We just returned from the very place my brother and I tried so hard to dig to when we were children. While we were there we ate twenty-two meals served on turntables, took over three hundred photographs, bought fifty-three souvenirs, saw eighteen temples and pagodas, ate thirty(ish) questionable items, went through five locks, and experienced our first typhoon. We flew on thirteen planes, (or as I count them twenty-six take-offs and landings), rode on five boats, eight busses, and one train.
Upon arriving in Beijing, we met our young Program Director, Guo Wei (pronounced “Go ‘way”). He said we could call him Frank. His English was very good, and in spite of a couple of “Junior Moments” he took good care of us for the next twenty-three days.
Beijing was on its best behavior for the coming Olympics. They are cleaning things up and building around the clock. They had even started their “Half the vehicles” program by the time we arrived. On even days the cars with even license plates are allowed to drive and the “odds” on odd days. We were seeing half of the cars in Beijing? I could not fathom how there could possibly be twice as many cars on the roads. They simply couldn’t fit. Even with half of the usual cars on the road, getting around the city was an alarming event and I was glad to be in a big bus.
First we went to Tiananmen Square, which is the size of 160 football fields, and I know everyone has seen it on TV. There were no tanks this time. Next we swam on over to the Forbidden City. (The temperature was only about 86 degrees but the humidity was about a hundred and six, so it felt like we swam everywhere.) The Forbidden City was the living space of the last two emperors and was built before Columbus ever thought about making his bumbling voyage to Not-Quite-India. It was the home of over 19,000 people. The rest of the millions of people in China didn’t get to go in. We learned that if someone accidentally ventured in they were unceremoniously beheaded. If anyone wore the color yellow they met the same fate. Yellow was the emperor’s color. It was good to be the emperor.
After a lunch of slimy green stuff, bean curd, rice, and black fungus (not kidding), we went on a tour of the “hutong,” which means “alley.” We traveled through these alleys, in a caravan of pedicabs, which are rickshaws, only they are pulled by a bicycle that some poor soul pedals for a few yuan. It was a great way to see how everyone used to live, and many people still do. We stopped to have tea with a sweet lady that the tour company pays to have “guests” for tea. We asked her many obnoxious and personal questions, which she politely answered through our guide. We gave our peddler a big tip because he had to work extra hard for the two of us!
Those of you who know me, know that I have trouble with those “introduce yourselves” gatherings. Something comes over me. I have tried to rid myself of certain anti-social impulses for over half a century and no one should be surprised that at dinner that night I introduced myself as Jezebel Jones and told them I was a retired pole dancer. I couldn’t help it. Retired schoolmarm is just boring. I made a point to behave myself for the rest of the three weeks and didn’t embarrass my sister too many more times.
As our first day in China ended, I began to have questions. Why were the people of a civilization that has been around for so long still so superstitious? Their society began with the Shang Dynasty in 1600 BC. That is sixteen HUNDRED years before the birth of Jesus Christ! You’d think they’d gotten over the bad luck idea by now.
They put their hopes and wishes on red ribbons and hang them on their doors for all to see, because if it isn’t on the door it probably won’t happen. They make their walkways crooked so demons can’t find their way to their homes, since demons can only walk in a straight line. They make their thresholds high for the same reason. Why on earth are they afraid of a demon so clumsy that it would be unable to step over an eight inch board and so stupid that a crooked sidewalk would confuse it? Chinese people don’t point at the moon nor do they live in houses with the front door facing north because both are bad luck. If a baby cries, it means there’s a ghost in the room. Also they don’t go straight home from a funeral because they believe the ghost will follow them home! These are only a few of their superstitions.
The number eight is so lucky that people will pay a million dollars to get the number as one of the numbers on their license plate! As a matter of fact, a guy in Hong Kong paid several million to get the single digit 8 on his plate.
Another question: people drive as if traffic rules are just a suggestion so why are there no dented cars? We saw people dangerously close to crashing their cars or running over a pedestrian every fifteen seconds, every time we were on the road, yet all of the cars are shiny and new! They have carefully drawn lines on the roads to indicate the presence of lanes, yet everyone drives all over the road. They’ll even drive on the sidewalk if someone else is already in their lane. An oncoming car even TRADED lanes with our bus once. What makes the authorities think they are going to follow the odd-even plan? Ah, I am suddenly beginning to understand why the roads were packed with cars. Why do the Rule Makers think they will follow the odd-even rule when they don’t even follow the lane rule?
Actually all rules and laws are ignored. We attended a show one night and there were signs posted all over the place indicating that there was no photography of any kind allowed. All through the program, flash cameras went off around the auditorium like fireflies on steroids. Nobody did a thing about it. Perhaps there are just too many people to keep any sort of order. There is an underlying, gleeful, teeming chaos all over the country.
As my brother-in-law, John suggested, we had better keep on being friends with them because there are so many of them that if each one had a chopstick and came after us they could poke our eye out pletty click and each one of us could become a one-eyed slave to 4,311 Chinese people. That’s just about how we are outnumbered.
Fortunately the people of China are happy and good-natured now that they have the booming tourist economy and the Olympic event keeping them busy making changes that will benefit them for years to come.