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I decided to finish 2009 before the end of February... Wish me luck!


BEIJING – DAY TWO

I woke a tad later than Robert and his roommate who were enjoying a light breakfast and a replay of a TV awards show by the time I ventured to the restroom. The awards were the equivalent of the Emmys and it appeared all of the media glitterati were present. I was surprised at how most of the actresses were so mildly dressed, (a bit fragile-looking actually), as my first impression of girls in Beijing was how sensible and sturdy they looked on the streets of the city. (Far fewer miniskirts and stilettos than Seoul…maybe the Chinese girls are just able to walk better since they’re wearing sneakers?) But the most striking distinction during the awards was the sight of men in ceremonial military uniform in the front rows of the awards auditorium. It reminded me of the last performance scene in The Sound of Music.

After pondering the incongruity of militaristic influence and free artistic expression over slices of breakfast toast, I wanted to hit a couple of tourist areas in the center of town. ; ) The subway stops nearest Tiananmen were closed for the holiday weekend to avoid jamming the trains. Having been the site of The Party’s anniversary celebrations the night before, the parade floats were left there on display for the public to view. I thought it would be fun to brave the crowds so we headed down to check out the aftermath action.

Here I was thinking that braving Namdaemun Market in Seoul on a weekend in spring time was bad. (Ok, actually, it is.) But Tiananmen Square, the veritable center of the capital of the most populous country on earth during the middle of an 8-day national vacation? Boys and girls, that’s the definition of crowded and locals + provincial tourists = amusing.

We approached the Square from the south (all ancient entrances in Beijing face south) and I was surprised by wide assortment of stores in a (obviously new) shopping area that led up to Tiananmen. There were a few brands such as Giordano and Uniqlo that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing all over Korea, (though neither are actually Korean companies), and the typical American retail colonization—re: Starbucks. I was quite envious to see H&M, one of my favorite clothing stores as well since the one in Seoul doesn’t open until March 2010. :(

[Side note: I was absolutely GREEN with envy when I saw a big, bright shiny IKEA on the way to town from the airport. Why? Why? WHY doesn’t Korea have IKEA when both Japan and non-free market China have it?! Huh? ]

I also saw this sign along the way and had fun thinking up various interpretations for each symbol…

Inside a pedestrian tunnel on the edge of Tiananmen, I ran into a little trouble with the authorities. In my defense, I didn’t actually realize they were “real” authorities. Whereas in Korea, uniforms have a reasonable range of variety, ie. there would be no legitimate reason for confusing a parking attendant with a police officer, in Beijing the lines are not so clear.

Beijing uniforms seemed to range from, inspired by military, to Wait, that guy’s not military?, to That’s a police uniform?, to My bad! You actually work for The Party. o_O Folks in the most seemingly asinine positions, ie. security in the shopping area, would have on what appeared to my untrained eye as full military regalia. (Furthermore, I’ve generally found the Seoul riot police to be about as cuddly as can be and have gotten them to pose for photos with us! lol.)

So there I am, a tourist attempting to document the peculiarities of my trip. A line up of soldiers (or not) seemed like a nice addition to my photo collection. I position myself to get the best possible line of focus despite the other seemingly Chinese folks in my way taking photos. In my peripheral vision, a couple of the photo takers scurry away. I adjust my camera for a horizontal shot and am accosted greeted with the sound of English: NO PHOTOS! Huh?

A guy in street clothes waves a pretty aggressive “get lost” in front of me. I’m confused until I noticed he was carrying an umbrella. And there’s no rain in sight. And I remember this. No need to ask me twice! I got back on my way and was pretty relieved that was the end of it. (As I’m sure Robert was…I think I made his blood pressure rise a little!)

When we finally made it through the crowds to the other side of the street, it seemed like the perfect time for an “I was here” photo since there was an entryway with a ridiculously large photo of Chairman Mao above it. [It’s a bit harder to find photos of “The Greater Leader” these days than in the past and who knows…one day he may not be around at all. ;) ] Lots of folks were taking photos with and without the Chairman in the background. The spot was pretty popular…a little too much so.

