The 1.3 billion Chinese & Individual Encounters

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
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Trip End Aug 12, 2011

Flag of China  ,
Saturday, July 23, 2011

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Is that 1.3 billion people in Beijing or China?  When we are talking about this many people, it is hard to imagine.  In Beijing, on our first day in China, we can be forgiven if we feel like a large percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people were in this city that day because of the number of people on the streets.  Actually, there are about 19 million residents and a huge influx of tourists in Beijing.  We visited Tiananmen Square and stood aghast at the crowds.  People just stand around looking at everyone else.  There was a 2 1/2 hour line to visit Mao’s tomb. We had no intention of standing on line to see a wax figure.  According to our Teaching company course, the real body was destroyed during the embalming process but they do not advertise this.  

This month, China is celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party People’s Republic of China and you can buy flags of China, stand in front of the 1921-2011 monument and take photos, participate in great people watching and be watched and listened to by the security police.   In addition to the obvious police presence, what appear to be lights for the Square also serve to support surveillance cameras, audio speakers and microphones.  When a police vehicle approached where we were standing and talking, our guide suggested we move along.   A young man was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Free Style Collabora(te)" and it made me think of the iconic image of 1989 in Tiananmen Square of the one person who stood in front of the tank.  There is no marker on the road leading to Tiananmen Square where this occurred, but this one T-shirt hints that freedom of thought and communication is still desired.  Harvey was approached by a man selling watches and when he said “no” was then offered Mao’s red book, which by the way is the most printed book on our planet, with over 1 billion copies.

We followed the stream of people over to the Forbidden City.  So many people are taking photos of themselves with the poster of Chairman Mao at the entrance.  I took some photos of people taking photos and was surprised when a family asked me to join their cute girls in the
photo, which I did with smiles.   People are really friendly.  Our guide, Gerry, goes to buy our tickets and asks us to stand in one place where he will be able to find us again.  This gives us more opportunity for people watching and it’s just great!  I can see that this can be an enjoyable pastime, just watching others, particularly if we were sitting in a shady spot with a cold drink, on this hot, hot, hot, humid, humid, humid day.  It was close to 100 degrees for the entire time in Beijing.  It is a good thing we are used to heat.  The hand fans seem to be so functional that I wonder why we don’t use them at home in Miami Beach. 

We had to have a separate security check to get into the pavilion that provides an overlook to Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City.  I ended up in a line without the metal detector and had a very thorough pat down.  It is vacation time for many Chinese so it is sometimes a little overwhelming. We are learning how to work our way through Chinese crowds.  There is an art to gentle pushing.  We have observed master pushers. These people can work their way through a crowd with a series of gentle nudges and strategic hip movements.  Queues are merely a suggestion here.  With the unbelievable number of people everyone wants to move ahead of the next person.  It amazes me that despite the constant pushing and shoving it always appears to be in good nature. Everyone has been extremely nice to us.  This seems such a contrast to the behavior of American drivers in crowded areas.  Our drivers are often recklessly aggressive.  Chinese crowds are subtly assertive.  Chinese drivers are a whole different story

The massive scale and exquisite architectural details of the Forbidden City are difficult to take in.  Where else have I seen anything like this before? Entering the Forbidden City, it didn’t leave me with any doubt that in the Emperor’s time the wealth and power projected here must have been formidable.  It will become a familiar refrain of mine that I can’t seem to wrap my mind around such a massive scale of buildings and projects.  Our guide tells us there are some 9,000 rooms on about 178 acres – how can I even begin to imagine what the Emperor and court was like at that time? Yes, I saw the movie the Last Emperor.  Being here in person is totally different.  Back then, there probably wasn’t the smog that you see in these photos.

Lunch is at a Beijing style restaurant called The King of the Noodles.   The menu has photos and with our guide’s assistance, we make our selection of beef with onion, bean curd with pepper & garlic, pancakes with pork, sweet bean sauce and green onion, noodles with vegetable, beans, celery and bean sauce.  Harvey has fun looking up the words in his dictionary that is on his iphone.  The food is plentiful and full of flavor.  We found the local beer quenched our thirst just great.  Notice in the photo how the dishes are prepackaged in cellophane and placed on the table.  We learn how to pierce the plastic and open the seal with a pop.   One of the waiters asks our guide to help out with the menu for some western guests from the Netherlands with a guide who does not speak any Chinese. I wonder what the guide is really doing for these folks.

The hutongs are neighborhoods or areas of Beijing.  We take a tour through a well-known old residential area near the Forbidden City and visit the Nanluo Ancient Lane, which is a renovated
shopping and restaurant street.  Ninety percent of the hutongs are  owned by the government and as such the government decides which will be renovated for tourists and which will be sold for development of apartments, hotels, shopping centers and offices and how many residents will be moved to outlying suburbs.  A small percentage of the original hutongs are being preserved. 


