Let me begin by saying a few words in praise of globalization. I’m talking about the factors in the international economic system that cause there to be a Pizza Hut on every corner in Beijing and a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. The process that allows Carrefour to open up a branch in Hangzhou so that weary foreign travelers have a rare opportunity to buy a wide selection of organic vegetables and create a basic garden salad (as opposed to standard Chinese grown vegetables that contain such a wide variety of pesticides and other chemicals that one can eat them uncooked only at the risk of becoming deathly ill or growing an extra limb).
Or, for that matter, the means by which there is a line out the door to eat at P.F. Chang’s in Maple Grove, Minnesota. (I imagine, of course, that for every western chain restaurant open in China, there are twenty Chinese restaurants open in the West. But we Americans are oddly fond of engaging in a sort of cultural elitism that insists that thousands of years of Chinese culture with its vast experience in integrating invading barbarians and their ideas will somehow buckle under the weight of Kentucky Fried Chicken et. al. and cease to be China, instead turning every ancient Asian capital into a lesser Kansas City.)
What started all this? Well, April has been a month on the move for me, and when one is in constant motion, there is nothing more comforting than the occasional taste of something familiar and reliable, like decent coffee, the ability to purchase cheese and the occasionally guaranteed-to-be-MSG-free meal. I began my travels, appropriately enough, on the first of the month, when I got up early and took off on a five hour train ride to Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai that boasts the most famous West Lake in China (there are many by that name, but this one inspired key passages of classical Chinese texts and therefore gets to be the Number One West Lake). I went for the sole purpose of hanging out on the lake – there are other attractions, like temples and pagodas, but I skipped them in favor of island-hopping.
Hangzhou (like Suzhou) is a major destination for domestic tourism, but only attracts foreigners with time to spare in East Central China, which meant that, since I was a lone foreigner-with-time-to-spare on that day, a lot of staring; but such is the life of a foreigner off the beaten track in China. It also means being the number one target for people begging for money – and in this case, I met up with some terribly persistent people. In general, I’ll give away my mao (a tenth of a kuai) at random as I wander the city, but being compelled into it by trickery always annoys me. Before this, my most uncomfortable encounter was with a women in Nanjing who actually wrapped her arms around my leg to stop me until I gave her money; in Hangzhou I met a woman who pushed me in front of an approaching bus and then pulled me out of the way, only to demand a kuai for ‘saving’ me.
The challenge of either facing or ignoring the demands of the severely impoverished made a stark contrast to the newly opened lakeside shopping centers, which naturally include Armani, Prada, and other luxury names because, after all, “to get rich is glorious,” at least, according to Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party. Hangzhou is, if nothing else, a pleasant place to sip some Longjing tea and contemplate the irony that is New China.
On April 2nd I took a late train from Hangzhou up to Shanghai to meet my parents and cousin Kristian at the airport. For the next 9 days, the four of us gallivanted about China (well, there was perhaps more Wizard-of-Oz-style skipping than actual gallivanting – and exactly one full chorus of ‘We’re off to see the Wizard’ at the Beijing Zoo – but let’s not split hairs here, the principle is the same). We got to a lot of places I’d never been before; for example, the Shanghai Bund ‘tourist light tunnel’, which promises to whisk (well, whisk slowly) passengers across the Huangpu River through a tunnel filled with psychedelic neon lights and indecipherable multilingual commentary. Lest anyone get to jealous of us for having had this great adventure, I’d like to point out that it could be replicated quite easily with a dark hallway, some blinking Christmas lights with tinsel garlands, and a wagon. Have fun.
We also took a day trip out from Shanghai to Zhouzhuang, fondly nicknamed ‘the Venice of the East’ by the local tourist board. Zhouzhuang is a water town – a city that relied on an elaborate canal system to move goods around the city and, via a connection with the old Grand Canal that connected Beijing and central China, goods could move elsewhere as well. Now, of course, it relies on a network of tourists to move cash in and goods out.
The city is about 900 years old, and its many bridges have been the subject of a great deal of very famous art we’d never heard of (ah, well, such is the art world). It is also the site of many new art galleries where works center on the town’s more famous vistas, and we were subjected to the hard sell by a man who was perhaps a bit overconfident in his English (he went on at length about how Chinese art is famous for being delicious, whereas Chinese cooking is famous for its aesthetics). (On second thought, maybe he’s right.)
