Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I don't know much about jet-lag; I haven't taken a flight this long for years. Today was my first full day in Beijing, and I definitely wanted to check it out. I just decided to start walking, around 6 a.m..

I was hoping to head for Tiananmen Square, but eschewing maps, or asking for directions, I naturally ended up going in exactly the opposite direction. I walked maybe five or six or seven miles, through a Russian section and past other countries' embassies, including North Korea's (it looked stern); one section with many signs in Cyrillic was close to Ri Tan park, full of older people doing T'ai Chi. I believe this is an area Peter Kessler writes about in his recent Oracle Bones; as that book made clear, there was a lot going on in this neighborhood about which I hadn't a clue. At this point, I couldn't have distinguished a Uiguhr from a Han. Can you?

I walked through Ri Tan park, which was very nice and peaceful--something pretty rare in Beijing, I was to discover--and then just kept walking around, observing. I probably did this single activity more in China than anything else, walking and observing. I saw a lot. It was warm, the air wasn't bad, and it was clear that I was the only person out of the 3 billion Beijing Ren who had on shorts.

After awhile, it was pretty clear I had even less of an idea of where I was than I had hoped; for some reason, I was convinced I would just run across Tiananmen. Didn't happen, and only later did I come to realize that Beijing goes on. And on. And on. Forever. (Just not as much as Shanghai.)

So I caught a cab, and even in my fractured Chinese, the driver knew where I wanted to go. I was approached by a number of people, folks just trying to make a buck, offering to have conversations, guide me, etc.. I decided I might actually like to hire somebody to guide me, but after I had made that decision, no one ever asked; perhaps my steely glare, or shabby dress, dissuaded any further offers.

I checked things out; no blood soaked pavement stones, no markers, no nothing. (I didn't exactly expect to see a tribute to a single guy standing in front of a tank, or anything.) Only later did I discover that the "events" of Tiananmen Square were virtually unmentioned, or unmentionable, among those with whom I talked, and even my very well-informed students admitted--at least to me--that their understanding of what had occurred there was quite modest. Some kind of disturbance, perhaps. (I also didn't run across any Falun Gong demonstrations, or members, as far as I know.)

I stood in line for about 30 minutes to see Mao's corpse. When I got to the front, the guard told me--rather brusquely--that I had to get rid of my camera and go back to the end of the line. I decided Mao would still be dead when I came back someday in the future, and walked around some more. By now, my new shoes were wearing some truly monumental blisters on my feet, and I'd had about enough of tourism, not realizing, of course, that I didn't see the Summer Palace or all the other things around that neighborhood. I looked at what it seemed I should look at, including the inspirational statuary, the Great Hall of the People, etc., but decided to go back to the hotel with sore feet, committed to coming back when I knew more about how to attack this famous tourist site.

After some struggles with getting a cab to take me back to my hotel--several drivers didn't recognize the name, and I should have mentioned how close it was to WangFuJing DaJie, the incredibly famous shopping district of Beijing--I made it. There, waiting for me in the lobby, was Hong Cai, also known as Sapphire and as Howard, a student with whom I shared some mutual friends. We decided to go for lunch, and I heard, for the first time, a question I heard with some frequency, and by which I was at first surprised: "Do you like Chinese food?"

I said yes, and he took me to a local food court. I was glad to see I was the only Da Bizi there, and it was packed with regular folks eating on their lunch hour, choosing from something like 7 trillion different regional food options. I chose something that looked vaguely recognizable and had been identified as "chicken"; perhaps it was, but it was chewy. Very tasty, but very very chewy. Then Hong Cai and I walked around--he showed me various things, including the local Catholic Church, in case I needed a Jesus fix--and then we went to a very good, very large, and very Chinese bookstore. Then a couple of more bookstores, in one of which I bought a nice picture book for Lucy Brill. I was in a number of bookstores, in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai: many of them were enormous, but offered very little in English. I may have not found the right places, for English books--of the kind I would like to read, which means something other than grammar books, business books, or the most popular and vapid American fiction. (In Nanjing, I did find a Chinese copy of the Critique of Pure Reason. I now have it in four English translations, in French, in German, and in Chinese. Wish I knew what it said.)

