Ellen's China Diary, Part Two: Second Trip, December 2006 - January 2007, Beijing and Xi'An
December 8, 2006
It's a lovely sunny day in Beijing, bright blue skies and no trace of the (ack gack ick) pollution that blanketed the city yesterday. (They should have the 2008 Olympics today! Quick! Before the pollution returns!) It's cold, but there's no wind, so it's quite pleasant to be outside.
For any of you reading this who didn't get to read my China Diary from the first time I was here (February 12 through March 20, 2006), here's a quick summary of how the heck I got here in the first place: I have a dear friend (Carole) who has a dear friend (Barrett) who teaches at Fordham University in NYC. For some years now, Fordham has had an association of some kind with Beijing University (Bei Da for short), by which it sends professors from the US to teach in Bei Da's Beijing University International MBA program, called BiMBA for short. (Jokes about “bimbo” don't work here, as the Chinese do not know that expression.) Barrett has been coming here for years to teach “Business Communications,” and is also studying Chinese (and can converse with taxi drivers and waitresses very well!). Back in 2005, Barrett asked me if I would like to go to China with him and teach the same class as he, as there were too many students enrolled for just one class. He told me that BiMBA would pick up all travel expenses, pay very nicely for the 5-week class, and give each of us “spending money” as well. And I'd only have to teach 2 times a week, for 3 hours each session, so I'd have lots of free time to sight-see.
Who could refuse an offer like that?
My first time in China was an amazing experience, as you can imagine, and then I was invited back in October of this year to teach a 2-day “Presentation Skills” course for upper-level officials of the State Food and Drug Administration here. Another amazing experience, which you can read about in my newsletter (as soon as I get the October issue posted on my website). So this is actually my THIRD trip this year to Beijing.
And it remains a most amazing and mind-boggling city. And the adventure does indeed continue . . .
Here are some pictures of the major players in my story:
This is Barrett, my colleague and tour guide!
And this is Elizabeth Wang, my Chinese friend, whom I met because a friend of mine in the Irish-American Society in Albuquerque had met a Chinese woman online (ain't technology grand?) and told me to look her up when I got to Beijing!
Enough background. (Email me if you have questions.)
It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like a Chinese Christmas!
Yesterday, Barrett and I walked to the Carrefour center, a multi-level shopping mall sort of place, with lots of small shops selling high-end (for the Chinese) apparel and such, a sort of Target-like store, and a very large grocery store. Oh, and also a Starbucks, where we each had a cup of real coffee (ahhhhhh). (The cost of two cups of coffee, one decaf for Barrett and one mocha peppermint for me, was 52 yuan, or $6.64. By comparison, our omelet breakfast at the hotel café that morning cost the same amount for two! This may explain why so few Chinese people were in the Starbucks.)
I had been wondering if the Chinese were going to be into anything Christmasy-like, and sure enough, the whole Carrefour center was decorated like any mall in the US—big Christmas trees everywhere, garlands, tinsel, giant inflatable snowmen, the works. The part that really cracked me up, though, was the EXTREMELY LOUD music, consisting of a Chinese girl (sounded like a child for sure) singing EXTREMELY LOUDLY, in this high-pitched nasally voice, “Donde es Santa Claus?” Surreal, for sure.
I was disappointed that I could not find a French press coffee maker in the main store. (I could buy one for 128 yuan at Starbucks—or $16.35—but I'm sure I can get one a lot cheaper somewhere else, as I did last time I was here.) So I'm relegated to drinking instant coffee in the morning (or going to Starbucks) until I find one.
A Night at the Chinese Ballet
After our shopping spree, Barrett and I went to a performance of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” at the theater here at the Bei Da campus. (We had been given free tickets by the BiMBA staff, so of course we had to go check it out.)
“The Dream of the Red Chamber” is a very famous story in China. Here is a link to what it's all about: http://www.answers.com/topic/dream-of-the-red-chamber
There's even a “Dream of the Red Chamber” theme park somewhere!
From the moment it began to circulate in manuscript form in the 1750s, the Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as the Story of the Stone) was recognized as a major aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. In the same way that a
U.S. citizen who has never read Shakespeare will recognize the names and significance of Romeo and Juliet, the characters in Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber have universal name recognition in contemporary China. During the most repressive years of the Cultural Revolution, this novel about a fabulously wealthy aristocratic family was saved by its sympathetic portrayal of the maids and an old peasant woman, Grannie Liu. The only approved way to read the novel until Mao's death in 1976 was through a Marxist lens.
The 1990s release of a wildly popular television series closely based on the novel marked a return to a purely aesthetic appreciation of the novel. Built in 1996, the "Grand Prospect Garden" theme park is more closely geared to the television series than the novel. Vendors selling trinkets and snacks are scattered throughout the large park; a sensorama film allows visitors to experience Baoyu's famous dream visit to the World of Disenchantment. The gender inversions and questioning of parental and imperial authority so important to the meaning of the Qing novel are rendered harmless in the television series and in the park. Although the novel is treasured for its brilliant use of poetry, none of these literary touches are inscribed as couplets in the park. Instead, a placard stands in each of the pavilions introducing the characters who live there and describing the architectural features.
