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!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Something is Afoot in Beijing... Us! (July 11, 2010)

It's amazing what a few hours of sleep -- even on a slab of granite posing as a bed -- can do for one's physical & mental acuity. Our wake-up call, a recording alternating between English and Mandarin, came on schedule and we managed to gather ourselves together in time to enjoy the breakfast buffet at a fairly leisurely pace. There was a lot more activity in the dining room than the night before, and it was interesting to note how much business was being conducted at the tables around us. Yes, there were families and a goodly number of rug rats of assorted ages -- but the majority of the guests were apparently businessmen (although most were just in slacks & polo shirts, very few ties or suits). I kept wishing I understood enough Mandarin to eavesdrop because some of the negotiations seemed pretty intense... always ending in a handshake, many smiles & nods of the head, and a quick trip to the buffet for more food.

The buffet itself was an interesting mix of East and West, with many items I'd normally expect to see only on a high-end Chinese menu back home being slung out by the kitchen in batches. A few items I simply thought, Yeah, right! and kept on going, but I tried several dumplings, noodle dishes, and NotSureWhatItIsButItIsTasty dishes as well as scrambled eggs, sausage, et al. One item I specifically made a point of trying was the congee. It's a rice-based dish, somewhere between thin gruel and rice soup, a staple of every Chinese child's diet and often showing up anywhere a hot, super-cheap bite (or slurp) was wanted. I'd also heard everything from, "Mmm, tasty!" to "Bleagh" so I decided to try it for myself. A couple of spoonfuls later, I gave it a rating of Not Bad But Flavorless And Lacking Any Spices... which I would later learn would vary greatly between cooks and locations.

Oh, and there was indeed construction work happening on the other side of the tarpulin wall; every now & then I'd catch a glimpse through a little hole, or shadows would appear on the cloth for a few moments. It all seemed amazingly quiet until I realized the majority of the work was being done manually, without many power tools. This was the first of many reminders that "the Chinese way" of doing a big job isn't to throw several large machines at the work like we do in the West -- there's manual labor to spare, so they throw more sets of hands at the work instead of machines. (I'll be coming back to this in later posts.)

There was also something else going on that I never quite figured out. Just inside the door was a large table with an assortment of boxed items on it; I remember things like tea sets, lacquerware, and (I think) some small statuary as well as other less-obvious boxes. I thought it was just a display of some kind, but every now and then one of the guests (usually dressed in a way that said, "I've got lots of money but am playing it cool") would hail one of the uniformed hotel workers at the makeshift office in the corner, engage in some kind of negotiation, and pick out one or another box. Sometimes there were credit slips filled out, sometimes what looked like sizable wads of Yuan would change hands, but I always got the impression these were luxury items being purchased by people used to high-end luxury goods. (Can't put my finger on why, but that was the impression that stuck.) It seemed a strange thing to be doing in the dining room, but maybe it was a replacement for the hotel's gift shop -- lost in that no man's land on the other side of the tarps.

We were on our seconds (thirds?) when the S Family came in, and we all greeted each other glad to see everyone had made it (and finally feeling a little less self-conscious as the only Weterners in the room). Hanging quietly over our heads was the knowledge that we'd all be meeting our new family members the next day... It would be the last day for A and I to just be "sibbling" (Mom calls it that sometimes), and the last day for the S Family (and our other traveling companions) as just a family of three. We finished up (nobody chasing us down in the hall this time), got what we needed from our room, and met everyone in the lobby. Our group was completed that morning with the addition of the B Family, who had arrived a couple of days earlier to have some "family time" with their young daughter (and wisely to catch up on sleep). While the girls created a quick but strong friendship and the adults compared notes, I checked on my PandaPhone order... Still nothing.

(A quick note about the photos that follow; it was a very grey, very hazy day and the air quality was bad;  if the photos appear washed-out or as if there was a haze on the lens, you're actually seeing the thick air between the camera and its subject. If colors seem to change between photos, it's because they come from two different digital cameras. As usual, clicking on any photo will open up a larger version that's easier to see.)

Everyone piled onto the bus and we rolled out into Beijing. My first impression was "city," just like many other places I'd been -- but with a flavor all its own. There was a lot more foot traffic, HUGE numbers of little 2- and 3-wheeled vehicles on the road... and everyone drove from Point A to Point B as if there was nothing in-between. (Someone in the group made the first of many, many comments about the best way to travel in China was to let someone else drive... and keep your eyes tightly shut while they did.) Linda told us we were going to have a busy day: Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City, then a stop at a jade factory outside of town for lunch and a little shopping, and from there we'd move on to the Great Wall. Afterwards we'd base further activities on how much time was left and how we all felt, but we had to leave ON TIME or we might miss our flight to Nanning... and dinner, since we'd be eating on the plane.

As we moved toward the city center, we started to see more & more historic buildings, fragments of the original city walls, and so on; it reminded me a little of living in Brussels, where you could be walking downtown and suddenly come upon a tower from the original city walls sandwiched between a Mickey D's and a steel & glass skyscraper. The difference was that what we were seeing in Beijing was in some cases already hundreds of years old (and already built on an impressively large scale) when those fragments of European history were first being built...

