Monday, November 18, 2013

Trip to Beijing — Overview

We just got back from Beijing after three wonderful days of vacation with Ma Lei and her folks. I had so much fun watching them! They were like kids, especially Ma Lei's mother. Everywhere we went, she kept saying "Take my picture! Take my picture!" It was as though she couldn't quite believe she was in these famous places, so she wanted a photo as proof. (This is very common among Chinese tourists: foreigners think the Chinese care more about getting a picture of themselves someplace than they do about actually BEING in that place.)

The trip to Beijing was, as far as I know, their first time inside an airport, let alone actually flying. Heck, Ma Lei thinks it was their first time fastening a seat belt. (I had to do Mother's for her on the way to Beijing, because she didn't know how.)

On the way to Beijing it was dark, so they couldn't see much out the windows, but coming into Dalian this morning they had a crystal-clear view. I was reminded of how exciting and strange it was, seeing things from the sky the first few times I flew.

We went to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and we even stood in line to go see the body of Chairman Mao. (More on that later, of course.) We went to Olympic Park for a bit of more recent Chinese history, and for the first time I sprung for a ticket to go inside one of the venues, the Water Cube. (It was supposed to cost 30 rmb a head, a little less than $5, but we got had by a scalper — again, more later!) We saw the beautiful lake district of north-central Beijing, as well as the fascinating ancient hutong (twisty alleyway) where we were staying.

We did not get to go see the Great Wall, because both days when we could have gone, the wind was too gusty for the cable car up to the top. Ma Lei's mom has a bum leg, so climbing up the stairs is out of the question for her. In fact, she got so tired with all the walking that, every night before she went to bed she said "tomorrow you can go, and I will stay in the hotel." But then, every morning when we were getting ready to go, she couldn't resist.

We ate Beijing-style noodles, which are "meh." Okay, if you like a lot of white-colored starch with a little meat and a hint of green veggies thrown in along the side. We had donkey-meat soup, twice. (It sounds awful to the American ear, but actually it's out-of-this-world good!)

And on our last night, we went to a fancy Peking Duck restaurant that was surely the most expensive meal Ma Lei's parents have ever had. (It came to almost $15 a head, which is really enormously expensive by Chinese standards. And by way of comparison, all taxes are included in the ticket price, and you don't tip — so $15 a head means $15 a head.) The food was phenomenal, and the atmosphere was beautiful.

Last night, I finally got to get a little bit of what *I* love about Beijing: the internationalism of the place.

Ma Lei's parents wanted to buy some packaged Peking Duck to give to some friends and family-members, but the three of them were too exhausted to make the trip down to the district where it's easiest to find it. (They sell it shrink-wrapped in plastic bags, which I find rather gross. Duck-in-a-bag.)

I volunteered to make the trip, partly because I was the only one with any energy left, and partly because it was an excuse to go down to Wangfujing, where there are a couple of mediocre foreign bookstores. Mediocre, indeed, but I quickly spent more than a hundred bucks. Plus found four or five good scholarly books that were over fifty bucks apiece, so rather than buy them in the store perhaps I can find them used on the 'net.

On my way back to our hotel, I stopped at a pub for a good cocktail (very hard to find in Dalian), then I went to one restaurant for a Thai spring roll and another, Spanish-run restaurant for some magnificent hummus and an absinthe cocktail. After all that, I still got home by 10:00.

I'm going to be working overtime for the next ten days to make up for four days away, but I will post more details when I can.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Flying Rubes

It's my contention that we foreigners need to take a huge step back from our condescending attitudes about China, even when there's good reason for those attitudes.

"Oh lord, it's hard to be humble," went the old song lyric, and it's true in China when you come from a culture that produced the automobile — as well as proper traffic control —  the airplane, the computer, the internet, and the handkerchief. (To my friends who think the handkerchief is old-school, just wait till you come to China and see the old men hawk up giant-sized lugies and splat them onto the sidewalk right in front of where you're walking, and ask whether the handkerchief is a technological improvement.) Indeed, it's hard to be humble, when the Chinese frequently act like such third-world rubes.

To me, though, the message of these experiences is how quickly China has advanced. They've gone from Medieval to Modern in half my lifespan, and that should be admired — even as I reserve the right to laugh a little bit at the Medieval remnants that persist.

A couple days ago, Ma Lei's mother gave her a phone call, worried about our upcoming trip to Beijing. They've never flown before, so they don't know how it works, and Mother was concerned that our schedule was too tight. "Are you sure we'll get there early enough to get a seat?" she asked, "And should I bring a little stool in case we have to sit down the aisle?"

You see, on a Chinese long-distance bus or train, there are regulations that say you can't stand in the aisle or sit without a proper seat, but those regulations exist only on paper. Everyone taking a long-distance bus in China (2 hours or more) will either bring along a small fold-out seat or expect the bus operator to have them. A plane is really just a bus with wings, so why not hedge our bets by bringing along little stools?

One of Ma Lei's online friends told her a story, which I don't know the provenance of. It was told to Ma Lei as if it were something that her friend had personally observed, but it could be something she got online. Anyway, I pass it on without swearing that it's the fact...

An old farm-woman got ready to take her first flight. Like someone preparing for his first bullet-train experience, she wanted to get a seat with a view. She saw that there were seats to the right, as she got onto the plane, but then there were these seats off to the left that had the best possible view. So she turned left and plopped down in the captain's seat.

As the story was told to Ma Lei, and then to me, the pilot came in and told the woman she had to leave. But being an elderly Chinese, and expecting people to give up their seats for her, she refused. Who are you, little man, to insist that I give up this super-comfortable chair with the great view out the front window?

Again, I can't swear it's all true. But as told to me the pilot whopped her a few good ones on the head, then she realized she was in the wrong place. She finally got up and allowed herself to be guided back to her proper seat.

I hope that story isn't actually true, but it could be. It's not impossible that a Chinese nongcunren — a rube — would be so ignorant of the norms of air travel. After all, the standards that apply to their train travel are completely different from the way one has to behave when flying. It's fine to laugh at her, but let's not forget what fish out of water we would be if we had to survive in Chinese farm country for a while.

In a way, hats off to China. They've got a population which is still majority-underclass, yet they're developing an infrastructure of modernity. The mere fact that my wife's family — brutalized during the Mao era — impoverished and reduced to subsistence farming — with close cousins who died of starvation while I was a well-fed boy in America — could now be flying to Beijing... That's pretty cool.