The big deal about the production Barrett and I saw last night was the fact that the woman whose dance troupe was performing the ballet, and who herself danced the lead role, is close to 70 years old! “International prize winner since the early 1960's, dancer Chen Ailian is a virtuoso performer of both classical and folk dance. She studied at Beijing Dance Academy from the age of 12, had a supportive first husband (who was persecuted to death in the Cultural Revolution) and is now married to a worker in a fine arts workshop.” Here are some pictures of her:
And here's what she looks like in “The Dream of the Red Chamber”:
Pretty spry for an old lady, eh?
None of this actually helped the performance much, which was pretty much a snore. (Literally, for me, as I slept through most of it! Still jet lagged is my excuse.)
The theater was full of folks snapping pictures left and right, despite signs on both sides of the stage saying “No Photos.” But then I've learned that the Chinese pretty much ignore any kind of signage, especially traffic signs. And pedestrian crosswalks have no actual function as cars just honk at you to GET OUT OF THE WAY as they barrel across, and adult crossing guards wave red flags at you and scream (I am assuming here), “RUN! RUN LIKE HELL NOW!”
Ah, the little details of life in Beijing: bicycles abounding, little teeny tiny trucks everywhere, smog, tons of people, small bathroom stalls, squatting to pee, Chinese men hawking and spitting hither and yon—it's so good to be back!!!
More to come soon . . .
December 10, 2006: In which Ellen takes a hike around the Bei Da lake, finds evidence of Santa kitsch on campus, and refuses to eat a chicken's foot.
A cold, smoggy winter's day in China town . . .
The good news is that there's no wind, so even though it's very cold (around 32 degrees), it's not unpleasant walking around outside. As long as one has ear muffs!
But today was another terribly smoggy day here. Want to see what the smog looks like? Look here: This is the Bei Da lake around 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Notice how grey everything looks. And the sun is pretty much totally obscured.
The Chinese government better figure out some way to deal with this before 2008!
I wouldn't want to be here if I had asthma.
But on a lighter note, I did find evidence of at least a token concession to the concept of Christmas, kitschy thought it be. Here is a Santa I saw yesterday:
And a Christmas tree in the lobby of the Bei Da fitness center:
Tonight (Sunday) Barrett and I went to a local restaurant and were somewhat disappointed by the food. (This is in contrast to last night, when we had FABULOUS food at dinner with Elizabeth at another local restaurant.) Actually, I was VERY disappointed by the food, including the “chicken soup,” which turned out to be a whole chicken (head and feet and all) steeped in a broth and plopped on the table.
You should all be happy that I did NOT take a picture of the bloated chicken feet.
Tomorrow Barrett and I teach our first classes for BiMBA. I've already received an e-mail from one of my students. Here is what he wrote:
Hi dowling, This is Vinsent Li. I am your student of second group in 06 Full-time at BiMBA. Cause I am not sure how to hand in the home work, I decide to send it to you in this mail. Hope this not bother you. Look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Kindest regards!
It's going to be a fun class . . .
December 13, 2006: Up the Down Staircase: Teaching in China
I thought I would take this time to tell you something about my students here.
I am teaching a class called “Executive Communication,” which includes instruction in writing, interpersonal, and presentation skills. Last time I taught this class, all of my students were native Chinese (some very fluent in English; others not so good, but game!). This time, four of my students are NOT Chinese. David is with the US Army and stationed here with his wife and two children. Sean is a graduate of UT Austin and employed by Americorps. (I also have a Chinese “Sean” in my class. He told me his English name was Sean because his English teacher told him to take that name. LOL) Eugene is Puerto Rican by heritage, a native New Yorker with a degree in economics from Boston U. And Oscar is a native-born Columbian, with a degree from the University of Miami. (And he's always complaining how cold it is here! LOL)
I didn't realize I had a person who could speak Spanish in my class until I did my self-introduction on the first day, with pictures of New Mexico and Albuquerque, and mentioned that the Sandia Mountains were to the east of the city. “Does anyone know what “sandia” might mean?” I asked, not expecting a reply of course. From the back row Oscar piped up: “WATERMELON”! Threw me for a loop!
[More chuckles: In today's class, the second class, I asked the students to get into groups and discuss what they had learned from Monday's class. I wandered around as they did so, eavesdropping, and heard this from one very attentive and studious Chinese student: “We learned that there are watermelon mountains in New Mexico.”]
All of my students (except one, Tu Wei, or Wei Tu, I keep getting confused) have English names: Howard, Sam, Luke, Paula, Vivian, etc., and two Vincents (one who spells his name Vinsent). As in my first class last February, they are all delightful—totally attentive, polite, most willing to participate (some still very shy; they will warm up, I'm sure), and all absolutely brilliant. (There are literally a bazillion students trying to get into this program. The ones who make it are definitely the cream of the intellectual crop.)
But of course their attempts at writing English sometimes produce hilarious results. Check this out from “Charlie's” first paper:
“We often expect a new beginning from new course, but there always is the insipid end. Why? What should we do? How to do?”
God, I hope I don't end this course insipidly!
I must be doing OK, because one of my students, a lovely young woman who calls herself “Ada,” came up to me after the first class and said, delightedly, “I so enjoy your class, Professor Dowling! It is like watching a cartoon!”
I'm pretty sure that was a compliment.
The Quest for Real Coffee
Today was a pretty not-so-horribly-polluted day, so I set off in late afternoon to the nearest Starbucks, where one can get real coffee (ahhhhhhhh) and sit and read in a lovely, open, uncrowded space (because hardly any Chinese go there; as I mentioned before, it's too expensive).
