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.