We get into a pedicab that allows two guests to sit and be drawn by bicycle.  We move too fast for my taste as I would have preferred to wander through the alleys and see whatever we were to happen upon, following one alley into another whenever it caught our eye.  I felt like a paparazzi taking photos with my drive-by photo shooting, so excuse the blurry photos!  With Harvey’s Chinese and our China Highlights guide for additional translation, who knows what kinds of interactions we may have had if we had walked!  Gerry had turned us over to another guide for this pedicab tour, and she bicycled next to our pedi-cab talking about the hutong as we
went.   On the Nanluo Ancient Lane it is quite popular for girls to wear rabbit ears as it is the year of the rabbit.  We got a kick out of seeing the street vendors sell the rabbit ears and a mother placing them on her daughter’s head.  The best part of the tour was a stop at a private courtyard home in the hutong where we saw how some hutong residents live, their kitchen, living room and bedroom.    The home we visited is extremely valuable, but not very luxurious by western standards.  There are four buildings within the home, connected by a courtyard.  Two of the buildings date back a couple of hundred years.  The other two buildings are about 13 years old.  Apparently the owner makes a nice living by opening his home to tourists. Later in the trip we
visited another hutong in Chengdu that was restored to its appearance in 1934 and maintained as a museum.  That one was much closer to our expectations based our readings prior to the
trip.   There is a lot of controversy over the redevelopment of the hutong areas.  In many parts of the world there are strict zoning laws concerning the appearance of historical buildings.  It seems to me that the battle has already been lost in Beijing.

We learned that people watch crickets fight one another and we met a mina bird.  Walking out the alley from the home, we saw a trash container that is being hauled by a bike, similar to our pedi-cab.  I learn later by reading in the China Daily that there are currently more than 10 million people making a living by searching through trash heaps.  I don’t know if this pedi-cart in the photo is considered trash collection in the statistics. In any case, it illustrates the manual labor in China to earn a living or get a job done in contrast with our trash collection trucks and technology oriented solutions.  We would see this contrast many times in the coming weeks.

Our next stop is the imperial garden called Beihai Park.  Since Harvey & I have dated, (that would be 44 years ago!) we have enjoyed walking around parks and after the overwhelming crowds of the day, it seems like a natural place to chill out so to speak.  Here we find breathing room and chance encounters with individuals that open a window into Chinese culture. We hear
music in the distance and follow the sound to a pavilion where we find a group of men playing ancient instruments, the pi pa, yonching and er hu.   We sit for a while along with others and enjoy the sound.  We enjoy the Sunday afternoon recreation with other Beijing ren.  (Ren is the Chinese word for people or person, so someone from Beijing is a Beijing ren.  Someone from the US is a meiguo ren, where meiguo refers to the US).  We wander up a hill to a Buddhist monument and discover someone who has rented a traditional costume and is having her photo taken.  She is beautiful.  We happen upon children playing who look startled when they see westerners crossing their path.  We are drawn to the sound of an accordian and an opera singer in another pavilion.  I took some videos so we can share the sounds of the music and singing.   Walking along one of the sidewalks, a man is using a pail of water and a large brush to write
on the pavement.  When he is done, he walks away and leaves his message to be read by others.  We see the message before it dries and disappears.  Our guide assists us with the translation and it says “everyone should be able to surf the internet”.  An anonymous voice
among millions.    We continue on and within five minutes we find another man with brushes in his hand and this time Harvey says hello in Mandarin.   The man asks in Chinese where we are from.  Harvey responds in Mandarin and he then starts to write  “U.S.”  and “China” with his brush in Chinese characters on the pavement.  With our guide we learn that he is writing about friendship between the US and China.  We all shake hands for friendship between our countries.  The man sees my iphone being used for video and we compare prices for the iphone in China and U.S.  Harvey’s vocabulary is increasing.  This interchange is really lots of fun.  We end all giving each other a thumbs up. 

As we are exiting Beihai Park, we pass a garden of flowers that features the lotus that is rich in symbolism in Buddhism representing mental purity and spiritual perfection.   Looking into the
frame of my camera, I find I am focusing on an individual lotus flower and seeing its beauty set against a color wash of the background flowers.  It is a microcosm of our day – the chance encounters with people and the beauty of their individuality set against the backdrop of their history, culture and contemporary life.  

As we exit Beihai Park, we follow our guide. Gerry, to a busy street corner and navigate through the traffic to cross the street.   The hub bub of the street quickly fades as I am transported into the peaceful scene in front of me.  Gerry has brought us to a serene panoramic view of the exterior of the Forbidden City.  The water is so calm that the building structures and trees are
reflected on the surface in perfect harmony.  After our days’ crowd filled activities such a peaceful vision provides a stark contrast.  Could it be that it is just such contrasts that bring awareness and vibrancy to each memory in our mind?  Perhaps contrast helps to highlight and define what it is we really prefer and want?   It seems that awareness manifested through visual contrasts may be part of our journey here in China.

With these thoughts in mind, I turn and notice a couple posing for wedding photos with the Forbidden City in the background.  Brides traditionally wear red dresses in China.  The color red is associated with courage, loyalty, honor, success, fortune, fertility, happiness, passion and
summer.  The wedding white that is so common in the West, is only seen in China when the couple is adopting a western style wedding.  That is because the color white in the Chinese culture is the color of mourning and death.   I am learning to question everything I see and ask our guide.  People think differently here and it is best not to assume anything but to inquire.  I love to have my curiosity sparked and my perspective expanded as I experience other cultures.  I can see that China is a treasure trove for learning different perspectives.

After a brief rest in our hotel, we venture out for a bite to eat for dinner.  Gerry has suggested we walk toward Snack Street and he has mentioned a few restaurant possibilities.  Most of the restaurants have a greeter on the street encouraging pedestrians to come in.  We choose one that is busy but has seats available named Da Wan Ju Restaurant, behind the Snack Street booths.  To our delight, we have three servers who are anxious to practice their English .  Between Harvey practicing his Mandarin and them practicing their English we are having a great time.  We learn that they are in college in another province and that their teacher found them this summer job for three months so that they could practice their English and gain proficiency.  Their enthusiasm was fantastic and even though we were tired, we rose to the occasion.  It was a fun end to our first day.  We found our way back to our hotel and collapsed in bed!

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