05 July 2011

Greetings from China!

Ni hao!
I'm entering my second full day in Beijing, and attempting to use the Internet in the business center.  It's a little bit slow, and very little beyond gmail happens to be accessible as the PRC blocks many websites, including Facebook and mass-photo uploaders such as WindowsLive unless you have a VPN...which I do not.  I'll find a solution, but it may take a while.  In the meantime, I'm sending a few photos in an email and asking Sam to help add this message and images to the blog.
The flight was painless; read quite a bit on my nook (they had outlets under the seats, so I could recharge at the end of the flight), watched 'The Adjustment Bureau' (thumbs down!), chatted with a fellow participant (9th/10th grade teacher from Hawaii) and walked around quite a bit.  12-13 hours later, we arrived in Beijing at the new terminal of the airport, all decked out for their recent Olympics.  I'm the only one muscling a monster backpack; everyone else is going old school with the wheeled Samsonites. ;o)  I tried to sleep for the first leg of the flight, attempting to manipulate my body into the new rhythmn of time...sadly, I was unsuccessful.  Since we arrived at 1:30pm (the next day in Beijing - hurrah for the International Date Line!), I knew I had to stay awake until the dinner/performance we would watch in the evening.  I went downstairs to the gym and worked out for about 30 mins with a couple of other participants, showered and headed out for our evening at the Laoshe Teahouse.
Dinner.  *Sigh*  The food here is amazing.  Seriously, they're not kidding when they say that Chinese food in America is quite dissimilar to what you experience here.  It is served family-style, all dishes placed on a lazy susan in the center of the table.  We had lemongrass tea (the best tea I've ever, ever had.  I'll try to find some and bring it home) and all sorts of dishes.  It is traditional for many meat dishes to be served first, with vegetables last -- this has to do with the yin/yang principles of warming up the system (body) and then cooling it down at the conclusion of a meal.  There is very little rice served with the meals, at least here in Beijing.  This is okee dokee with me!  Tofu is prepared here in so many different ways!  I feel that Americans have a limited awareness of how to prepare tofu, and even make attempts to hide it in dishes.  I, too, am a culprit in this ordeal, as I love to prepare tofu/ricotta stuffed shells -- the tofu taking on a similar texture of the ricotta.  "You don't even know the tofu is there, do you!  Mmmm, so good!"  Well, just three meals since we've arrived and I've probably tried about seven or eight different preparations of the lovely soy illusionist -- sweet and sour tofu is THE BEST.  Imagine little pillows of sweet and soft delights, delicately and just ever-so-slightly fried to a golden brown and drizzled with the most brilliant sweet and sour sauce in the galaxy.  Oh yes.  Brilliant.  I'll give you a sampling of the other culinary joys:  bok choy, fried rice (just rice and eggs), green tea and banana chips at breakfast, a visit to a noodle house - given a 'sanitized for your protection'-wrapped packet with a small cup, dish, glass, and chopsticks before the family style 'starters' arrive, then your noodles with choice of sauces and vegetables to mix in at your discretion, Peking duck - glazed and crispy, freshly carved near the table and eaten with mushu wrappers (think small tacos!), plum sauce and radishes, a mound of peppery tofu layered with sprouts, varieties of Chinese vegetables never seen before, dishes that just keep coming and coming and coming and coming...ending with vegetables and creamy, duck soup.  Wow.  I cannot even remember all of the food that we've eaten, but it has all been AMAZING.  There were approximately 15 different items served at dinner, in addition to the Peking duck.  Dessert is not common in China, and that's my one bit of luck -- otherwise, I'd have to roll home.
Well, that and the fact that we're walking.  A lot.  We were up early for a visit to the Forbidden City, which is enormous and divine in its historical significance to the imperial eras as well its sheer vastness.  My only sense of current culture shock is that many people stare at our group, as we are 'exotic' to them.  I happen to be the only blonde (how did that happen?) besides our director, so many people approach me and ask to take a picture with me.  It is sort of a running joke with the group, "You looked soooooooooooo uncomfortable when those two guys wanted to take their picture with you!"  I can understand, and I am obliging, especially when a boy (probably 9 or 10) came up to me in the Museum of Chinese History and said, "Hello?  Can you please help me?"  "Um, ok.  What do you need?"  "Please, please will you take a photo with us?  You are very beautiful."  His friend whipped out a little cell phone camera from somewhere and snapped a photo while we both made the universal picture-posing sign (peace).
The Museum of Chinese History and Tiananmen Square were part of the afternoon agenda; Mao's tomb was not open today, and I'm not a fan of embalmed dictators (historically significant or otherwise) so I was perfectly happy to explore the other aspects of the 90th anniversary of the PRC on display.  The museum had just recently opened a couple of months ago, and there were many people in town for the commemorative event noted above.  The primary exhibit that I explored was called, 'The Age of Rejuvenation' - which omitted quite a few events of (negative) historical significance and had a definite bias, but was interesting to compare to what I saw a couple of years ago at the Soviet Museum in Moscow.  Due to the Cultural Revolution, so many artifacts pre-1940s had been destroyed, so many paintings and sculptures to represent this 'Age' had been recreated to demonstrate their perspective (or what they wished to show) from contemporary history.  Many, many weapons and representations of the military, rather than what I wished to see -- representations and artifacts from the Chinese literati.  However, it was well worth the visit and put a time frame on many events in a way that I was able to understand the gestalt of this era.  Good times.