To get to the Starbucks, however, I have to risk life and limb to cross two very scary intersections. Here's one:
You can see how wide the intersection is. And one has to watch out for bicycles as well as cars and buses!
Here's the next one:
As I've said before, the pedestrian walkways are merely target areas to autos— being in one is absolutely no guarantee of safety; cars will just honk at you to GET OUT OF THE WAY!
My technique is to stand with a group of Chinese and cross when they cross. This works well most of the time, even when we (as a group) step right in front of screeching buses and barreling taxis.
Maybe my “there's safety in numbers” strategy is flawed? LOL
The astonishing thing to me is how many motorcycles and scooters there are on the streets. I figure these folks should just wear this sign on their backs: PLEASE KILL ME NOW. In any event, I survived the trip to tell the tale you're reading now. If my luck holds, I'll send
more soon . . .
December 17, 2006: In which Ellen celebrates her 39th birthday in China and goes on a shopping spree with her Chinese friend Elizabeth (and almost gets frostbite)
If you're gonna celebrate, you should do it at the Shangri-La! For my birthday on December 15, Barrett and I whisked ourselves off to the luxurious, western-style, Shangri-La Hotel, where the martinis are delicious and the prices are . . . well . . . very western, LOL! Here we are. Don't we look western?
Barrett tells me the Chinese slang term for westerners is “big noses.” I ask you, who has the bigger nose here? (Don't tell Barrett I said that.)
I could have just stayed in the lobby, sipping away, but no, we had to venture forth to this most amazing buffet, with foods from many different cultures: Chinese (of course), Japanese, Indian (pretty much a whole lamb for carving), you name it. And many things I could NOT name. “What the hell is THAT?” I kept asking myself. I probably passed up a good many yummy-tasting things because they looked absolutely disgusting. Or maybe I made wise decisions, who knows? I would have taken pictures of the more, ahem, INTERESTING items, but I figured it would be too gauche to do so in a restaurant that was charging us over 1200 yuan for dinner for two, or $159 US. (Dinner at the restaurant across from our hotel, by contrast, usually runs us about, oh, 35-40 yuan, or $4.47. For two. And it's delicious food. But they don't make martinis there.)
The food I did choose was excellent, although it took me awhile to get used to using a FORK again. But the best part of all was the (get this, you chocolate lovers) a huge WHITE CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN, with a display of all kinds of interesting fruits and things on skewers, which one takes and plunges into the chocolate fountain to coat, let harden, and then eat, oh yum. (I wanted to put my whole head under the fountain and just drown there. What a way to go!) A lovely day all around for me, also with flowers earlier in the day from the staff at BiMBA.
The flowers are so fragrant—my room smells wonderful!
You want HOW MUCH for that?!?!?
The next day, Saturday, I met Elizabeth at the Mu Xi Di (Mu Shee Di) subway station and off we went to the Panjiayuan outdoor market: Sort of like a gigantic flea market but also with an inside shopping area.
I cannot tell you how cold it was there—at least 30 or 40 degrees below zero (just a slight exaggeration). Definitely Arctic weather. I expected to see a line of Emperor penguins waddling around. (Even my brother-in-law Brian, the Canadian, would probably have had to put on a jacket!)
And the wind was blowing and it was bitter cold and painful and my toes and fingers were going numb and it was just torture and yet THERE WERE AT LEAST 12 GAZILLION CHINESE THERE!!!!!!! (You would think all those bodies in close proximity would have provided warmth, but au contraire.)
Elizabeth and I TRIED to shop there, and I did buy a few trinkets (like some really hilariously tacky Christmas ornaments), but one had to barter very quickly or die on the spot.
Here's what we looked like: How cold do I look? By this time I could no longer feel my hands. Look at all those crazy Chinese shoppers!
And here's Elizabeth, with no ear muffs (unlike me) or hat!
I didn't mean to catch her with two guys' butts in the background, but I wasn't going to take my gloves off for long to take the picture!
By the way, look at the background of this picture. Anyone want me to bring them back a Buddha for their front yard?
Finally, Elizabeth and I gave up and went inside to poke around in the warmth. Then off we went to a warm restaurant to eat HOT HOT HOT Sechuan food, guaranteed to warm us up from the inside out. The menu at this restaurant was in English as well as Chinese. You would think that this would be a good thing, but I'm not so sure: As I perused the menu, I saw many dishes listing “goose intestines” as one of the ingredients. Maybe it's better not to know what's in the dish. (Elizabeth has sworn not to order anything with frog. I think I can trust her.)
Then off we went to a very touristy spot (which I had been to last time) called “Silk Street,” which does indeed have silk for purchase but also booth after booth after booth after booth of pretty much the same stuff—ladies' clothes, men's clothes, etc. I bought a beautiful purplish- blue cashmere sweater for 60 yuan, or $7.60 (after Elizabeth successfully bartered the saleswoman down from her initial price of 3000 yuan! Can you imagine?)
