Now it’s 5 a.m. and I’m too excited to sleep longer. Even though I always sought a life of travel—journalist, anthropologist, international business—when I’m here, even where I’ve been before, I can’t believe it. I “pinch myself” to think I’m really here. At times like this I think of my mother, now dead a year and a half, who secretly relished my vagabond life, even though she insisted she didn’t understand why I didn’t just live near her and stay home—her dream. All her life she lived near her mother, although each moved often, an invisible rubber band connected them, never far for long. That would have been worse than death for me, leading straight to it. Surely all these travelers mixing up the world, a part of “globalization”, is good for the world. But not sure why it hasn’t resulted in fewer wars, genocides. Why not? How can you come to another society, mix with other ways of living, and not be more tolerant?
The cab driver and Dawei carried on a lively, continuous conversation all the way from the airport to the hotel—loud and beautiful (his Chinese sounded like singing at the top of his voice, gorgeous). I do hate loudness (something about it hurting my head), but here seems to be an exception—in the wonton restaurant, the waitresses and cooks shout at the top of their voices constantly, but it is merely vibrant, not irritating. Even though hotels seem to be not cheap anymore, and the cab fare has doubled since last year, food is still cheap—US$5 for a delicious meal of wonton for the three of us together. The cab driver said some Americans told him America was so democratic that the ordinary person could see their president anytime. With the exception of town meetings when he’s trying to be elected, we told him that was not true. Undoubtedly there ARE differences, but they aren’t so evident. The internet instructions warn you not to download materials from prohibited sites, but neglects to day what the sites are—pornographic? Political?
It’s so beautiful to see Dawei so happy. Many other Chinese who fled for personal or political reasons must feel the same way. Last year, his first trip back after 25 years in exile, his paranoia was extreme. As a college professor from a “bourgeois” background (his ancestors were wealthy, and he grew up in the shadow of the Imperial Palace), he suffered many injustices and horrible experiences in the Cultural Revolution, as well as an unhappy marriage that didn’t survive that time. He worried about seeing some people, but everything has changed. This trip, we’re visiting Xi’an as well, a place he was teaching just before leaving, and he’s looking forward to seeing it again. We see Seventh Sister and her husband today, and they’ll go see Fourth Sister (who suffers from Alzheimer and doesn’t speak English at all) on Monday while I see Brett and his wife. Brett worked for Voyager in Los Angeles, and now is a software developer expat here. Heidi worked with him at Warner Bros. and was still in touch with him, and connected us. I’m looking forward to lunch with him on Monday.
Breakfast at a local fast food place—they said I couldn’t have noodles without the beef because they didn’t serve it that way (Dawei asking), and then I saw a woman with exactly that at her table on the way out. Customer service isn’t a premium here—when we bought strawberries, the clerk picked out poor specimens, and when I wanted her to exchange for the much redder, riper ones in the tray, she complained that she couldn’t sell them if we handled them, yet she picked them out, and all we asked was that she exchange them herself for the redder ones (they were for a gift for 7th sister). But Dawei has little appetite for argument; she clearly didn’t want to agree, so we let it go. We wandered down the main street in Wang Fuching after breakfast, and discovered that a street fair of travel agents, hotels and resorts was just setting up. Although most of the tables were still empty, the posters behind each table shouted adventure, luxury, travel. Clearly aimed at Chinese tourists (all in Chinese, little English), the tourist business is booming. People have money to travel or relax, and other Chinese are busy gearing up to make money from it. We gathered brochures. Yunnan, my dream next destination in China, was very prominent and inviting.
A fabulous Xinjiang banquet after a nice home visit with exchange of gifts (Dawei and Linda gave them a small digital camera and Linda and I showed 7th Sister’s husband how to use it. He seems quite technologically adept, so shouldn’t be a problem). They had gifts for us and a banquet of unusual fruits. The yellow watermelon was so great that I gathered up the seeds to take home to plant! This before we went by taxi to the restaurant and ate in a private room. We had about 20 or 21 courses, really too much but all delicious. The sugared walnuts and a fried sweet bean paste cookie dipped in sesame seeds were my favorites, but other dishes were garlic broccoli, pork crisps in brown sauce, lamb, shrimp with yellow melon, a green vegetable soup, beer, green tea, cat’s ear pasta (not really cats’ ears, just called that), special noodles with two sauces, and more that I’ve already forgotten! But my stomach is still so full we decided to just snack for dinner and not really eat a proper meal.
However, that turned out to be Linda and my plan, not Dawei’s. He feels we should take advantage of being in Beijing to eat well, although he likes to get a bargain, too. One of the bellhops told him about a dumpling restaurant around the corner, in one of the hutongs (narrow lanes). He led us through a turnstile at the back of the restaurant, past rows of bicycles (forget your mental image of racing bikes: all bicycles here look like they date from 1950 and used every day since then), through a back gate, across the alley into a courtyard restaurant (complete with its “spirit gate”, the baffle wall that prevents bad spirits from going straight into a house). It was shabby and empty, and the food wasn’t great, and definitely quieter and less lively than the wonton place of the previous night, which was right in the heart of Wang Fuching and thus should have been more expensive, but wasn’t. Which just proves that the “local” haunts in a place aren’t necessarily better. I was happy with it except still stuffed from lunch so couldn’t eat my third of the delicious dumplings (although they put shrimp in the “vegetarian” ones), but Dawei was critical of its quality.
7th Sister and her husband insisted on paying for the lavish banquet of which we could only eat a small fraction (although I made a valiant effort—really stuffed), and they are retired on a fixed income, so we all felt a bit bad about. Dawei tried unsuccessfully to wrest the bill from him, but the best we could do was be very, very appreciative, which we were. Before dinner I took a walk on the main Wang Fujing drag, which was thronged with couples and families—out of thousands of people (like Soho NY on its busiest days, or maybe the Champs Elysses on Saturday night), only a tiny handful (maybe 10 total) were westerners. Yet we are one of the main tourist areas, being so close to the Imperial Palace. They expect 3.6 million tourists in Beijing for the summer Olympics in 2008. If there are many tourists here, I don’t see them. This hotel, being French-owned, is full of Australians, French and Russians (as it was last year). But last year did seem to have more tourists on the streets. As we drove by Mao’s Tomb, I noticed the vast plaza was entirely empty. The cab driver confirmed it was closed for special visitors (Bush? Castro? Another head of state?), but didn’t know for whom. We took a walk to see the small jewelry shop we liked last year and bought a few inexpensive pieces, then pictures in front of Dawei’s high school, now just a façade of the old style with a fence around it, the Catholic church with skateboarders and other loungers, a quick stop to the shops for Dawei to look at the latest watches (he can’t walk by a watch place without looking), and back to the hotel. We’re all so tired I’m going to crawl in bed at 8:30.
Having a great time.