There are three 'Ts' that you must not mention in polite conversation with Chinese:  Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Taiwan.  We're discussing all of them in our group workshops and lectures -- it is fascinating.  More on this later, if I'm able...
A couple of interesting finds:
- Toddlers (and a few infants) do not wear diapers.  Rather, they have split britches and 'let it all hang out'.  Children are often allowed to relieve themselves in the streets.
- The traffic is less chaotic than I expected.  It's quite orderly, just very congested.  There are many motorbikes and bicycles, but not as many of these as there used to be about 5+ years ago
- Smog.  Wow.  It looked overcast all day, and the visibility is just about 3 NY city blocks -- at its max. 
- Food -- the best in the world -- yes, even better than (or equal to) Italy.  I am not kidding -- it is beautiful.  A well-balanced mixture of textures, flavors and delights cross the palate at each meal we encounter.
- Tummies.  It is definitely very hot and humid here, and (generally older) men feel very comfortable tucking their shirts up to let their tummies and lower backs breathe a bit. 
- Scale.  True to the post(ish) Communist visual preferences, everything is of tremendous scale when it comes to new architecture and sculptures.  However, there do not seem to be as many colossal skyscrapers as I'd expected.  Perhaps it is because we've only seen a certain part of Beijing, but I believe we shall see something to this degree when we head down to Shanghai.
One and a half days in, and I have only scratched the surface of the sensorial and enlightening moments experienced.  Others included visiting a perfectly created feng shui garden in the Forbidden City, lessons on Taiwanese-Chinese relations, contemporary art and censorship, a traditional shadow puppet performance (!!!!!) while dining in downtown Beijing, watching poodles (dogs are a status symbol here - you have to pay to have them) with dyed fur trapsing the streets with their owners late at night, the Beijing version of Times Square, fresh watermelons arriving in a motorbike sidecar to a small cigarette shop to be sold on the street, using Mandarin to request a wake up call (it worked!) and a few other, minor, phrases to get around....so much!!!  Oh!  There's even a gas mask in the hotel room!
No worries.  I'm having a blast, enjoying the tremendous learning curve that was destined to occur while learning about one of the world's first civilizations and its current political, creative, economic, social, and historical significance.  Lectures and workshops are on tomorrow's agenda.  The raising of the flag in Tiananmen Square, a visit to the summer palace, and the World History Organization conference will come in the next couple of days.
Thank you so much to all of you for your support.  I feel the most alive when I'm learning about the wonders of our world...

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