less when the collective works together for the benefit of everyone. Pretty brilliant, really.
Click here for The 798 Arts District.
In the end, China didn't captivate me the way other regions have -- I couldn't see myself living there -- but we had an amazing time. It evoked all kinds of conflicting emotions in us; at any given time we could feel enamored, frustrated, fascinated, and repulsed all at once. Unpleasant smells catch you off-guard; stunning architecture, older than anything we could even dream of here, captures your imagination the next. The people are lovely to foreigners but not as polite to each other. Horked loogies on the side-streets make you queasy, but the energy of the markets and streets can be infectious. We found it all hitting us simultaneously. Even Xian, our other stop, was a study in contrasts: The city center was as developed as any, but just outside the walls, half-destroyed hovels passed for homes. Women hung their washing next to a pile of bricks. Useless rubble paved people's driveways. Poverty and riches were so tightly juxtaposed, more so than you tend to see here. The national facelift hasn't quite reached all its darker nooks and crannies.
In all, though, an amazing experience. Like so many things, it would've been harder Way Back When, but that doesn't diminish the ways in which it was still a welcome challenge.
Our itinerary was: Seven days in Beijing and a weekend jaunt -- two hours by plane -- to Xian, just long enough to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and the marvelous intact city wall. The entire trip was packed with tourists, but never more American or Western tourists than at the abovementioned Silk Market in Beijing and at the warriors museum in Xian.
Click here for Xian.
The warriors were discovered by accident when a farmer who was digging a well in 1974 uncovered one of the heads, but because all land is government-owned, he didn't get rich off his findings until the government decided to make sure he was taken care of for his discovery. Now, he sits at the gift shop next to a sign that says No Photos and a stack of 120 yuan guidebooks, which he'll sign only if you buy one. He seems bemused but proud, and, frankly, as if he'd totally let you take his picture if not for that stupid sign.
Elsewhere in Xian, a dig site shows the 5,000 B.C. village somebody else unearthed. We asked our tour guide whether everyone in Xian started digging up their yards on the offchance that another archaeological masterpiece was hanging around under there. Her response? "No. If it's under there, then at least we know it's safe."
We took a ton of pictures, and yet I'm still lamenting the things we didn't think to immortalize. We didn't get as many wide, establishing pics that were all-encompassing, but we did what we could. You'll note how icky the skies always were; how pretty everything would look in autumn with a blue backdrop. Still, there was plenty of majesty even up against the gray.
Click here for The Summer Palace.
It took me a while to caption them all; posting the highlights is too hard, but those each have links to the individual albums if you want to see more, and this takes you to my China collection's home page.
I find myself wondering if I'll ever go back. China wasn't high on my list of places to go, albeit for no particular reason, and on some of those nights when I was exhausted and sticky and brushing my teeth with bottled water, I thought I'd probably had my fill. But at the same time, I'm dying to know what ten more years will bring to the nation -- how its population and pollution and its chasms between rich and poor will develop, and whether the enthusiastic moves of the last decade will grind to a halt once its two-week showcase is past. I'm curious if the Beijing I saw in July would be as suddenly foreign to me as the one I saw would be to my parents, who experienced it so differently.
And I wonder if 12 hours on a flight with a sick girl gave a certain young Chinese woman any feverish, congested memories of the night she so thoroughly invaded my personal space. After all, I certainly remember her.