I handed my camera off to a passerby to get a picture of me and Robert together. On the guy’s second photo attempt, another guy runs up behind me and Robert while his girlfriend takes a picture! By the time I realize what’s happening, the first guy realizes I’m done posing with Robert and asks if I can pose with his girlfriend! Uh, ok.

That seemed to inspire a couple of other out-of-towners…This is my chance! Wait ‘til the folks back in see this! A group of girls asked for a photo…then another guy. There’s a reason I’m not a supermodel, people! Aside from my stunningly average looks, I don’t like having my picture taken. lol.

In the corner of my eye, I could see a few more people gathering their courage. While keeping my pageant girl smile I blurted, “Robert, after this one I’m gonna run! You better get ready!” As soon as I heard, “Ok, thank you,” I pulled a one-legged 180° spin and started my best bob and weave maneuver through the crowd until I got outside the cluster. It was terribly juvenile, but it worked!

You may or may not already be aware that China is the Texas of East Asia… everything’s just bigger there! Tiananmen Gate is HUGE…like “How did they build that thing before construction cranes were invented?” kind of huge. It was impossible for me to get a photo of the entire gate with my little point-and-shoot camera.

Inside the gate, the actual square was sectioned off. All the parade floats were there as were a few thousand people. We opted to walk on the side street rather than endure crowding and cramping. The weather was surprisingly warm and I was super grateful for the little boy hawking bottles of water. I was merely amused by all the other street sellers hustling plastic “gold” medals and miniature Chinese flags. It was so blatantly nationalistic, it felt ‘overdone’…

After having our fill of Tiananmen Square, we began looking for the fastest route out of the area and on to less crowded streets. When we reached the back gate of the area, we found out that in true militaristic style, all foot traffic was being directed such that we’d have to hoof it about a mile or so out of the way. :( Fortunately, the walk was picturesque and shady. : )

All along the path there were more street sellers entreating us to buy medals and flags. While I had scoffed at such a notion just 4.5 hours earlier, the visual barrage of thousands of Chinese flags had worn my resistance thin. There are flags everywhere around the square…and the medals, when I was finally able to see one up close, I realized they were commemorating The Party’s 60th Anniversary…it seemed oddly appropriate…timely at least…certainly something I wouldn’t find anywhere else. Like a little kid at a county fair, I wanted what everybody else was carrying!

The Chinese flag was easy enough…1 Chinese yuan and they all looked the same. The medals on the other hand…some had red accents, some jade green. Others were all gold. Red was definitely the order of the day. By the time I decided to buy one, they were all gone! Vendor after vendor said they were sold out.

After walking for some time, we finally reached the main street where public transport was available. A teenage boy yelled out to us as we passed. Clenched in his fist were several gold medals with red accents. Robert, ever-patiently coddling my whims, asked if I still wanted one. “How much is it?” I asked. Robert approached the kid to inquire. [It might be appropriate at this point to make mention of the fact that Beijing is a city requiring street smarts. Every other person you meet’s got a hustle they’re hoping you’ll fall for and money is typically the goal.]

Judging by the sharp tone of words that passed between them—although my making such judgment while listening to Chinese is slightly suspect—I guessed the kid was asking too much. As it turned out, he was asking WAY too much…20 Chinese dollars if I remember correctly! “Are you serious?!?” I blurted. The kid had his game face on though. If he detected any sort of horror / disbelief / anger in my voice, he didn’t let on. I supposed he figured I was a stingy wench of a tourist considering the exchange rate but I figured he was pretty selfish to consider raking someone over the coals when they hadn’t even done anything to him!

In the end, Robert got him down to the going rate (5 yuan) and I got my shiny little trinket. I remember walking away thinking, “The gall of that kid!” But also thinking that I can’t say I wouldn’t try the same thing if I were in his position…Americans mean dollar signs I guess…

After all the excitement, we got back to Robert’s side of town for dinner. We stopped at (what I was told was) a pretty typical Beijing style restaurant. Y’all, the menu was huge. HUGE!!! Like, for no reason and under no circumstances does a menu ever need to be that big! It was a cross between a scrapbook and a high school yearbook. No lie. There were pages upon pages of photos categorized by ingredients: chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables, rice, noodles…it went on and on. Robert asked what I wanted but I made him pick. My brain started hurting after the first 10 pages!

