My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lunch and a Lot More (July 11, 2010)

Just a quick present-day update... There was some work being done at the house today, so I went with Mom to pick up the Pipsqueak from daycare. She was a little surprised to see Uncle B instead of Grandpa, but I still got a smile & she let me hold her. At some point the little tease had latched onto a small book that belonged to the lady running the place, and she absolutely refused to let go -- Mom couldn't even pry it loose from her hand!  Miri pulled it loose from her Grandma at an angle where it promptly bonked yours truly smack-dab in the forehead, and my "Ouch!" was met with a good belly laugh. (My niece's sense of humor isn't only a little twisted, it's dangerous to onlookers!) She then began to lightly bonk me on the head a couple more times to see if I'd make any more funny noises until I asked her to stop... and she did. Smart l'il tyke, she is! Eventually we took the book home -- she literally would not let go of it -- reassuring the daycare lady that A would bring it back in the morning when she dropped the Pipsqueak off. The kid knows what she wants...!  But now back to China in July... and please forgive the sometimes-strange vertical spacing, Blogger and I are having a bit of a disagreement over the placement of photos alongside the text.

Just slightly soggy from the drizzle (it was warm enough to not be a problem), we boarded our bus and headed for the Great Wall... with a scheduled stop at a jade factory for lunch and a little shopping. Now, if you're thinking it sounds a little unusual to go to a jade factory for lunch... well, at the time I thought so as well... but I'll get to that shortly.

First, a quick apology; there aren't too many good photos from this part of the day. Looking back, I'm sorry that I didn't think to use my camera more, especially at the factory. Somehow it just hadn't sunk in that this was all part of a truly unique experience, and I let a number of good photos slip past untaken. Take this as a lesson (as I have): given the chance to document & journal your experiences on a trip... DO IT! I'm old enough (and enough of a camera-toting "shutterbug," as we were once called) to remember the days of carefully monitoring one's photos because you got no more than 36 pictures on a roll of film (if you were really careful, you could eke out 37 or 38 but could never be sure they'd all print properly)... and then you'd have to send them out for developing and wait several days to see what you'd gotten. With modern digital cameras, drop in an 8GB SD card the size of a postage stamp and, assuming your batteries are good, you can take more than two thousand photos (even movies!) and know immediately if each one is a keeper or not. So... go for it. Don't worry about being annoying; people will let you know, usually politely, if you're overdoing it, and you may not even need to use an annoying flash to document what you're seeing.

Okay, lecture over, back to the story.

For a little while, our bus wound its way through the side streets of the neighborhoods near the Forbidden City. These are some of the oldest neighborhoods in all of Beijing, site of the classic hutongs that were once the most common form of family home. It is possible to book tours of the hutongs, where you actually go into a family's home (sometimes sharing a meal with them), but we simply did not have the time... and to be honest, as interesting as it would have been, for me it would've felt a little creepy to be treating a family and their home like some kind of tourist museum; I'd like to see what a hutong is like up close, but not like that.

What we did see was a lot of how many Beijingers live. In some ways, it reminded me a little of the photos I've seen of where our folks grew up in New York; lots of small family businesses in 2- or 3-story buildings lining the city streets, with the family that runs the business living either out back or in the apartment overhead. As with much of what we had seen in Tienamen Square and upon exiting from the Forbidden City, there was a real juxtaposition of the very old and the very new... Along with the very different. The Chinese, especially in large cities like Beijing, are used to making the most of any space available, which includes room on the roads; this leads to the use of some rather interesting vehicles. Case in point: check out the little 3-wheeler to the left, alongside what looks like a classic (tourist trap) rickshaw. I can't imagine that little thing (or its occupants) surviving a run on a big highway -- but I'll bet it's great for zooming around in the city, and that parking is (obviously) only limited by the width of the sidewalk...!