As before, shopping in places like this gets very tiring after awhile, as you have to go on and on, back and forth, until you final agree to a sales price. The whole process, of course, is INFINITELY easier if you are there with an actual Chinese person. Here is my translation of what I think Elizabeth and the saleslady were saying:
Elizabeth: How much? Saleslady: 3000 yuan. Elizabeth: WHAT?!??!?! ARE YOU COMPLETLY INSANE?!?!? This sweater is a PIECE OF CRAP!! Saleslady: What are you talking about?!?!? This sweater is one-of-a-kind, unique, hand-crafted by crippled former survivors of the Cultural Revolution! Elizabeth: You know where you can stick your Cultural Revolution! Saleslady: Oh, yeah? Well same to you and your stupid big nose friend, too! Elizabeth: Ok. How about 50 yuan? Saleslady: How about 80? Elizabeth: Nah, we're leaving. [She takes my arm and we walk away. Then we hear behind us:] Saleslady: OK, OK! 60 yuan! My child will continue to starve! Elizabeth: OK, deal.
God, how exhausting. I wish one could just say, “OK, can we just cut to the chase here? Can you just tell me what the REAL price is?” But no, one must remember that this is China. (Although I realize it could be Tijuana, too. Or maybe the flea market in Albuquerque.)
We ended the day at another very good restaurant, with all kinds of very tasty dishes. AND (best news of all) we stopped at a department store and I found a French press coffee maker (for 39 yuan, or $4.98; Starbucks wanted 128 yuan, or $16.35, for the same thing; hey, a deal's a deal). So I'm back to having REAL coffee in the morning, ahhhhhhh.
More to come . . .
December 25, 2006: Sheng Don Kuai Le!
That's “Merry Christmas” in Chinese, of course. Each one of these words must be spoken with a “descending tone.” Sort of like “SHENG!” “DON!” “KUAI!” “LE!” When I try to say these words correctly (and I've been practicing), I think I sound like Toshiro Mifune.
It's late on Christmas Day here in Beijing, still too early for most of you to be up and checking to see what Santa brought you. Here's what I've been up to since I last diaried you all.
Another Martini Birthday!
This past Friday (12/22) was Barrett's birthday, so off we went to yet another western hotel (the Kempinsky) to have martinis!
Notice the cool blue sweater I got for 60 yuan, or $7.60! (The pin on my lapel is a cool cat that my son Brando gave me years ago for Christmas.)
After the martinis, we met up with Elizabeth at (of all things) a German restaurant, called The Paulaner Brau House. Food was good; menu was in Chinese and English (no actual German); Elizabeth had spaetzle for the first time in her life (and liked it very much). The beer was brewed on the premises and also very good.
Here we are (with me, as Barrett says, as usual, “over the top”). Elizabeth is wearing the turquoise bear fetish earrings I brought her from NM.
Putting the “X” back in Xmas:
So what does Christmas look like in communist China? Well, it's pretty kitschy—fake Christmas trees everywhere (even on the highway medians!), dopey-looking Santa Clauses abounding, and ear-splitting Christmas carols muzaking all over the place. (At the Thai restaurant we went to tonight, for example, we could hear in the background high-pitched renditions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.”) And all the fuyuens (waitresses) were wearing Santa hats. I'm sure they have no idea what any of this means, but it's certainly “festive”!
Saturday night we went to the BiMBA “New Year Party” and what can I tell you—it was sort of “Las Vegas Meets Mao.” 800 people were there, all decked out in their finest (or silliest). All these different student groups got together and put on these unbelievable productions.
There was a fashion show:
And a production number about Mao's Long March:
We were seated at the “head table” with our own fuyuens in matching Susie Wong outfits:
And we were surrounded by Chinese men in “traditional” dress:
It was a most amazing experience. One of my former students asked me at the end, “What part did you like the best?!” And of course I replied, “I can't decide! It was ALL so . . . so . . . AMAZING!!!!”
I think this picture says it all:
Barrett and I were tired at the party, because we had worked all day, teaching an Executive MBA presentation skills class all day Saturday and Sunday. Today (Monday), actual Christmas Day, we had the day off from our regular full-time Executive Communication class (which was moved to Tuesday). But no one else in China, apparently, had the day off. Restaurants were open; office staff at BiMBA were working; students were in class; others were playing tennis (they do so practically day and night, no matter how cold, right across the street from our hotel); buses were full; traffic was jammed, as on any other day.
The lucky ones got to go skating (or chair skating) at No Name Lake in the lovely winter smog:
[Note: I just recently found out that the name of the lake on the Beijing U. campus is actually "No Name Lake" in Chinese.]
Lost in Translation (Again):
My student Oscar (the one from Puerto Rico by way of New York, and who speaks some Chinese), told me a great story about dealing with the language difference here.
He was in the local shopping market, Carrefour, and decided to pay for his purchases with a credit card. For security purposes, he said, he had not signed his name on the back of the card— instead, he had written “Check ID” so that if he lost the card and someone else tried to use it, that person would get caught.
The Chinese clerk at Carrefour, of course, was not familiar with the practice. She wanted to know why the name that Oscar signed on the receipt and the name on the back of his card were not the same. Oscar tried to explain why this was so, but she didn't believe him and called security. According to Oscar, “They took me to a private room where they called the credit card company and got my information, but since the guards did not understand any English, they just let me go. To solve the problem, I went back to the clerk and asked her to give me the receipt again. I signed “Check ID” on it. The clerk took the receipt, compared the “Check ID” on the receipt with the “Check ID” on the back of my card, was satisfied with the signature, gave me my groceries, and we all went home happy.”