Talking with Hong Cai was very much fun. His English is excellent (and this time "excellent" actually means excellent), and we had much to talk about in terms of China, careers, American and Chinese politics, and the Chinese language. I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with him, but my feet really hurt, and I'd been going hard all day. It was time to get back, so we went back to the hotel, he reserved a serious touristy deal for me to see the Great Wall the following day, we made our farewells, and I crashed. Hard.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Arrival in Beijing

I have very little expectation that anyone—with the possible exception of myself—will read this, so writing this is both solipsitic and onanistic. The advantage, for some, however, is that you may learn cool new vocabulary words.

The stupidest thing I did in China, I did within about an hour of arriving there. Feeling smug from the hours and hours I'd spent with my friends at Pimsleur, practicing valuable phrases in Chinese ("young lady, would you like to come to my place for a drink?"; "I'd would like to take a walk, and then go buy ice at the drug store"; "I like bowling more than tennis": needless to say, none of these sentences was ever uttered by me while doing anything but practicing Chinese), I decided I would save some dough and rather than take a cab, I would take a city bus to my hotel. This was before I realized how cheap cabs generally were (and just to maintain the cosmic yin-yang balance, I screwed up in precisely the opposite way in going to the airport in Shanghai).

I went up to a woman and told her where I was staying (the Taiwan Hotel in Beijing, pictured above), and asked what bus to take and how much it cost. (This is all in Chinese, mind you, which brings with it all sorts of cultural baggage from many directions.) She told me, so I got on, and took the long ride, trying to read whatever signs I could, at least in PinYin (at this point, I knew very few characters). Naturally, I could have been headed for Kazakhstan; I was the only Big Nose on the bus, and assumed (probably correctly) the only English speaker.

Fortunately, I knew that the bus's last stop was supposed to be the one close to my hotel, so I waited for that one, and got out. At this point, I was in Beijing, knew absolutely no one, and wouldn't have known how to contact them if I did. I had a vague idea of where my hotel was from where I got off the bus, and a less vague idea that I was still a couple of miles away. I only had one suitcase and a carry-on computer bag, but that was going to be a drag, carrying it while hoping I was headed in the correct direction.

While mulling this all over, a local came up, asked me where I was going, I told him, we haggled over the price (it went from 30 yuan to 10), he grabbed my suitcase, put them in the back of what was, more or less, a motorized tricycle, and we headed out, with me sitting in a caged-in back seat, taking in the sights and wondering just what the hell I was doing.

We then drove up a main street, and then he headed down some alleys. Folks out doing their wash, playing cards, fixing food: this was about 10 pm local time. As far as I could tell, I was in a standard, but anonymous neighborhood of Beijing. As far as I could tell, he could have stopped, and alone or with a partner, taken my stuff, killed me, and turned me into DaBiZi Fried Rice, and no one would have known about it for some time. (This may have just been the paranoia of an American traveller.) In any case, a few alleys and main roads and then a few more alleys later, he dropped me off at my hotel. I gave him the 10 yuan, which along with the bus ride, had saved me about 10 yuan off of a cabride. One way of looking at it was that I saved a little more than a buck to risk my life with a stranger, one with whom I couldn't really communicate. Another was that I had seen some local color I would otherwise not have seen, and successfully negotiated my way from the airport to my hotel. As I was mulling this over—China involves a good bit of mulling, I discovered—I was greeted by a young man in front of my hotel.
Hey! You hot! We have massage! We meet up; I give you room number!

For the first of many, many times in the next six weeks, I said "Shieh shieh, bu yao"—roughly thanks, but no thanks. Little did I know that this guy just hung out in front of my hotel, seeking to make new friends. Eventually (probably the next day, since I only stayed there three nights) he became a little more direct, and one night as I left the hotel he greeted me succinctly:


I never figured out if he said with a question mark or an exclamation mark.