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Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #3 - Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This post, Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

On the day of the flight from Shanghai to Beijing we arrived at the airport and I sought out the wisdom of an Irishman – his red hair and trim suit in such contrast to all of the Mao blue. Did he have any suggestions of places to stay, I asked him, since our hotel adventure in Shanghai had been so taxing. He looked at us incredulously. You come to China without hotel reservations? But he tilted his head and reached in his pocket. Go to this hotel, he said. My company keeps a hotel room there rented all year so their employees have somewhere to stay when they come to Beijing. Don’t go to the main desk, he said, go around the main desk to a small room behind it – Room 101 – and tell them that you’re there to do business with me. I was wary of his advice, wondering if he would suddenly show up in the middle of the night demanding a man’s own special form of payment shall we say. But I know from my experience in Shanghai that you don’t walk away from assistance so I held onto his business card. An announcement came over the loudspeaker and suddenly hundreds of people got up from their seat muttering and complaining and started running toward one of the gates. What flight are you on, my Irish friend asked? We told him the number. You had better run, he said, the previous flight has just been canceled and all of those people want your seat. My companion and I picked up our backpacks and ran for the gate.
For some reason we were seated in first class. Across from us was a businessman with see-through silk socks, the kind you see in Humphrey Bogart movies, and a suit. Rather than alcohol or snacks – definitely a minimal amount of alcohol in China at the time – the stewardesses handed out little boxes containing bobble heads that squeaked when you hit them on the crown. The man in the business suit crossed his legs and delightfully bopped the toy on the head for more than 30 minutes, smiling brightly while I delighted in the incongruous sight. I got a fan on one of the flights and I still have it, 30 years later.

When we got to Beijing we went to the hotel recommended by the Irishman and they made it clear to me at the front desk that there were no rooms available, though all the cubbyholes behind the front desk were filled with keys. I motioned around the corner to the other room and got out the business card. A woman in the Goth black with very short hair does not look like a businesswoman but since it was the only chance we had I made the best of it, while my companion sat frightened and quiet. I’m in the textile industry, I explained, and I absolutely must stay here because I am expected to have an early-morning meeting with this man. I spun and spun, sure that trouble was on its way but I had gotten myself in too deeply to back out now. Luckily we got a room. I don’t think I slept well though, expecting the arrival of the ginger business man, who did not turn up.

One of the highlights of the visit was a chance to visit the absolutely astounding Yonghe Temple and the “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses" that contains an 18m tall (with an additional 8m underground, making it 26m in total) statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of White Sandalwood. This was a gift from the seventh Dalai Lama to the Qianlong Emperor and took three years to transport from Tibet to Beijing. The statue is one of three artworks in the Temple which were included in the Guinness Book of Records in 1993.” It is a breathtaking place, balconies surrounding the main altar and every one covered with carvings of the Buddha. I wanted to kneel and chant for hours.

That evening we walked around town through thick fog. There were a lot of young people on the street, thankfully too caught up in their world and their romances to gawk at us, and suddenly, almost silently, a cast iron steam train engine came out of the fog yards away from us (of course with no warning or barriers or flashing lights), an enormously heavy, oily, retro engine with Chinese flags fluttering on the front bumper, like a train from Dr. Zhivago. We walked to the Beijing Acrobats and in addition to being impressed by the spinning plates and amazing contortions I was particularly taken by the women in their unisex outfits. Here were women acrobats in something other than ridiculously revealing, low-cut, bustier costumes. Refreshing. Affirming. Something I didn’t even think about until I saw them. I walked home that night feeling safer and more confident than in quite a while.

The next morning, though, we came across a Yves St. Laurent exhibit of beautiful gowns which seemed quite odd – exotic capitalist fashion exhibited like a display of birds. A woman was standing in front of us in her Mao suit looking at the beautiful fashions but on her hip she carried her daughter who was wearing a fancy lace dress with a wide skirt, the juxtaposition so poignant. Especially in light of the freedom of the unisex outfits of the night before.

The restaurant experiences in China were quite interesting. In our Beijing hotel the tablecloth was dirty from the previous guests’ food and the waitress, once again in unisex clothing, came over and just folded a part of the tablecloth over so we could make a mess on a clean spot. The technique never quite covered the previous guests’ food scraps. The waitress delivered dishes one at a time, without rice, without drinks, being asked multiple times for every single thing, which she slapped down with annoyance. In a way I was glad that the service was so poor – it meant that they had eliminated servility, I believed. They didn’t know how to be deferential or obsequious. Which is not to say that it wasn’t annoying and forced us to eat a number of dishes cold.

In the morning the hotel restaurant served what they considered an English breakfast of eggs, toast, and hash-browns. Four Japanese guests, the women dressed in kimonos, held their forks straight up like a pole, then cut off bits of egg and stuck them on the prong, then cut up a piece of toast and speared it, then potatoes, then another piece of egg, as if it were a breakfast kebab. They watched us surreptitiously; we tried to allow them their privacy. When they went out onto the street after breakfast, the women in kimonos drew even more of a crowd than the two of us.

I like that the banks were relegated to a grimy, tawdry existence. I appreciated the fact that decoration had taken a backseat to the social experiment in equality. I am highly critical of Chinese human rights violations, the increased oppression since the Tiananmen demonstrations for democracy, the land-grab they are conducting in the South China Sea, the hungry way they are buying up property and resources everywhere they go, the oppressive nature of authoritarian governments but at that particular moment I appreciated that money held no shine, that women were safe and without sexualized artifice, that the entire mindset of servility had been lost.

We rode bicycles in Beijing where the boulevard was 20 bikes across in each direction, both of us frightened that we would get caught in someone else’s spokes and cause a massive pile up. Seared in my memory is the site of my companion turning left across 40 lanes of bicycles and my fearing for my life as I followed. We tried public transport and my companion squeezed onto a bus that departed before I could get on board. We met a young English woman who was trying to bicycle across the country – outrageously daring – but she was frustrated because the Chinese police would stop her and escort her to the train headed back to Beijing. She was self-critical that she hadn’t proceeded against their wishes but we were tremendously impressed with her courage.

We saw the Forbidden City, and at the Great Wall of China there was a sports car set up as a photo opportunity with throngs of Chinese citizens queued up to have their picture taken in it; another line formed in front of a wooden cut-out of the Emperor and Empress where you could stick your head through the holes for a photo. On blankets there were jars of cherries and other food that was novel. I smiled to myself and dampened my American guilt: tourists are tourists no matter the location or nationality.

Next stop, Chengdu and Tibet…