In addition to the more "usual" storefronts, I noticed long stretches of road on the other side of the bus that had long, high walls running alongside; these were the site of the original "neighborhoods" of Beijing, the area that originally held the houses for the lowliest of the workers building the Forbidden City and its support buildings, canals, bridges, etc. Every now and then the wall would be broken by a garage door, and I'd catch a quick glimpse of current-model cars in the shadows. I also saw a lot of what looked like vegetable gardens in the area between the wall & sidewalk. Not exactly what I'd expect to find in an old downtown area in any other city I've visited... Can you imagine long stretches of major downtown roads in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles supporting family vegetable gardens? (I'm not talking about vacant lots; this was a long run, a few blocks in length, of "just dirt" between a very old wall and the sidewalk.)  It was also kind of fun to realize I was seeing very old houses, an old-ish wall, and late-model cars all jumbled together.

We finally left the oldest areas when we crossed a bridge that may very well date back a few centuries... Or maybe was just made to look like it did, replacing the original with something that could carry modern traffic over the old moats & canals. (I'm still not sure, but this may have been my first concrete encounter with the whole idea of face; it's so very important in Chinese culture for things to be a certain way, it's sometimes acceptable to just make them look the way you want and kind of bend reality around them to match the ideal... at least when looked at from a Western point of view.)  The neighborhoods we were driving through at this point seemed much more similar to, say, the New York neighborhood my grandparents had lived in -- very generic architecture, small stores & "hole in the wall" restaurants, the general business of everyday business & living right out where people could walk from place to place to get what they needed. One funny point that struck all of us was how often English (or at least something that looked like it!) showed up as business names, or in store windows.

What was still a little different was that catching quick glimpses down some of the smaller side streets or the rare empty lot (usually paved for parking), I could see the neighborhoods had grown organically, seemingly without plan. There would be a building up front by the sidewalk, then another slightly different building of similar design growing out its back, then usually a 3rd behind that, sometimes even more; there wasn't much room to spread out and there wasn't enough money to build up, so the locals just kept filling in the spaces between the houses with more houses. There were also small alleys between some buildings no wider than a doorway... but when the angle was right I could see they led back into a whole "ghost neighborhood" of more stores, more houses, etc. not easily seen from the street and reachable only on foot. (I'd seen vaguely similar arrangements in Europe, but nowhere near as many or seemingly as large.)

We finally broke out of the surface streets onto a highway, and I'd like to say it was clear sailing from that point on... but nooooo... Just like us, the Chinese have a penchant for attempting to squeeze a dozen linear feet of car onto every ten linear feet of road; sometimes the bus moved at a nice clip, but more often than not we got very well acquainted with the people in the cars around us (some of whom were obviously surprised at/curious about the Caucasian faces peering back at them from the bus). I think it was at this point in the trip that we saw our first large black sedan with blacked-out windows obviously bullying its way through traffic, with everyone obviously working to get out of its way. Never knew who was in 'em, but nobody wanted to mess with 'em...

We hadn't gone too far (and yes, there was at least one toll booth involved) when the destinations on some highway signs began including the words "Great Wall" and the prospect of checking off another item on my bucket list began to finally look real. It was about the time that we passed the baseball stadium that had been built for the the 2008 Olympic Games that I was able to resolve one nagging little buzz in the back of my mind... Something here looks almost too familiar...? That's when I realized that I was able to read the highway signs. Not the Chinese lettering, unfortunately; but at least here in the Beijing metro area, most signs (even some side streets) had their names spelled out in Roman letters, and the highway signs all used the familiar white/green for directions, white/blue for information, and white/brown for tourist sites that I'd seen all over the U.S. It's a pretty safe bet they hadn't originally looked like that, but it was just one more sign of the incredible effort that had gone into "internationalizing" the country for the Olympic and post-Olympic visitors.  (Imagine if every highway sign in North America was suddenly bilingual, not just including Spanish or French, but with a language that used a totally different character set. It was that big an effort, and that's just the road signs!)