That's China for you!
January 1, 2007: Xin Nian Kuai Le!
Happy New Year everyone! It's a lovely New Year's Day here in Beijing, smog hovering lightly, sun softly shining, snow slowly melting, TONS of Chinese out and about and skating on No Name Lake:
Hard to even see the lake anymore! I would try skating myself, but 1) I don't know what my shoe size would be here in China, and 2) I'm afraid I would fall and break my ankle. (I wonder what the Chinese is for “Can you set my broken leg, please?”) So I think I'll remain a spectator . . . .
I'm waiting for 2:30 PM, which is when I'll meet the driver downstairs who will take me to the airport to pick up Don. Can't wait to show him all the amazing sites/sights I've seen!
Last Saturday, I went out with Elizabeth to see some places I had not yet seen in Beijing. We wound up at a place called “The Ancient Observatory,” a museum chronicling China's astronomical history, with artifacts of clocks and compasses and sextants et al from eons of dynasties ago. A very pretty spot, especially covered in snow:
The snow in Beijing is quite lovely and covers up a mess o' ugliness. And it's cold enough here, I think, to keep the snow from melting for some time. We'll see.
At the entrance to the Observatory, I noticed this sign:
The last line reads, “Free for Children shorter than 100 cm (and deformed man).
Lucky deformed man! He gets in free!
(Deformed woman, of course, is out of luck.)
After the Observatory, Elizabeth and I went to the Blue Zoo, a somewhat limited aquarium/kids' playground kind of thing. (I chose this place to visit primarily because it is INSIDE.) Of course, to anyone who's been to any Sea World, this place is pretty pitiful. But it DID have a mermaid swimming in a tank of assorted fish, including sharks.
Elizabeth said to me, “I would swim in a tank of sharks for a million dollars.” Which led to a general discussion all day about what we would (or wouldn't do) for a million dollars. I, personally, would eat a fried scorpion for a million dollars. But only if it was fried, not alive. And very, very small. (At the restaurant where we had dinner later that night, there was a platter of fried scorpions on the menu. The “deluxe” version of the same dish, according to the picture in the menu, included fried silk worms. Yum!)
Speaking of food, before the Blue Zoo experience, Elizabeth took me to a restaurant that she said was FAMOUS for its porridge! Now as this was lunch time, I was a little put off by the thought of eating what we westerners normally consider a breakfast dish, but what the hell, when in Rome, let's see what the Chinese consider “porridge” to be.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to tell you that neither Goldilocks NOR the Three Bears would recognize this porridge:
On the left is a bowl of watery cooked white rice, with some kind of “flowers” mixed in, Elizabeth told me. In the middle is a bowl of watery corn soup. On the right is watery dark brown rice. “Put sugar in them,” Elizabeth said. “They'll taste really good.” Uh, no, the sugar really didn't help. “Can I get some salt for the corn soup?” I asked her. (I had had this corn soup before and it is actually sort of tasty with lots of salt.) “Well, OK, I guess,” said Elizabeth (appalled, but willing to humor me), and she got me some salt and the corn soup was then edible. I passed on the other two “porridges” and had quite a lovely lunch of three kinds of different Chinese pancakes, stuffed with savories. (The quesadilla is a cousin of these pancakes.)
Here's another odd thing about the Chinese. I asked Elizabeth, “What will we have to drink? Tea?”
“They don't serve tea here.” (Could that be possible? A restaurant in China that DOESN'T serve tea?????)
“Hmmm. OK, is it possible to get some water?”
“I don't know. Let me ask.”
Ok, we get two little cups of lukewarm water. And I am very thirsty and drink mine in one gulp and ask Elizabeth if we can get some more. And she says, “Go ahead and drink mine. I'm not going to drink it.”
“Aren't you thirsty?” I ask her.
“Yes, but I will just drink the porridge.”
Those Crazy Chinese!
So now it's early evening on January 1 and Don is taking a short nap on the bed behind me before I wake him up for a shower and his first meal in Beijing.
I'm so glad he's here. And he brought me a (duty-free) bottle of Caol Ila, a fantastic 12-year-old single malt whiskey!!!!!!!!!!!
It will be a Happy New Year indeed . . . .
January 5-8, 2007: In which we begin with a quick news flash:
On CCTV 9 news, as Don just pointed out to me, the caption under Margaret Chen's picture (she's the new Director of the World Health Organization) reads thusly: WHO NEW HEAD.
And continue with an account of our adventures in Xi'an:
On January 3 and 4, Don and Elizabeth and I spent a whirlwind two days in Xi'an, former capital city of China (a couple of dynasties ago), and home to the famous Terracotta Warriors.
We flew to Xi'an (pronounced She-Ahn) on Hainan Airlines (for around $50 per person each way), and I must say I was quite impressed with how new and nice the Chinese domestic airlines are. As efficient and friendly as Southwest, but with assigned seats. We flew back late the next day on Air China, same nice plane, same nice flight attendants, speaking both Chinese and English. (Don't ask me why we took two different airlines; Elizabeth made the reservations and she said she got the tickets cheaper that way.) Of course, there were some oddities: The snack pack included a “what the hell is that” antipasto-thing (with some kind of sausage???) and one could get a soft drink, but no diet anything and no ice. But the flight was only 1.5 hours each way, so not a big deal.
