Tuesday, March 23, 2010
On the far side, reality was not what Google maps had insisted it was – I could not see a road that went the way I wanted to go. So I improvised and started up a quiet street through an industrial district. Two blocks into it, I was graced with a vision of a giant Buddha, sublimely staring at me from above the trees. Of course, I stopped and had a look, and what I found was remarkable – a big factory lot full of dinosaurs, soldiers, cows, horses, Bodhisattvas, the busts of all the great Communists and many more things. Around the corner were there less fortunate friends hidden away, ice skaters and dancers missing arms and legs. How they were made and for what purpose was not instantly clear. I stopped though and took some pictures enjoying myself until some guys walked over from their food vending cart to see what I was doing. I packed up and left with the intention of going back with a better camera and more personal courage.
When you’re waiting to go to the airport it’s often a good idea to find something to do. At least it is for me. I had a couple of hours to kill before Jiang would show up and I figured that since it was a reasonably nice day, I could make it over to the factory and back in plenty of time so I gathered up my gear and headed down the elevator. One small improvement in the last year – there is now a paved road up and over the hill in the park, which makes the trip far more direct and so faster. I’ve never gone this way though and in choosing the newly opened portion I discovered that a parallel old weedy route was even faster and more direct. I noted that for the future and went down the hill though small flocks of migrating songbirds flitting back and forth among the pines. I saw one that was quite beautiful and new to me, making a mental note to check it later and to start throwing a pair of binoculars in my bag when I head out like this.
For some reason the district I was entering always seems to have hordes of hip-hop and Emo boys. In China they’re the only young men with puffed up hair-dos and they tend to stick out like sore thumbs. I seem to get a lot of attention and attitude from them for whatever reason and today I fell in between a pair, one tall and made taller by his hairdo and another short and made shorter by the giant black hoodie he was hiding in. While they kept looking back over their shoulders at me, I knew I had nothing to fear, but I kept my distance anyway because I simply wasn’t interested in whatever they may have had to offer. They turned a corner and I went on my way.
I managed to spend an hour there taking photos of all my favorites, interrupted only by the occasional pair of Chinese girls that walk by and say “Hello” in English and giggle at themselves for saying it. I’d answer and they’d only giggle harder, covering their mouths as they walked away arm in arm. I left when I was satisfied that I’d done justice to the Stars of Communism and walked back a different way, making note of a tall tower and wondering if I could see this place from my apartment. Upon my return, I picked up my binoculars and took a look – sure enough, from my study window Buddha sat there resplendent above the wintertime trees, looking my way.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Rumor has it that if you can find two identical Warriors, the government will give you the statue of your choice and given that there are more than 6000 of them on site it’s probably a safe bet. From the vantage point of the walkways that surround the pits it’s clear that few of them even look enough alike to be related. You can see the ethnicity of the men – south people vs. north people – as well as all the tiny features that made each one of them unique. The shape of their eyes, the way their hair was braided. Infantry can be told from officer by the shape of their hat. Facial hair, eyebrows, scars, all little things that bring out their individual humanity. Scanning the thousands of faces is incredibly poignant – these were soldiers who fought and died in the name of their emperor and his political aims. It’s not known whether each statue represents an actual fighter or whether the artists copied each other into the mix as well, perhaps to create even more diversity. It hardly matters, what you see are emotions and expressions passed down over these 2000 years knitting an unbroken chain between us and them. Because over the course of two millennia, very little has actually changed when it comes to living, fighting and dying. Today, they stand there facing east, the direction of the afterworld of the time. The rear guard faces back, protecting the soldiers ever advancing forward. You expect to hear the sound of boots on the ground and horses galloping past but all you get is silence.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I've been trying to arrange a visit in China with my children for the better part of these last two years, and finally it has come together. Between their schedules, my schedule, weather, college graduations and whatever, it's been a tough thing to pull off. And compounding it of course is the sheer magnitude of the arrangements to travel from that side to this one. But after a lot of juggling and planning and false starts, it all started to become a reality today.