Midweek we took off for my longstanding residence (six whole months!) of Nanjing, where we discarded our casual observer attitude in favor of supertourist status. This was done not entirely willingly – my neighbors (Liwei’s- the young girl I had been helping to prepare for her Wnglish exam- parents) had rented a van (the Chinese for which, by the way, I really love: it’s ‘mianbaoche’ or bread car, so named because vans are shaped sort of like a loaf of bread) and made a plan to make the most of our one day in their city.
I talked them out of the suggested 7 a.m. start time all the way down to 8:30, and although I could tell they were a bit concerned about us wasting half the day like that, they were forced, by my insistence, to accept it. In the morning we visited the Purple Mountain Astronomical Observatory (someplace I had not only never seen, but actually never heard of), the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, and the Presidential Palace/Residence of Chiang Kai-shek while in Nanjing (and also the residence of the leader of the Taiping Rebellion when they briefly ruled over the city in the mid-19th century). Then off to lunch in a private room of a hotel restaurant, where my neighbors had ordered more than a dozen dishes for us and seemed to think we’d manage to eat them all.
I do not think that, until that point, my mom and Kristian (Dad went back to my apartment early, a bit under the weather) really appreciated what I’d been suffering at the hand of my neighbor’s many attempts to force-feed me. We ate until we were bursting and then were helped to more, all the while being implored to drink more Budweiser, of all things, which they bought for our sake, though not because it’s American, but because it’s ‘the best.’ (Sadly, they’re not wrong. Qingdao has some better quality products, but for a basic table beer – which often takes the place of a table wine in big Chinese meals – the local brands are a bit lacking) (of course, if your mind wanders to the memory of a Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout while drinking an insipid Chinese beer, it is enough to bring tears to your eyes and put a catch in your voice).
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and we were ultimately released from the table and allowed to stumble out of the restaurant and back into the van for more sights of Nanjing (the goal seeming to be, as Kristian noted, to get us drunk and then lead us around museums). The afternoon took us to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and Fuzi Temple (Confucian), where I was kept busy talking them out of taking us to dinner, it having been, of course, only two hours since we’d finished lunch. We ultimately managed to negotiate our release and were returned to my apartment with a bag of food for the train and a promise to pick us up to take us to the station that night.
We took the overnight train from Nanjing to Beijing, which takes a mere 9 ½ hours and, in the soft sleeper cars at least, is marvelously comfortable. Each cabin has four bunks, and each bunk boasts of its own little TV and headphones broadcasting a selection of Chinese and American movies. Mom, Kristian and I hit the on-board bar for a nightcap and then settled in for a relaxing trip. I was dead tired from the challenges of codeswitching – by the end of the day I was inevitably speaking to my neighbors in English and my family in Chinese with the anticipated effect of enlightening no one and instead creating mass confusion – but I never sleep on trains (or planes or automobiles; I don’t know why), so that first afternoon in Beijing, I was a little bleary-eyed and, hence, so excited about the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. Do not argue cultural heritage with the caffeine-deprived (really, it’s in an inconspicuous side building; it’s not like they’ve turned the emperor’s receiving room into a McCafe).
Our time in Beijing featured the discovery of a much-beloved bakery chain, climbing the Great Wall in the rain (hey, fewer tourists that way, which means you can form a can-can line without hurting anyone) (we have pictures- write and ask), and led a tourist group rebellion against a forced visit to a state-run silk factory.
I’ve actually written about the factory system in China before, but for the uninitiated, every time you join a tour group to go do something hard to do without one (like go to a relatively distant, less populated section of the Great Wall), you get forced to visit some sort of official factory which consists of a quick demonstration of how they make the goods contained within and then a long march through the showroom where they try to ply you, the rich American tourist, with three of everything; the tour leader, of course, gets some sort of kickback on whatever you buy. So far, I’ve been to jade, pearl, silk, and cloisonné factories, and my experiences with them led me to turn revolutionary to prevent yet another trip (the other weary tourists, having been to their fair share of these factories themselves, stepped into line quite easily, so it is not quite the feat of mass mobilization that it might sound. There were also only 7 of us total, including the four Oyens. Just short of a mass).