Weather in Xi'an was just as cold as Beijing and even more gray and smoggy. Don kept complaining that he could smell something funny in the air (smog? urine? pig intestines? all of the above?). But we had a good time, anyway. We stayed in (the Chinese version of) a 4-star hotel, which included what Don called an “honor bar naughty basket” that contained all kinds of goodies (for sale), including condoms, contraceptives, and various “pleasure jellies.” Wow—US hotels are never so accommodating!
We went down to the hotel bar before dinner, where I tried to order a vodka martini—double, two olives, on ice—and got two shots of vodka, too much vermouth, two cubes of ice, and no olives. (The Chinese don't like olives, Elizabeth told me.) Oh, well. It was worth a shot (pun intended.) And it was fun to see the bartender so discomfited by my order! (Hey—it's a 4-star hotel!)
Before we left for general Xi'an sightseeing (we arrived about noon), we of course had to try out the local delicacies. Elizabeth assured us that Xi'an is noted for its dumplings, so off we went to a “famous for dumplings” restaurant, where we ordered the “dumpling banquet.”
My friends, I want to tell you that these people can make any kind of dumpling in any shape you can imagine. (I would not have been surprised to find little George Bush dumplings.) I photographed all the different kinds they served us, including these:
See the three green ones on the right? What do they look like to you? Do they look like little frogs? Good guess!
Eeeuuuuww. Frog dumplings. Pass.
After a ton o' dumplings, off we headed to see the Xi'an city sights/sites, which included a really cool wall around the old city, with towers strategically placed at the four corners:
You can really see how wide the wall is. (And how smoggy the air is. Gack Hack.)
The next day, we headed out to the hinterlands of Xi'An, where the Terracotta Warriors are located, a bit of a way past the tomb of Emperor Qin (Shin), the first emperor of China and the guy who also requisitioned the Great Wall (about 2000 years ago). On the way to see the Warriors, we stopped at Huaqing Palace, site of steamy hot spas and place of much cavorting by Emperor Tang Xuanzong and the lovely Lady Yang.
From the “About China” website:
Lady Yang is one of the four most beautiful ladies in China's history. It is said that various flowers a shame to open just because of her beauty. Lady Yang and Emperor Tang Xuanzong used to often spend their wintertime and take bath in Huaqing Spring Palace. This made the Palace famous very much. [The Emperor and Lady Yang] sought pleasure and made merry day and night. The Emperor no longer paid attention to state affairs.
In the record of the history, the luxurious imperial bath-pools known as the Lotus Flower Pool and the Crabapple Pool were specially built by order of Emperor Xuanzong for his concubine Lady Yang to bathe in. Tang Emperor Xuangzong ordered special envoy to take lichee from Shuzhou, which was very much far away for Lady Yang within three days just for her special taste. They were intoxicated in their own pleasures and put the state affairs away. It caused the rebellion of An Lushan and made the prosperous Tang Dynasty begin to decline.
And Lady Yang was forced to commit suicide. Ahhh, how romantic! (I think she must have told the starving peasants, “Let them eat lichee nuts!”)
Here is a picture of the baths:
Anyone for Chinese skinny dipping? (The water is really warm!)
Don says we will now call our hot tub in the backyard our “Concubine Pool.”
We headed north again to the Terracotta Museum, which is this HUGE sprawling place, with all four “pits” completely enveloped by gigantic edifices built over the excavation sites, which are sheltered from the wind, but unheated and still VERY cold. (January is definitely NOT the best time of the year to visit northern China.) But the sight/site was worth the chill:
Of course, I kept thinking, boy, I'll bet Emperor Qin, who ordered all of these warriors (an estimated 8,000 of them) buried to escort him to the afterlife, must be totally pissed that some twentieth-century desecrators dug them up!
But of course that's what you get for being an autocratic megalomaniac.
Another thought I had: Who was the idiot who thought TERRACOTTA would be a good sculpting material?!?!? Here's what the excavators frequently found:
A leg here, a head there, here a foot, there an arm . . .
It will take many more years for the excavation to be complete. Elizabeth was concerned that the exhumation would just destroy the figures completely (exposing them to the pollution of Xi'An) and she thought they should be left alone. Ah, yes, but think about how much money would be lost from tourists!
On the way out, we had to deal with the MOST ANNOYING VENDORS IN THE WORLD. I came very close to slugging this horrible woman who kept grabbing my arm and thrusting a box of little bitty terracotta warriors in my face. Bu How! I kept yelling at her (Chinese for "Get out of my face!"), to no great effect. I hope they get rid of these people before the Olympic hordes of visitors arrive. (Fat chance.)
Since Xi'An, I've been busy teaching (all day Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 6 & 7) and Don has been busy shopping with Elizabeth. He's now checking into storage containers for cargo ships, to get all the stuff he's bought back home. But it's all so cheap! he exclaims. Hmmm. How cheap is cheap? He just showed me a DVD he bought at the Mini Mart of the original “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” Disney movie, at such a good deal, just 15 yuan (or about $1.92). The front of the DVD proclaims that it's the LATINUM EDITION. (But for only $1.92, who cares if the “P” is missing, eh?)
On a final note for this diary, I thought I'd share with you some funny excerpts from my students' papers:
Block that metaphor!
And when the spell checker is just no help at all:
Hope you all are celebrating your charismas every day!