My youngest is due to arrive tomorrow and to make sure that I'd be there to meet her I left today. I can't imagine any travel eventuality worse than getting off a plane in China and having to figure out how to get around. I think you can probably navigate most western airports with a little bit of English and a dose of sorrowful appearance but here it's just so alien and so little makes sense that having this be your first trip abroad would be a challenge to just about anyone, even the most resourceful person. It's just not as easy as talking louder to the cabbie until they get it, because they never will. I've seen it a dozen times - some big loud American trying to explain that it's the tallest building in Pudong and wondering why they're getting a blank look. I wanted to avoid any of that and so I left home today at noon for a 2:15 flight which would put me into Beijing a generous 24 hours in advance of her arrival.
I arrived at the airport with an hour and a half to get checked in and wait. There were no lines at either the ticketing gate or security so I sailed right through. In what would turn out to be a very propitious decision, I decided to spend my time waiting in the business lounge. I never even knew it existed until my most recent trip to the US and so I'd only been there once before. It wasn't high on my list of favorite lounges being on the warm side and filled with red velour chairs, but I figured a free Coke was worth it so I went up and checked in to begin my wait. There were a lot of delays being announced which is never a good sign but none of them were for Beijing flights so I figured I'd be fine. And I was until the lounge agent came by and told me, in broken English, that my flight was delayed "with no leave time." Now that is about the worst possible delay message and so I began to fret, wondering if this was a thing with my flight or flights in general.
I sat for a while and waited and finally an announcement came over the loudspeaker that corroborated what I had been told. Now the wheels were really turning so I went back up and asked the girl what was going on. Turns out that the sleet I had been worried about in the Beijing forecast had turned out to be a full scale winter storm. I was able to muster enough Chinese to confirm that the airport was not closed, but rather just slowed down. Before going back to wait, I checked the airport situation on the lounge computer and the answer was not so bad – 60-90 minute delays.
Another hour passed with no change so I decided to think about alternatives. Since I still had a good 24 hours, the train was an option so I had a look on line at the schedules. There seemed to be a "fast" train that left at 6:00, a "really fast" train at 8:00 and a "Boy oh boy that's a fast train" at 9:30. The thought of spending 12 hours on the train didn't really excite me, but the point was I had some options. I figured my next step was to get Jiang on the phone and have him check on tickets. No rush though, at least not yet.
Around 3PM the lounge girl came over and told me that there was another plane leaving "soon" and that there were seats available. She asked me to come with her, and this is where my decision to sit in the lounge turned out to be a good one – if I had not been there she never would have asked and I would have sat down by the gate in stupid lack of language oblivion until god knows when. I packed up and joined her small group to try and resolve the mess.
She led us downstairs and out through security as it seems that changes to tickets can only be done back at the main ticketing gates. Why they couldn't do it on the inside is beyond me. We were led over to a desk where all problems are apparently cured at least up to the point where the woman working there isn't interested which happened immediately. She sent us off to the VIP gate. Of course, no one speaks English and my Chinese is only so good so it was a far than ideal situation. Some tall German started messing things up by trying to insist that his ticket was 1st class and he expected that as a minimum. He wasn't getting anywhere so he looked at me and asked me if I spoke English. I told him I was more or less fluent. A Russian stepped in and tried to get some direction by speaking Chinese and he was instantly countered by a bunch of Chinese who saw what was going on and wanted their part of it. We had a riot on our hands.
I jumped in and tried my best, getting an answer of 1608 which was either a flight number or a departure time. They kept telling me 3:30 which I took to mean departure time but as it turned out was actually arrival time. Eventually I figured the whole mess out – flight 1608 was arriving at 3:30 and departing at 4:15 which was good and bad as the time stood at 3:20. Figuring I had no choice I stood there texting my sad tale of woe to a friend of mine when another announcement came over – flight 1608 was delayed about 30 minutes. The first time I was glad to hear that I had a delay.
The tickets showed up and I went back through security for the second time, passing the check again. I went down to the gate to wait and was amused to see that my original flight was still showing "delayed with no departure time." Interesting that they let people sit and wait while they take care of people on the later flight. I guess that way the performance statistics are maintained – instead of 2 delays they only have a single really long one. I was less amused to see that I now had a center seat.
People were milling about when all of a sudden, like birds fleeing from an impending earthquake every single person stood up and left. I went up to the gate and asked and sure enough our plane was leaving from somewhere else and I was now 50 people down in the queue. I took off and ran a parallel route to the mass of people and beat them all to the new gate, managing to grab a place about 4th in line.