After about half an hour, our bus pulled over and double-parked on the side of a major avenue to let us out. Linda explained we would be on foot for a while, and the bus would meet us on the other side of the Forbidden City... which was a few kilometers away on the other side of Tienamen Square. (All of a sudden I was glad I'd spent two weeks breaking in my new hiking shoes before the trip.) We headed down the block (on a sidewalk interestingly paved with an assortment of colored and/or textured tiles & blocks, something I also noticed in Nanning and Guangzhou) and stopped at the corner. There in front of us was Tienamen Square -- filled with a mass of humanity larger than any other crowd I could remember seeing anywhere, at any time. Yeah, you're in China, dude -- get used to it!  We were all warily eyeing the traffic when Linda guided us to a large pedestrian tunnel, which branched out into a network of well-lit, well-patrolled tunnels designed to move those masses of people safely under and away from the crazed vehicles above. Halfway through, we encountered an airport-style security checkpoint in the main tunnel, with everyone lining up to go through metal detectors while all the bags were X-rayed; the police were extremely serious about their work, but we all got through the checkpoint quickly and were on our way.

We came out on the opposite corner and tried to get our bearings. This was different from anywhere else I'd been; the sheer size of the place alone set it apart, along with the realization that I was seeing more people in one place than anywhere except (maybe) a large stadium or the inaugural events on the Mall in DC. Another fact became obvious after just a few moments: we stood out like a sore thumb. Of all the people milling around, I would only catch intermittent glimpses of non-Asian faces every few minutes. None of us were picking up any negative vibes or any kind of hostility (there were occasional curious glances, but they were truly just curious), none of us felt threatened (except by the scary possibility of getting lost in the crowd), but the homogeneity of the population -- at least visually -- was brought solidly home in those moments on the corner. (For the politics wonks & history buffs reading this, we all knew better than to stop anyone and ask how they felt about the Tienamen Uprising a few years ago; not only would it have likely been extremely unsafe for both us & them, the vast majority of Chinese citizens actually don't know it happened at all.)

I think we all needed a moment to reorient ourselves to the situation, and then everybody started to take a better look around. Off to one side, diagonally across the street, was a very European building from the colonial period (the former main train station, now a museum); almost directly opposite that was a massive barracks building dating back to the construction of the Forbidden City. The juxtaposition (clash?) of styles, scale and architecture was a striking reminder of the history of the place. Interestingly, when we zoomed in with our cameras, it became obvious that the seemingly monolithic mass of the ancient building was actually broken up by very fine carving & lacquerwork... making the building a hugely imposing fortification from a distance while up close it served as an impressive example of artistic workmanship:

The sense of "Wow, different!" was beginning to be replaced with, "Cool, we're really here!" and we set off for the other end of the square. Linda explained that a lot of the people we saw were actually on line (waiting many hours) to visit Mao's tomb; no matter how ambivalent their feelings may be toward him, most Chinese consider him to be the father of the modern nation and he still has a powerful mystique. As we walked (and walked and walked!), we could see the line zig-zagging and doubling back on itself before running straight down one side of the square. People were sitting, standing, even sort of dancing in place, but if anyone seemed to be breaking into of the line or running there were plenty of guards present with bullhorns who didn't hesitate to start yelling (with full amplification) at the miscreants. I saw one young woman (who had been running back & forth between two groups in the line) get pulled aside and lectured loudly & angrily by one of the guards; had she been in the U.S., I doubt anyone would have even noticed what she was doing.

Meanwhile, the last vestiges of all those NatGeo photos of crowds clad in identical drab green uniforms were evaporating with loud "POP!" noises in my mind. I honestly don't know what I had been expecting, but the people around me were dressed in almost any-and-every conceivable style, with Western-style jeans & tees (or polos) being in the majority. I kept glancing from the teens & young adults around me to the idealized young Chinese freedom fighters in the nearby sculptures and caught myself chuckling at how they might react if they'd known what their society would look like 50-some years later.

 Near the middle of the square, the line zigged away from the sidewalk and we could see the central monument to the fighters of the Revolution, with friezes depicting famous battles around its base. (We could still see the line in the distance; it stretched aaaallll the way through the square.) Although there was the occasional little flag waving over everyone's head or group of brightly-colored baseball caps designating the location of a tour group, the crowd (slightly thinner here) seemed to be mainly families or friends taking advantage of a break in the rain to get out & about, or perhaps to play tourist. After years of hearing how girls weren't valued by Chinese culture and how the population is predominantly male, it was interesting to note how many little girls there actually were, either squatting to rest* or cajoling mommy & daddy to do something.  (*I remember only very rarely seeing Chinese people sit directly on the ground; if there wasn't something convenient to sit on, they'd squat instead... even my niece shares this behavior.) I had to wonder how they were going to react to us once we were obviously taking one of their children away. We'd been told there had never been any problems, but still... One tends to fear the worst when facing the unknown.

We continued toward the southern end of Tienamen Square where signs of modern China overwhelmed (at least temporarily) the ancient. To one side, amidst tourists both local & foreign, were two absolutely massive hi-def video screens alternating scenes of Chinese history & landscape with "to do" scenes (skiing, rock climing, hiking, fine dining, theater, etc.) aimed at travelers with money. Directly opposite is the National Flag; a single flagpole rising several stories high supporting a very large PRC flag that every day is raised at dawn and lowered at sunset, with a military honor guard that changes every hour. Across the street, on a monolithic reviewing stand familiar from years of newsreels, Mao watches it all from up on high. (I had a quick thought of, "Did they put in the TVs so he'd have something to watch?" before I could stop myself.) There was a momentary disorientation when I noticed the flag of Argentina(!) flying from every nearby streetlamp, and Linda explained it was in honor of a visiting Argentine government delegation a few days earlier. We watched the changing of the guard (much smaller in scale than at Buckingham Palace, much more serious than the laughing soldiers we'd seen in Copenhagen), posed for our official group photo for the agency, and got our first major souvenirs in the guise of beautifully-illustrated photo books.

And now we were ready to take another tunnel across the street to the Forbidden City, and in doing so turn the clock back half a millenium.

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