Don and I are off to climb the Great Wall tomorrow. More soon, god willing and the internet don't break . . .
January 12, 2007: Great Wall's A'Fire!
I never dreamed I'd EVER see the Great Wall of China, and now I can say that I've climbed it TWICE!
And it wasn't any easier to climb this time—quite an aerobic workout! In fact, it was so nice the day we went (no wind, lots of sun), that both of us were sweating in our heavy sweaters, alpine socks, and padded coats.
See how pretty the sky is? Hardly any smog at all!
We were accompanied on our trip by a very nice BiMBA graduate student named “Joe,” who was very solicitous of me, always hovering nearby in case I suddenly careened over the battlements or something. (Don told Joe he'd get a bad grade if he didn't keep me from breaking my leg, LOL!)
Here is Joe helping me up the steps (huff, puff, huff, puff, good thing I've been doing Jazzercise since the last Ming dynasty):
How nice of Emperor Qin to order the helpful stair rails installed to help me up! (OK, OK, so this is a section of the wall—called The Great Wall at Badaling, about a hour's drive north of Beijng—that is MAJORLY reconstructed, but I could have wimped out altogether and taken the cable cars to the highest point!)
No handicap access to this baby.
While we were on the Wall, a Mongol horde attacked us, demanding to have their pictures taken with us! (Actually, this has happened to Don and me at just about every site we've visited: Some Chinese folks will come up to us, camera in hand, and instead of asking us to take THEIR picture—which is what I always think they'll say—they ask to have THEIR picture taken with US! Here is what I imagine they say when they show their family and friends the pictures of their trip: “And here we are with some strange-looking big-nosed foreigners! Aren't they funny looking?!”) Joe explained that the horde was indeed from Mongolia, on a holiday to the big city of Beijing, and were absolutely a delightful bunch.
Some were even in Mongol dress (long tunic-like outfits on some of the guys), but we wondered if they got their “cowboy” hats from some Western Wear store in Beijng!
On the way back from the Great Wall, we stopped off at the Ming Tombs, which I had also visited last time I was here. We walked down down down into the tomb known as Ding Ling (I know, I know, insert funny noises here), where Emperor Shenzong of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and his two empresses were buried, unburied, and buried again. The exhibition halls around the tomb contain the most amazing artifacts from the tombs, including many beautiful fabrics. I was quite gratified to see that one of the Emperor's two Empresses was actually a fairly hefty woman, judging by her silk robe. (As I've mentioned before, the average dress size of the average Chinese woman is 2. I myself wear a size XXXXL here. Is that depressing or what?)
Before we left the Mings, Don and I had our picture taken in the exact same spot my brother Mike had his picture taken when he went to the Wall and the Mings a few years earlier. The sign says, “THUNDER STORM WEATHER DO NOT USE MOBILE PHONE.” That must have aggravated the Mings, maybe as much as I've been aggravated by the constantly slow and plodding internet connection here. (I wonder if the Mings also blamed it on the earthquake in
Sushi in the Summer Palace
The next day I took Don to visit the Summer Palace, site of Empress Dowager CiXi's (See-She's) summer holidays, and just a short hop from Peking University. (Only 15 yuan by cab, or about $1.92 US).
From the China Travel Guide web site:
Originally named Xiao Lan (Little Orchid), Empress Dowager Cixi was born to a noble family in South China in the year 1835. In 1851, she was elected as one of Emperor Xianfeng's concubines and renamed Cixi, meaning "Holy Mother".
At first, she was made a concubine of the fifth rank and after she gave birth to a son, the only son of the emperor, she was made a concubine of the second rank.
[How to get promoted in the court: Have a son. Then make sure he's the ONLY son.]
In 1861, her husband, Emperor Xianfeng was died, and her six-year-old son succeeded to the throne in the following year. Cixi then became the empress dowager and began to seize power and handler the state affairs. After her son's death at the age of 19, she put her nephew on the throne. However, in fact, all the state affairs were under her control during the reign of her son and nephew. In order to usurp power, she even poisoned Ci'an, the first wife of Xianfeng.
In 1898, she brutally suppressed the 100-day Reform and put Emperor Guangxu in house arrest for his supporting to the reform.
Empress Dowager Cixi died in the Forbidden City at the age of 73. Before her death, she put Emperor Puyi, another 3-year-old child, on the throne.
[If you've seen the movie “The Last Emperor,” you know this part of the story.]
Empress Dowager Cixi lived a luxurious and decadent life in the palace. Ruling through a clique of conservative, corrupt officials, she maintained an iron grip over the Manchu Imperial house, becoming one of the most powerful women in the history of China.
Cixi's Summer Palace is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and must be really lovely when all is green and blooming. (I've now seen it twice in midwinter and can only imagine.) But Don did take this most lovely picture:
Pickled Mao and Starbucks in the Forbidden City
The next day, I took Don to Tian'anmen Square, and this time we made it in time to see Mao in his Mausoleum. (He's only visible from 8:30 to 11:30 AM.) We shuffled forward quietly, along with a slew of silent Chinese, and suddenly there he was, looking, well, how shall I say, like he really needed some blush and a little mascara. (There are reports that this is not the real Mao at all, but a wax dummy. Will the real Mao please sit up?)