As I stood there waiting a woman came up and looked at the board and having decided that this was the place, took a place in line in front of me. This is not unusual – the Chinese simply don't respect the concept of "the end of the line is back there" and neither will anyone speak up about it. I'm so used to it that I simply let it slide, and even had a second chance to do so when some troll of a businessman did the same thing with his 20-something cutie, explaining that they were in some way more special than the rest of the crowd.
We finally boarded and my middle seat turned out to be not so bad – I was sandwiched in between the woman who had taken cutsies and an equally small woman who plugged in her earphones and turned the music up so loud that I was able to hear the disturbingly repetitive bass line the whole way over. As we were taxiing down the runway, the flight attendant announced that we were going to have a short delay but that we should stay in our seats. The guy in the row across from me took this as the last call for the rest room and so got up and went back to use it. He returned just as the plane was leaving the ground.
I sat back and read an interesting article in China Daily about how hypocritical the United States is because our human rights record is far worse than China's. I guess I'll think about that when it comes time to renew the subscription to the Virtual Private Network I need to log into that most subversive of web sites, Facebook. Up and away we went until the sun came out above the clouds and I finally felt like things were coming together. I spent the rest of the time trying to pinpoint the sticky thing on the floor that kept grabbing my shoe.
Arriving in Beijing, the problem was instantly clear – they had received a boat load of snow. In spite of the fact that this China's Snow Belt and that it's the biggest and busiest airport in the country, they don't handle snow that well. I got off the plane and s the bus (figures, having to take the bus on a crappy day) and made my way across the terminal to the taxi stand, falling in behind a nerdy American with an itinerary in his hand – all the salient points being highlighted in green as though that would help – and grabbed a cab to town. As always, the cabbie had only the faintest idea where the hotel was but refused to admit as much, despite having the address on the business card. But at least I was on my way. Taxi problems are easily solved as long as they don't want a bribe. As we drove out onto the slushy roads he continued to look at the card, even wiping it off with his cuff at one point as though the non-existent dust was preventing a clear understanding. I waited a while before suggesting the correct route and once he understood that I could speak the lingo, we became best friends. I told him the story of my day and how my kid was coming and that she would be very unhappy if her dad was not there to get her. He thought that my story was "hen ke xiao", very funny, and we chatted as we drove along passing through the most Chinese neon bleeding onto the wet streets like runny watercolors.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
The concept of “service apartment” is interesting – you pay a bit more rent but they do everything for you. Cleaning, linens, even a free breakfast down in a restaurant. It’s a similar idea to an extended stay hotel in the US except that these places are really nice. The unit I’d planned to live in looked like any well appointed penthouse in any major city in the world - truly sophisticated, nicely designed and easy on the eyes if you like modern. And so I was quite disappointed as my second deadline came and went. At that point I decided to find an apartment in a Chinese building and simply figure out a way to live there because I was tired of hotel living and I wanted to get settled into some sort of routine.
I looked at a lot of units with my relocation consultant and frankly they were all bad in one way or another. Horrible furniture, a train in the backyard, damp smells – each one had a deal breaker for me. The one thing I wanted was to be able to walk to the grocery store and that rule turned out to be the biggest limiter because there simply weren’t that many within that circle. But eventually I pressed the relocation company hard enough and they finally heard me and so I ended up with this place.
It’s been interesting living in a genuinely Chinese building. For the longest time, I was the only westerner here. Today there are 3 that I know of. While this building is a bit more upscale than others I’ve seen, it’s a far cry from the place I would have been in. Certainly far more authentic. The elevators have provided the greatest entertainment, primarily by way of the people I’ve met and the acquaintances I’ve made – the building inhabitants are very interested in me and so there have been a lot of stares and a lot of conversations. Someday, I will write a story about the elevators, but this tale is about my neighbors.
My floor is t-shaped and has four units. You leave the elevator and you turn left. At the crossroads you make a right to get to my place and my door is straight down the short hallway. To the left of my entry is the door to the other unit on my side of the tower and behind me, the same thing plays out in mirror image. There are no permanent lights on my floor – to save money they have installed motion detectors so at night you step off of the elevator into the dark and hopefully the lights come on as you walk down the halls.
I’ve only seen the far end neighbors one time each. Once, a middle-aged man met me by the elevator - heavily cologned and wearing a lot of leather and gold chains. What I assumed to be his wife came up behind us having turned off the lights locked the doors. She was pretty fancy herself, wearing a big white fur coat. They didn’t say anything to me and I returned the favor. We rode down and the guy got out ahead of us and strode out through the lobby to the car park, letting his wife bring up the rear with me.