We agreed on some thin pork slices, to be eaten with flour wraps, sliced eggplant in sauce, dumplings and real Beijing 炸酱面 noodles. (In Korea, it’s known as 자짱면and made a bit differently.) As you’re probably thinking at the moment, that sounds like a lot of food. It was! I was SO full. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it to our evening activity…salsa dancing!!!

Months and months before I went to Beijing, I saw this video a friend had posted on her Facebook page showing a Chinese guy killing some Cuban style (Casino) salsa. (I mean, seriously, watch the video at least to the part where he throws off his jacket, ok?) Being the super-nerd / Google-stalker that I am, I found out the guy in the video has a dance school in Beijing, and determined that I would visit there whenever I got to visit the city.

The dance school is called Casa de David, after the owner’s English (or should that be Spanish?) name. He and his sister Queenie run the school and club. I loved how it had this earthy, “Dirty Dancing” feel. Not because the dancing was “dirty” but because the place was all about dancing, unlike the fru-fru place I went to in Gangnam (Seoul) that seemed like a dance competition incubator. *boo!* I mean, you know you’re at the real deal when there’s a permanent conga rig in the corner. In fact David, the owner, played the congas during part of our lesson. He also speaks Spanish since he studied in Cuba where he picked up his dance skills before moving back to China.

Even though David didn’t teach it himself, the dance lesson turned out to be a lot of fun. The lesson was on Columbian (Cali) style salsa [video], which I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try under other circumstances. Cali style is impossibly fast for someone like myself with two left feet. I often joke that I dance really well…by myself. It’s only when I have a partner that trouble begins! Fortunately, the instructor kept things really basic for us.

I was surprised to find that pretty much everybody at the studio spoke English. While the lesson was conducted in Mandarin, when the teacher corrected me she spoke English as did the other students when we were partnered together. In the end, I lost my fear of Columbian salsa. I don’t see myself winning a championship any time soon, but I’d definitely take another class if the chance arose. Truth be told, I enjoyed myself so much, I wanted to set up shop right next door so I could dance every night! :D

David’s sister Queenie was such a darling, she nearly begged me to visit again on Monday night. I truly wished I had had the time. Regardless, she, her brother and their dance studio made my night—a night that started months prior with a video from an American friend of a Cuban show with a Chinese guy that I watched in Korea. The world felt really small that night…in a good way. :)

Despite all the fun I was having, we left the salsa club early to visit with one of Robert’s good friends, a German-Japanese guy—yes, since you were wondering, he was good-looking—who was having a birthday party.

Robert’s friend lived in a hutong, a traditional Beijing neighborhood made up of a bunch of connected single-story houses with little courtyards. The evening was fabulously balmy and when we arrived, everyone was lounging about in the courtyard. I hadn’t been around so many Europeans since the two summers I spent at Choate in high school. If I recall correctly, there were two French girls, an Argentinean by way of Spain, a guy from Denmark on vacation, at least one other German apart from the host, and I want to say, someone from Holland, or Sweden, or that other extremely Nordic country I can’t recall at the moment…

They were so…uh, European. I mean, I assume other people like ABBA just as much, but geez…lol! And there was lots of wine. And singing…to ABBA. (It was a miracle the neighbors didn’t throw their dirty dishwater over the courtyard wall.) J All in all though, I had a bang up time. I even got Robert to indulge in a bit of ridiculous dancing after the fancy struck several of the rest of us.

Sometime after midnight, I gave up trying to stay up, and decided to make the trek back to Robert’s side of town. I had enjoyed a fabulously full day, and like a typical tourist, had scheduled one just as full for the day to come…


...to be continued.


Miss you guys! Love & Hugs. ^__^

-t.

3 comments:

Matt @ The Church of No People said...

T-Hype, thank you for commenting on my blog, especially with such thought and candor. I can't imagine what you've been through, but I'm so glad you have the grace to share about it.

BTW, Beijing looks beautiful! I don't know if I've met anyone commenting from that part of the world yet.

morethanservingtea said...

China is the Texas of East Asia!!! LOL!

Sharif Ali said...

Peace,

Cool Blog! I'm your newest follower! I live in Salvador, Brazil. It's cool to hear your experiences in the Far East.

Keep the posts coming!

Sharif

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