All very weird. And even weirder are all the tacky Mao souvenirs that one can buy on the way out of the mausoleum. (Wonder what Mao would have thought about all of this.) So how could we resist? Don bought a cool Mao cigarette lighter that plays the Chinese national anthem when opened. (We will save this as a family heirloom. Brando, my son, we will will it to you and your children.)
Then Don and I wended our way through the sprawling Forbidden City, meters and meters of palaces, little houses, alley-ways, etc., until we found the same Starbucks that I had found the last time I was here. We had coffee and I had a duck breast sandwich. (Try finding THAT at your local Starbucks in the US!) Later that evening, we met Barrett and Elizabeth at this really fun restaurant, where all the wait staff dress up in “traditional” costumes. Get a load of these waitresses:
Aren't they cute? We have come to the conclusion that all wait persons in China are around 12 or 13 years old. We assume that once they turn 20, they are sent back into the country for “reeducation,” where they learn to program internet search engines.
As I type this, Don is airborne and on his way back to the States. It is very quiet here now and I am feeling very, very homesick.
(OK, boo hoo, boo hoo, poor poor pitiful me. There—I feel better now.)
Barrett will knock on my door soon and we'll have another food adventure, no doubt, and later I will get a lot of reading done (which I haven't been able to do recently with Don here), and I will teach two more classes on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and then I will myself wing my way home a week from today.
January 17, 2007: It's All Over but the Packing
I've finished grading all my students' final exams and am just passing the time now until I head for the airport on Friday. Elizabeth will come over tomorrow to help me pack; I hope she brings a large shoehorn with her, otherwise I won't be able to fit everything I bought into my suitcases!
The weather here in Beijing remains quite nice: sunny and somewhat smogless. (Don claims credit for bringing the warm weather from NM with him to China. Shall I bring it back with me on Friday? I hear it's colder in Albuquerque than in Beijing!) The ice is beginning to melt on No Name Lake, but I have no doubt it will freeze up again soon. (The first time I arrived here, last February 20, the lake was completely frozen.)
For this last diary entry, I thought I would share with you those things I will NOT miss about China, and those I will miss very much.
Things I Will Not Miss About China:
Caller (speaking Chinese): “Ni hao! Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” Me: “Oh, is my laundry ready?” Caller: “Blah blah blah blah blah.” Me: Great! I'll be right down to pick it up!”
If I were to return here for any length of time (and there's a good chance that will happen), I think I might take Chinese lessons like my colleague Barrett.
Things I Will Miss About China:
The food. Except for a few notable exceptions (duck tongues, frog dumplings, etc.), the food here is FABULOUS. I also like the Chinese style of eating, where everyone shares the entire meal, as opposed to each person ordering his/her own meal, and don't you touch mine and I won't touch yours, etc. There's this little shack of a restaurant across the street from our hotel, which would NEVER pass a health department inspection back in the States, but which has the tastiest dishes—and for ridiculously low prices. (Barrett and I can get a more-than-filling dinner for two there for about $4.25 US! With beer!)
The people. En masse, they're quite an imposing force—“Too many people in China!” they frequently exclaim. But individually they are sweet, charming, intelligent, curious, and very generous. Here are some pictures: Here's Don and me (and Barrett in the background) with some of our students who took us out to lunch at this “traditional” restaurant where everything was decorated with memories of Mao—happy smiling peasants, rosy-cheeked workers, etc. I suspect Mao might have been threatened by these delightful, brilliant young Chinese—no doubt he would have sent them to the countryside to be “reeducated”! (Barrett has already been declared— some many years ago—a “cultural polluter” for publishing an article about his experiences teaching in China. If you never hear of me again after you read this, you'll know why.)
And here, of course, is me with my two best friends in China: the lovely Elizabeth Wang and the erudite Barrett Mandel:
Barrett is the reason I'm here in the first place, and Elizabeth is the reason I've had so many marvelous memories. (Elizabeth is dying to emigrate out of China—I would love to have her visit me in New Mexico! But the days of Maoish bureaucracy remain— she says it takes two years to get a visa to get to Canada. No hope that she can get to the US, even just for a visit. Can you imagine?)
I will also miss what I call “the Chinese oddities”—those strange turns of phrase that makes you wonder, “Didn't anyone who speaks English actually READ this before it went up on the sign?!” Like for example:
Be For Time Tea Shop (I guess it must be something like “Time for Tea” in Chinese, but in English it has this intriguing Zen connotation, don't you think?)
Restaurant Famous for Rinse and Grillmeat (We found out later this meant something like “hot pot,” where you cook your own food in a hot broth, fondue-like.)
Oven Bread and Gruel (Item on the hotel café breakfast menu. I noticed this visit that someone had added, “Oat meal gruel.” Doesn't make it sound any tastier, does it.)
Don't Scramble the Elevator (Sign on the escalator at the Carrefour shopping mall.)
Rice Glue Balls (Caption on a dish on a Powerpoint slide that a group of my students put up last week. I had to tell them, no one in the US would order anything with the word “glue” in it, I am certain! We might call it, “sticky rice.”)
And lastly, there's this sign, which I saw on the back of the door of the stall I was sitting in (western toilet) at a sezchuan restaurant:
Yes, I am CERTAIN that I was in the ladies' room! I'll have to ask Elizabeth what this really means . . .
Don gave me a hard time for taking a flash picture in the bathroom . . . LOL!
That's it for this journey to the East. I look forward to seeing all of you again soon!