The other set turned out to be some very well dressed middle-aged Japanese women who boarded the elevator in the main lobby and I didn’t realize they were neighbors until they got off on the floor with me. They ignored me completely.
My first set of next door neighbors was a Korean mother and her daughter who seemed to be about 12 years old. I rode down with her once and she was very talkative, informing me that her name was Audrey and telling me that she was here in Dalian to learn to speak English and that Amanda, the Canadian I’d met in the elevator once before was her tutor and that she was very expensive because she was foreign. Amanda said she lived outside of Seoul because the city proper was too expensive. She also told me that she’d be leaving but didn’t say when. I ran into her mother in the hallway one time and startled her – she opened her door, said, “Oh, you must be my neighbor” and before I could say, “Yes” she shot in and slammed the door behind her. I never saw them again after that.
But they were silent and my life was easy until some people moved in upstairs and changed my world a little bit by adding a child that cried all the time and a father that yelled about that much. It’s muted but their noise certainly became part of the fabric along with the running water and the flushing toilets.
Once day I returned from a trip to somewhere and found Amanda’s door mat gone. I figured that she must have made good on her threat and so returned to Korea. I didn’t think much of it until my first night back I heard a lot of yelling in the hallway – the new neighbors had arrived. Instantly I gained what must be the second level of living in a local place – neighbors that act like everyone else out on the street. Ten o’clock and night and no one thinks twice about yelling at someone around the corner waiting for the elevator. Life was not going to be the same.
It took a few weeks but I finally figured out that they were some sort of family. I have a big bay window on the south side of my living room and it’s arrayed in a funny way that causes the reflection of the bedroom in their apartment to appear on the inside of my windows. This only happens at night when their lights are on and I’m turning mine off, but the effect is weird – I have a pale ghostly person sitting at a desk working on a computer floating in my living room. Like some student from another dimension poking his way into mine. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, Chinese students really do study more than their western counterparts.
I ran into Ghost Boy and his mother in the elevator one day, again not realizing who they were until we both reached for the same floor button. The ride up from there was awkward, kind of like walking that 1st date up to the door and wondering if you should close in for the kiss. When the doors opened I let them get off first and followed them around the corner, hoping that they really lived at the other end. But no, they were the new ones. I mentioned that I was their neighbor (in Chinese, having looked up the word in my iPhone as the elevator rose) and the mother nodded and said nothing while Ghost Boy talked on his cell phone. We unlocked our respective doors and went into our respective homes – both stopping I’m sure to put our ears to the door to try and discern any little tidbit about the other.
The hallway yelling more or less abated as they made their last trips with stuff from their old place, wherever that might have been. We more or less settled into a quiet routine until one morning last week when I stepped out to lock my door and was greeted by a dog barking at me. It was behind the new neighbor’s door and it didn’t sound like much of a dog, kind of a little high pitched “are are are” peculiar to dust mop and rat dogs. I could hear it start at the back of its place and run headlong to the door to protect its family. I thought about kicking their door and giving it a shock but decided that might be considered rude in this culture. So I locked up and went off, returning later to the same thing – my floor is now guarded by a tiny pseudo-dog. This time though someone in the house started singing in Chinese – I guess that’s how they calm down their yapping apartment mutts here.
A couple of evenings ago, as the sun was going down and I went to the living room to see if there was a worthy photograph. Standing there looking out the window, I caught some movement in my left eye - an odd thing since I’m 24 floors above the ground - and I turned to see the little guard dog staring at me from his bay window, some sort of brown curly-haired embarrassment to the canine world with an attitude that he’s bigger than he really is. He was standing there looking at me. He didn’t bark so I assumed that he couldn’t see me for the reflection. He diddled around there for a couple of minutes and left, no doubt heading to the front of the house to check on the front door to wait for me to come home.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Xinghai Square (which means “star sea” by the way) is pretty new. Jiang was telling me the other day that there was some controversy about it when the government wanted to build it as a tourist attraction. It seems that the local folks felt that the prospective area was a lóngmài, 龙脉，or “dragon’s vein” meaning that the topography looks like the body of a dragon and so was not only bad luck but pretty darn dangerous. The government agreed and in order to pacify the faint hearted they set off a lot of fireworks to scare off the ill-will. And so each year they do it a couple more times in case the dragon comes back.
