Sunday, October 05, 2003

Reflections: Beijing (Days 1 & 2)

I cannot believe it's been more than two weeks since I returned from my China trip. I wish I had the time and energy to write up the following thoughts sooner, but work, jet-lag and a bad cold really got the best of me. It's a good thing that I still remember a lot of the places, people, emotions that I visited and experienced on my trip. It also helps to have almost 1500 pictures to help refresh one's memory. This will probably be a very long post. Here it goes:

My first impression after getting off the plane in Beijing: Jesus Christ there are a lot of people in this airport! I don't think I have ever been to a US airport that's this crowded. All I see is people all around me. And ads. An endless and bewildering array of brands and products and celebrity spokespersons. People in the States have no right to complain about crass commercialism (but more on this later). After I retrieved my suitcase and duffel bag from baggage claim, I was very relieved to see that they were in good condition and there wasn't anything missing. I had reasons to be paranoid. After all, my luggages weren't locked since the good old Dept. of Homeland Security (or was it the TSA) advised against locking one's luggages in case of hand searches. The days before I departed for the trip, my parents kept on telling me to be careful with my belongings. Mom actually told me to sew a pocket in my underwear for storing money to guard against thieves. Talk about paranoia!

After I got all my stuff together I was able to pass through customs without any problem (much to my relief, since I was carrying several giant bottles of vitamin pills in my duffel bag that I feared would be confiscated). I looked around for 10 minutes trying to locate Auntie Yang, aka Yang Ayi (which means aunt in Chinese and is a respectful title used to address all females that are 15 or 20 years older), who's my mother's best friend, and her daughter Yang Yang, but couldn't find them. While I was looking around, several cab drivers came up asking me where I wanted to go, even offering to let me use their cell phones/phone cards to call whoever I needed to contact. They homed in on me like flies on fresh doggie doodoo. After I finally relented and borrowed a cabbie's phone card to call Yang Yang's cell, I found out that they were running a bit late. So I ended up giving the cabbie $1 (which is equal to 8.21 Yuan, which is way too much since I probably only used up 1 yuan with my call) because I really admired her persistence, also to get her to back off. Then I got out of the airport and on to the curb by the pick up lane as quickly as I could to avoid more pestering.

After a few more minutes of waiting, Yang Ayi and Yang Yang showed up in a relatively new black Passat driven by Meng Gang, accompanied by his girlfriend Liu Jinqing, both of whom were my sister's good friends when she was going to high school in China. I was pretty surprised to see them in such a nice car.

After the initial introductions (since I didn't know my sister's friends that well), the first thing Meng Gang said to me was, "You look like a big, strong guy. I don't understand why your mom was so concerned about your safety when she called us." I could only sigh and attribute that to parenthood paranoia.

As we hopped on the highway, I was surprised at how modern everything looked, from the wide, smooth road we traveled on to the Audi's and Mercedes that zoomed past us to the high-rise buildings and skyscrapers that dotted the city landscape. This city has changed so much since I was last there 13 years ago. I felt like I was just born. Everyone was amused by how curious I was about everything.

When we finally arrived at Yang Yang's apartment in the Northern 4th Ring (the city of Beijing is divided into zones that are marked by imaginary concentric circles, with the 1st Ring being the center of the city, which includes the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square), I was even more shocked because her apartment complex was so nice. It had 24-hour security, nicely landscaped lawns, and an LED display in the lobby that showed tidbits of information like weather forecasts. I was even more astonished when I entered her apartment because it was so elegantly decorated. Being an interior decorator herself, Yang Yang designed and planned out every single detail. The furniture and color schemes looked ancient but felt modern. The decor was like the ultimate fusion between oriental and western standards of beauty. The pictures really don't do any justice to how cool the apartment is. Yang Yang has such good taste it's ridiculous. I mean, I felt really cultured and artsy just by being at her place. I think I finally realized how much artsy people rock. They really know how to enjoy life.

Of course, none of this stuff comes cheap. Yang Yang's apartment costs 6000Y/square meter, which converts into $730/10 sq ft. Her apartment was about 150 square meters I think, which means her place costs almost $110,000! It's an even more remarkable price considering that most Chinese people make about $2000 A YEAR! I don't know how much her Denon 5.1 home theatre system or the flat screen TV (but not LCD or plasma) cost her, but they probably weren't cheap. I even watched a few minutes of "Not Another Teen Movie" on HBO at her place! It's weird to see the Chinese subtitles. Even weirder to discover that the censors cut out the part of the movie where the foreign exchange student showed her breasts, but they allowed the scene in which she showed her butt. It's bizarre I say! She actually watched a couple of episodes of "Six Feet Under," too, which she thought was pretty good but weird. I also surfed the net on her DSL connection. Oddly, I was able to go to to edit my blog, but my actual blog site was blocked, as were all sites, although I could still access Google and CNN.