We rode for a while longer, and the weather improved slightly, when the bus pulled off the highway and up to the front of a large, plain-looking building that reminded me of a motel gone slightly to seed. This was the jade factory where we were scheduled to have lunch and "look for a few souvenirs" before continuing on to the Great Wall. We all piled out and were met at the door by a very nicely dressed hostess; she took us down a long hallway with glassed-in workshops on one side and a variety of the carving done there displayed along the opposite wall. Some work stations (each with its own machine looking like a cross between table saw, platform drill, and Dremel tool on steroids) were vacant, but several had men or women working on various chunks of rock. Looking more closely, I could see the various shapes beginning to form in the skilled hands of the carvers; this truly was hand-carved jade sculpture, and some of the results were amazing.

One of the most common items produced is a ball within a ball within a ball, some having as many as 7 layers, with each ball "floating" totally free inside the next larger ball and all having intricate surface carving; each one is the result of a single artisan's long, long hours of sweating over a single block of raw jade. That may not sound like much, but seeing how intricate some of the carving is, seeing how focused the carvers are, and knowing how hard jade is... each carving is a little bundle of Amazing! in its own right. Some of the higher-end sculptures on display (or in the sales showroom) had a level of detail matching or exceeding any sculpture I'd seen in museums. Unfortunately, this was when I came down with a case of the stupids and only took one photo. The ship carving you see above is a common item in extremely high-end displays: we were told that it was sweated, bit by bit, out of a single block of raw jade by a single artisan who worked on nothing else for three years.

After a short tour, during which we passed a couple of small showrooms that looked like they were meant for much higher-end visitors than our crew, we were brought to a dining room that could obviously handle a good-sized crowd but which we had pretty much to ourselves. There we were seated around a single large table for the first group meal of our new "extended family." We were quickly introduced to a meal pattern we would become used to during the trip: An attentive wait staff offers a variety of sodas & juices and pours your choice into a smallish glass -- possibly the only drink you'll have for the entire meal aside from tea, which appeared next. (Not teabags; loose tea steeping in the pot in the classic manner, so the flavor and strength change during the course of the meal.) Then various dishes are placed on the table to be shared. It only took a couple of rotations of the Lazy Susan in the center for everyone to learn to pay attention to any serving spoons, dishes, chopsticks, etc. sticking out beyond the edge; if the item is heavy enough and someone spins the beast a bit too hard, they can sweep your drink and/or food away!

The food was good, or at least I thought so... some of dishes were definitely less popular than others. We finished off with a dessert of fruit and were directed down to the showroom. This was a very large, well-lit, and well-staffed place, with glass counters & cases laid out in regions according to price, quality, type of merchandise, and so on; there were carved animals, a wide variety of jewelry (including gold & sterling silver), carved scenes, carved balls, carved... well, pretty much anything you think someone might try to see if they could carve it out of a crazy-hard rock. Each counter was staffed with young women (all dressed in a sort of corporate uniform), all of whom knew English well and who could, at the drop of a hat, pass on at least a basic education in determining the quality of an item, whether it was true jade or jadeite, and a host of other points I suspect none of us would have ever thought of. Since preparing for the trip had dealt a near-mortal blow to my one credit card, and since A had arranged with her bank (on the cell phone on our way to Dulles!) to allow her to use her credit card in China, we did some minor but definitely measurable damage to her bank account with a variety of jade carvings & jewelry for family and friends. A also bought herself a nice silver bracelet with inlays of colored jade (green is the best-known color, but there also several others that occur naturally) and I almost got talked into buying a "flying horse" sculpture that one of the salesgirls noticed me admiring on the other side of the room. (And here I was thinking it was safe to wander through the section featuring only really, really big sculptures & furniture...!)

Additional Note (added January 7th): It bothered me that I couldn't remember the name of the jade factory, so I dug through some of the still-unsorted "etcetera" I'd saved from the trip. Depending on which business card I look at, it was either the Run-Ze Jade Garden or the Runze Jade-Garden...)

Time was passing quickly, and we still wanted to get to the Great Wall with enough time to enjoyourselves without rushing, so we were soon back aboard our bus and back on the highway. (I noticed a group similar to ours pulling up to the front door as we left, getting the same reception we did... these guys know how to do business!) I didn't know it yet, but I would soon work off that lunch... and breakfast... and possibly every meal I'd eaten the previous week...

NEXT: The Great Wall of China!

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