I was invited to a fireworks-party-potluck at my friend’s house as he has an apartment that overlooks Xinghai. The thought was – come by, watch the show from the warmth of the balcony and thus avoid the crowds and the traffic and the freezing on-shore wind. So I left Labor Park and the Lantern Festival and walked back to the car. Jiang told me it was very far away which in China usually means a block or two; the Chinese think that walking is not a good idea. Sure enough it was about ¾ of a block down the road and parked in a place that would have resulted in an immediate tow and impounding in the US. Another interesting thing about this place - you can park anywhere you want including on top of pedestrians without much fear of legal reprisal. We got in and took off for the other side of town. Up among the skyscrapers, the unofficial fireworks were still exploding and showering the people in the park with little burned snowflakes of paper.
Jiang has a friend who happens to be a policeman and he told him that there would be no problem driving right up to my friend’s door which of course turned out not to be true at all – the whole place was barricaded and we found ourselves sitting in a giant traffic jam. Crawling through the darkened streets – few streetlights in this district - I could see people squatting around tiny bonfires on the sidewalk. The fireworks overhead added to the surreal nature of the scene – head and taillights from the traffic, the faces of the people illuminated by the orange glow of the firelight and their backs changing from blue to red to white due to the explosions overhead. Each of these little knots was gathered around their small fire, feeding it with pieces of paper. Jiang explained that they were burning money - the paper burns and the smoke and ashes rise from the flames, bringing the money up to their ancestors in heaven. It seems even the dead need some spending money in the afterlife.
It took an dicey across-traffic u-turn to get me more or less to my friend’s place and once I called for someone to come down and help me find my way through the maze of towers, I left the car and told Jiang I’d text him when I was done. I don’t think I’ve ever shared that instruction with anyone; it goes more or less like this, “Wo text ni.”
The potluck was just about what anyone could hope for on a cold winter’s night in northeast China – ice cold Cokes, duck tongues, spicy Sichuan sausages, little greasy pancakes stuffed with meat, pan-fried tofu, tortilla chips and salsa – the perfect international smorgasbord. The fireworks started promptly at 7:30 and we all crowded out on the balcony to take in the show and to conserve warmth in the face of the icy wind.
Trying to write about a show like this is tough due to a lack of underused superlatives. Suffice it to say that it was like nothing I’ve ever seen in the US. They shoot them off very close to the ground and they shoot them off continuously – the sky is never empty. On the ground, fountains of every imaginable color go on and on and up and up, sometimes swaying from side to side like a hose shooting fire, other times in a snaky pattern and sometimes like giant sparklers. There was so much ground work going on that at one point the shrubbery near the skateboard ramp caught fire. The streets below us were choked with people and cars and at the first report all the latecomers started running towards the park. It seemed like a panic, people running from some imaginable horror down the street. Car alarms were going off up and down the avenue.
The first aerial blast ended with little red and white lanterns slowly floating out to sea and that was followed by a crazy series of explosions that got stranger and stranger as they went on. As I stood and watched my mind kept shifting back and forth from giant light-emitting sea anemones and those pictures we’ve seen from the Hubble Space Telescope with all the thousands of galaxies parading back in time towards the Big Bang - millions of little clusters of light floating in a giant raspberry cloud of interstellar plasma. Sometimes they’d do a change-up and set off only green bursts, then red, and my favorite, white spokes with golden centers. There was so much happening that I felt guilty taking my eyes off of the scene to take pictures. One set of bursts ended with long green snakes floating down, following the earlier set of lanterns out into the bay. The show ended with 5 straight minutes of pure silver stars, so many that you couldn’t see the night sky behind them. And then they stopped going up and the last of the star dust slowly settled down to the ground like fading white curtains.
Thirty straight minutes of noise and light and within fifteen more the streets were clear. Jiang picked me up and we had a slow drive out of town due to the traffic, passing by more people huddled in the dark burning their banknotes. The neighborhood firework shows were still going on in each city block. He told me that the radio had said 200,000 people were there and I was not surprised given what I had seen from up above. I was glad that I had not been down among them. I settled back into my seat and stared out the window as we crept through the nighttime streets.