I was, of course, terribly sad to see everyone go. But the week after they left, I almost didn’t have time to think about it (almost). I saw them off in Shanghai, took the groovy new mag-lev train from the airport into the city (430 km/hr and only 7 minutes from Pudong International Airport to the Shanghai subway system, a trip that normally takes 45 minutes to an hour), then the subway to the train, and the train back to Nanjing. In Nanjing, I had four days to pack up my apartment, ship back excess books and clothes that I won’t need between now and August, and get back on the Beijing overnight train.
My neighbor came to see me off at the train station, which was lucky because otherwise I might have gotten stuck, pathetically, in the train station tunnels, unable to reach the platform. Basically, I had a suitcase, a duffel bag, a backpack, and a small shopping bag, the cumulative weight of which was roughly 2-3 times my own weight. Combine that 250 pounds of baggage (why so heavy? Mostly books, really: the life of a dissertator) with the chaos of doubletime construction at the Nanjing train station (which burned down last year but must be made pretty – not to mention functional – again for the Asian games to be hosted there in October, resulting in a not-so-passenger-friendly work zone), and you have a genuine ‘it takes a village’ moment. I missed my neighbor’s help in Beijing, where it took me close to an hour to travel the 200 or so yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, with frequent rests.
So here I am in Beijing. I’ll be here until mid-June, when I head south to spend my last two months here archive-hopping across Southern China. I’m staying in a fellow Fulbrighter’s apartment while she’s in Nanjing (we also, conveniently, arranged a bicycle swap), and I have to say, it is the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I have a cappuccino maker. And a neighborhood Starbucks – well two, if you count the Forbidden Starbucks – that sells the beans. No wait, three: there’re two on Wangfujing Avenue.
I only mention it because I nearly cried when I made my first cup of real, fresh coffee, not from instant granulated particles, in the privacy of my own home and while wearing my pajamas (i.e. good coffee without having to go out and fetch it). Three cheers for the oppressive forces of western cultural and economic imperialism that make my morning lattes possible! Hip, hip… yeah, okay. Anyway, the apartment is in a renovated hutong (traditional Beijing-style housing that consists of a collection of family homes centered around a garden with a gate), and it’s just off the East Gate of the Forbidden City, a location that cannot be beat. Except when I’m trying to get to the National Library, which is on roughly the other side of the world.
Actually, just getting around the library itself is something of a trip. The library takes up a full Chinese city block (each of which generally equals about 6 New York City blocks), and has, just for fun, apparently, no signs inside directing you anywhere. The first time I went, I was looking for 1950s era People’s Daily articles (I had collected a bunch of these off a really cool searchable CD-ROM in Hong Kong, not realizing that when I printed them out, each line was missing the last 5-6 characters, which is too much to guess at). I entered, as directed, at the far South entrance. At the first information desk I saw, I presented my query. The helpful people told me to find the first hallway I could that leads north, and take it as far as I possibly could, because the newspapers are located at the farthest point from the entrance.
Off I trekked, and about 10 minutes later walked into the newspaper room. But wait, that was the contemporary newspaper room; the kindly staff there sent me upstairs. Upstairs there were papers from the 1990s, to be sure, but nothing so far back as the 1950s. That is on microfilm, and microfilm is in the far west of the building, so find a hallway leading west and take it to the end. Once, finally, in the microfilm room, I ordered up a few sample microfilm reels from the late 1940s and put them through the manual machine. It was clear to me in minutes that this was not going to work: the machines had no function to enlarge, the characters were absolutely miniscule on the screen, and smudgy to boot.
I returned the reels to the desk and asked if the library didn’t, per chance, have the computerized edition. Miraculously, they did – but it is in the computer reading room. Where’s the computer reading room? Well, that was at the far east of the building – the southeast (i.e. right next to the entrance).
After my Grand Tour, I couldn’t help but wonder why they wouldn’t automatically send anyone looking for People’s Daily back issues to the fabulous, easy to use, low-maintenance, and searchable CD-ROM, but hey, it’s China. Don’t ask too many questions. Tomorrow, however, I have to go find statistical yearbooks, which are supposedly located in the sub-basement labyrinth. I plan on bringing snacks just in case I get lost down there and don’t make it out by closing time.
In fact, if you don’t hear from me for a while, assume that’s what happened. Maybe I’ll invest in a compass.
Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen