Aelex’s Adoption Diary
Friday February 21, 2003
If this is Communism, color me red and call me Chairman Mao.
We woke up this morning at 3 A.M., so we still have absolutely no idea where we are time wise. I can easily see never sleeping regular hours again. With our luck, by the time we leave China, we will have adjusted to the time change forcing us to perform these same circadian rhythmic gymnastics all over again once we return home.
Our early rise did give us time to investigate Chinese T.V. Plenty of english speaking program abounds for the western visitor. CNN. HBO. Cinemax. Even the Weather Channel is available in english. Man! You’ve gotta love the homogenization of global culture! After entertaining ourselves for a while with a Chinese Tai Chi exercise program (I am kicking myself for not being able to tape it. This show would be the next Seinfeld if it was ever syndicated in the States.) we went to breakfast.
I must tell you, if you have not had pork and duck meat dumplings and steamed dough for breakfast, you have yet to truly live. For our first meal, the food was truly outstanding. I was duly impressed and judging by the way Dorothy inhaled the pork fried rice, I would say she too thoroughly enjoyed her meal.
After breakfast, Dorothy and I decided to to head out on our own for a personal walking tour since we had some time to kill and I have only one thing to say: the Chinese love to hock loogies. I have never in my life heard so many people so frequently and with such gusto expectorate their lungs in public. Major League Baseball players should be ashamed of themselves for even the most phlegmatic professional athletes would be mere spitting amateurs on the streets of Beijing.
After our brief independent sojourn, it was time for the official tour of the Chinese capital to begin. Our guide Bonnie (not Bonny as I reported earlier) collected the 6 of us and off we went. First stop: Tiananmen Square. One thing that I will say about this place, it is freakin’ huge. 109 acres of concrete and pavers (according to Bonnie, the square can hold 1 million Chinese or 500,000 Americans because we are bigger or 2 million Japanese because they are smaller. Who says racial jokes are going out of style?) and not a scrap of paper, nary a candy wrapper, nor discarded cigarette butts to be found. Quite impressive.
In or around the square one can find: the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, the People’s Parliament building, The China History Museum, the Hero’s Monument, the first two of the original nine gates to the Forbidden City at the southern end of the square and the Main Gate at the north. What is the common thread that connects all of these things you may ask? A monumental scale that has to be experienced to be understood. Each building or monument is just monstrous, and what makes the experience so awe inspiring, is that there are absolutely no buildings of a normal scale to use as a frame of reference so you feel like you have just walked into a land inhabited and built by giants. It is a very humbling experience.
As for the Communist rejection of the decadent capitalist system, I have never before seen free enterprise practiced so fervently anywhere I have ever been. Our first brush with Chinese capitalism came in Tiananmen Square where approximately 168 people offered to take our picture in front of the main gate with Mao’s smiling face in the background. From that point on it was open season on the tourists.
I am now going to jump ahead a bit to illustrate my point. I need you to ask me a question. Say: “Mark, how big of an idiot are you?” Go ahead, say it, I will wait.
It’s funny you should ask me that because I happen to be the biggest idiot to ever walk the planet Earth. Let me tell you why.
As we were leaving the Forbidden City, we went into a souvenir shop to do some shopping. Now when you enter a store in China — any store whatsoever — if you look interested in anything — absolutely anything — you are immediately asked if you want to buy it. I am convinced that if you were to look interested in the front door of the shop, you could (for the right price of course) buy it and walk away with it right then and there. Also, I can now tell you what it feels like to be a Siamese twin, because there is no concept of browsing in China. You are either buying or you have not yet seen what it is that you want to buy. The second that you look interested in something, a salesperson magically appears to give you a price. That person is then at your hip everywhere you go from that moment on. There are still salespeople right outside my hotel room door convinced that I really do want the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe shirt, I have just not been given the right price yet.
So anyway, I was checking out some really nice Calligraphy prints when my new best friend — let’s call her Mary — starts quoting me prices. There was nothing I really wanted to buy so I smiled, shook my head no and walked over to the silk neck ties. Mary decided to tag along. Before I could even look at my first tie, Mary was throwing prices at me. I again politely declined and headed over towards the jade carvings, Mary right at my side. This was starting to get a little uncomfortable, but I could not say anything to my new personal shopper/best friend Mary because she was so damned nice!
Anyway, then it happened. I saw some incredible Chinese Calligraphy brushes and one in particular caught my eye. You could almost hear the “cha-ching!” sound come out of Mary’s mouth. “No I didn’t realize that this particular brush was the best quality on the whole table.” “Well, thank you, but I don’t really know if my sense of taste is that good.” “Oh, come on. I’m really not that smart.”
Mary had seen me coming from a mile away. She quoted me a price, and after some laborious mental currency calculation, I managed to convert the price into U.S. dollars. It seemed a little expensive, but I really, really liked the brush. Now I know that you can haggle with the Chinese street vendors, but I figured that here we are in a national monument, surely there is no bargaining to be had here. Right?
So I gritted my teeth, reached into my wallet and forked over the money for the brush. Mary grabbed the cash, threw me the brush and ran. Later back on the tour bus I was showing off my brush when Dorothy asked me how much I had paid. I told her, and Bonnie, sitting right next to us, made a sound like you would if you just heard that your friend had brought the Brooklyn Bridge. To her credit, she did not laugh right in my face (she mercifully, I am sure, waited until later to break out into uncontrolled hysterics). Bonnie then calmly explained that you bargain for prices everywhere and that I was to never, ever buy anything for the rest of my life without checking with her or Dorothy first. She then told me to give Dorothy all of my money and go sit in the back of the bus and think about what I had done.
It’s too bad that I did not have any more money because later in the day someone wanted to sell me a portion of the Great Wall for what I am convinced was a great price.
Anyway, back to the Forbidden City, this place is unreal. The imperial scale again dwarfs you from the time you walk under Mao’s portrait on the Main Gate. No one is the least bit shocked when Bonnie tells us there are 9,999 ½ rooms (½ less than god’s temple in heaven) throughout the compound. This place is massive. After you get over the sheer gravity of the place, the next thing you start to notice is the beauty of the sculptures, buildings, artwork and layout of the city. The Chinese Emperor had the mad crib yo! Everything is a work of superior craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty from the massive buildings themselves down to the caps on the ends of the bamboo poles that make up the roofs. The attention to detail is beyond anal. I can honestly say I do not think that I have ever been as impressed with a man made object as I was with the Forbidden City. It comes highly recommended on my list of imperial cities to visit.
After getting fleeced on the way out of the city it was time for lunch. We went to a restaurant just outside of the North Gate of the compound and were shown to our own private dining room. Tres chic, no? After we were seated, we were offered cutlery to replace the chopsticks if we so chose. Most of us declined the offer. My rational was that I did not want to be known as the “clumsy American incapable of eating with the tools that the smallest Chinese child can use”. I am now known as the “clumsy American who is very hungry and has food all over his shirt.” Ah well… When in Rome… Or Beijing… Or wherever we are right now… The food itself was very good and most of us managed to figure out the intricacies of eating with the chopsticks. We will be mistaken as natives yet.
After lunch we visited the Emperor’s Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. Each was as beautiful as the Forbidden City with same attention to detail and exquisite workmanship. We have seen as many amazing things today as we have seen anywhere else in the world.
After our (long!) day of sightseeing, it was time for dinner. We went to quite a famous (judging by the celebrity photographs on the wall — I mean the Chairman of the International Rowing Association for chrissakes!) Peking Duck house. I drank some of the local beer. A crisp lager with no aftertaste. Tastes great and less filling! We also sampled a wide range of appetizers, all of which were quite good — except for the cold pressed duck which tastes pretty much exactly like it sounds. (Just a side note on the food so far: outstanding!) We are all progressing nicely with our chopstick usage, getting almost as much food in our mouths as on the floor. The Peking Duck was then brought out, head and all to prove it’s freshness, and carved by the chef right there. Our waiter then showed us how to wrap the duck in the crepes and stuff the sesame rolls with the duck. He did all of this using only his chopsticks, demonstrating a skill and dexterity that leads me to believe he could perform microsurgery with them. Our attempts at mimicking his perfectly formed rolled and stuffed duck dishes were not nearly as aesthetically pleasingly to the eye, but his could not have possibly tasted any better.
After dinner it was back to the hotel and straight to bed. Dorothy and I were unconscious by 9:30, dreams of our daughter dancing in our heads, resting up for our trip tomorrow to the Great Wall. Until next time faithful readers. Live and uncensored from deep inside the iron rice bowl…