I had no idea how well off Yang Yang and her husband were. Before coming to visit her, I only knew that she designed really cool lamps and that her husband had an MBA and worked for some investment company. I didn't know about their Beijing apartment (they have another apartment somewhere else), or the fact that they liked to go skiing/snowboarding in the winters. I felt like I was meeting the ballyhooed new class of Chinese elites that I had read about in news magazines. Oh BTW, I also saw ads in magazines and on billboards hawking western style 2-story houses with names like "Napa Valley" and "Yosemite" far away from the city for 15,000 to 20,000 Yuan/sq M. Frankly, I was shocked (I know, I know, I was shocked A LOT over there) that such houses even exist considering how overpopulated and crowded Beijing, and China in general, was. I mean, every city there is like Manhattan, where you only see 12, 15, 20-story high-rise apartments. Apparently, the suburban houses mainly catered to the people who work for foreign firms and make foreign wages in China.

Anyways, my first night in Beijing was pretty rough. I was still jet-lagged from my 13-hour flight and probably got only 3 or 4 hours of sleep. The next day, we went shopping at this antiques/crafts flea market called Pan Jiayuan, where I saw tons of pottery, jewelry, paintings, bags, etc. being sold by peddlers from around the country. Yang Yang was really nice and smiled a lot while she bargained the hell out of the vendors. We bought a bunch of trinkets and whatnot.

At around noon we hopped in a cab (10 Yuan for the first 4 KM, then more) and headed to the Forbidden City, which was next to Tiananmen Square. Yang Ayi said she was too tired to walk through the entire place so she waited outside while Yang Yang and I trekked inside.

Just before I entered the main entrance, I was told by the guards that I had to deposit my backpack. "Why did you let that person go in with a backpack?" I pointed to someone farther ahead. The guard replied, "Because she's a foreign guest [a polite term for all white people/foreigners]." I was so astounded that I didn't know what to say. In my 13 years living in the States, I have been discriminated multiple times because I don't look "American." Judging from my childhood experiences, I knew that Chinese people always gave preferential treatment to foreigners for whatever idiotic reasons, but never did I ever expect to be discriminated in the place where I was born, where one actually receives fewer privileges as a citizen. I don't think I will ever see the day that American citizens will bestow special privileges upon "foreign guests." The whole incident was so fundamentally wrong that it blew my mind. It was the single most embarrassing/unpleasant experience on my otherwise perfect trip.

Yang Yang pointed to me and said, "He's a foreign guest too." I didn't bring my American passport, so I just showed the idiot my California driver's license and he waved me through. I felt like a traitor because I looked Chinese and spoke Chinese without any accents and yet I had to whip out my American citizenship just to get through the fucking gate with my fucking backpack. Later we would discuss this around the dinner table and sigh at the pitiful Chinese inferiority complex.

Anyways, Yang Yang and I walked around the Forbidden City and check out all the halls. I was actually a bit disappointed because the Forbidden City in my memories seemed much more magnificent and much cleaner. After about three hours of wandering and picture-taking, Yang Yang and I rendezvoused with Yang Ayi again.

By the time we came out of the Forbidden City, my cousins Guangxue and Dawei had arrived. Guangxue, the son of Dad's eldest younger brother (I hate how vague English is when it comes to explaining familial relationships) is a year older than me and is studying Pharmacy in grad school. Dawei, the son of Dad's youngest sister, is about half a year younger than me and just started his new job for some government agency that's in charge of quality assurance, I think. It's amazing how much they have grown up in 13 years and yet I was still able to recognize them instantly. They asked me about my itinerary in China. Then I told Dawei how much I and the rest of my family regretted at having missed seeing his mother for one last time before she passed away from stomach cancer on 8/7. He said that he didn't get to say goodbye to her either because he didn't return to Lanzhou, which is a 2-hour flight away from Beijing, in time. After that we moved on to happier topics.

Later we went back to Yang Yang's apartment and she cooked an awesome meal for all of us. The funny thing was that she actually eats with forks, knives and plates (as opposed to bowls) at home. I found it all the more ironic because after 13 years of living in the States, my parents still don't have a full dining set at home since we only use chopsticks. After we sent off my cousins, I tried to go to sleep but couldn't because I was still jet-lagged. Yang Ayi proudly showed me a few articles from some fashion/design magazines about Yang Yang and her crafts.

End of Day 2. Don't worry, not all entries will be this long.