Faces of Beijing

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
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Trip End Jul 02, 2012


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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sleep is a cruel mistress. For the last
month or so before departure, I typically konk out at 1 AM and wake
up around nine. Here? My alarm is set for 7 AM, my eyes opened at 5AM
and I lay there for half an hour debating if I can go back to sleep.
Apparently my roommate is suffering from the same issue, once I
realize he was also awake we simply pulled out our laptops to kill
time until breakfast. This blog has received a couple assuring
comments from friends back home, but so far I haven't received a
single email since I left. Skype is available, but the time
difference makes it nearly impossible to run into anyone online.
Looks like the United States is making the most of their vacation
from me.
While testing the breakfast buffet to
see what was vaguely similar to the food the cooks were imitating, we
were told we were going to be hopping around various tourist
destinations throughout the city. Now by 'tourist', I don't
automatically refer to foreigners. Realize that Beijing is our
equivalent to Washington D.C and it attracts a massive number of
Chinese nationals who consider it the top vacation spot in the
country. Much like Americans are encouraged to make at least one
pilgrimage to see the White House and the various memorials, Chinese
make lifetime goals out of seeing the Forbidden City and Chairman
Mao's tomb. This city's businesses aren't just designed to
accommodate the international visitors, they're catering to tourists
from around the continent. If you hate tourists, this is worse than
living next to Wrigley Field.
Following a bus ride to a location as
close as possible to the National Museum of China, we had to take a
long walk on the road directly across from the famous Tienamen Square
flanked by the headquarters of the Chinese Community Party and Mao's
tomb. While we never crossed the road to the Square itself, looking
out over it brings back some distinctive imagery that politically
minded Americans will instantly recall. Due to government censorship,
these events have been wiped from history throughout the country.
Enforcing this awkward tension was the presence of CCP soldiers
stationed in every direction, poised in vibrant mint green uniforms.
Upon closer inspections, these sentinals were remarkably
young-looking and moved with a slight hesitance. Pedestrians freely
asked them for directions to which they replied in a friendly manner.
Unless their sergeant (Who appeared to be...around the legal drinking
age back in the States) walked by or they were marching in formation,
these guards seemed more concerned with the hundred degree
temperatures than the crowds or any possible threats. Neither the
green-shirted soldiers or the blue-shirted police are permitted to
carry firearms, looking over their belts I have yet to see a weapon
of any kind.
Upon reaching the front of the museum,
our group decided to stop for a group photo. This entails handing
some one a series of cameras dangling from lanyards and posing for
several minutes at a time while each camera and phone is aimed and
clicked. This is where things get a bit degrading. As I've mentioned
before, African Americans are a rarity in China ans we've been
attracting a lot of attention. When a group of African Americans and
a bizarre-looking white male are posing for a picture in
public...people walking by stop, pull out their cameras, and start
snapping pictures. Some will pull out their camera, shove it to a
friend, then simply walk up and pose in the center of us throwing an
arm around one of us and throwing up a peace sign. Then, the friend
taking the picture takes a turn. Apparently, the braids that some of
our women are wearing are so bizarre to the locals that they insist
on close-up pictures or asking if they can feel them. Even though I
made a point to tie my hair back today, people who saw me walking by
from the side would still point me out to friends. While waiting in
line for the museum entrance, I took the band off my ponytail to
adjust it. I didn't flip my hair like one of Charlie's Angels, I
simply took off the band. Cameras started flashing instantly.
Predictably, security for
government-owned buildings in a Communist country is rather tight. We
were red flagged for bag searches on sight, and were then told
shortly before the entrance to dispose of any cigarette lighters in a
bin. At this precise moment, I have a mental breakdown and use all my
willpower to avoid crying. For those of you suddenly gripping your
desk in a panic...I did not have to throw away the Zippo lighter that
most of Dekalb knows me for. I was forced to remove the insert from
the chrome casing and chuck the insert. The problem is, that insert
was a high end butane model that took me six months to locate and
buy...Hence the tears being held back. While those exiting the museum
later are offered a replacement lighter from a bin on your way out,
this courtesy did nothing to retrieve my surrendered Zippo insert.
The Communist Party of China now personally owes me twenty dollars. I
know you're reading this right now. Twenty dollars. One hundred and
thirty four yuan. Mail the check.
Once were in the building...Our bags
were x-rayed a second time, our pockets were emptied, and we were
instructed to drink from the water bottles we brought in to make sure
they weren't explosives. Then, getting in line for a mandated
pat-down by a line of ominously posed guards wearing black combat
uniforms with 'Anti-explosive division' stenciled on the back. All of
whom looked about sixteen, mostly ironically attractive females with
bright smiles. I was of course waved over to a male guard on the end,
who wore his uniform like a coat hanger wears a shirt. Unlike TSA who
were fairly convinced I could commit a massacre with a bandanna in my
back pocket, this gentleman with the peace fuzz casually patted my
sides and waved me on through. When I was his age, I was wearing a
clip-on bow tie and a plastic name tag at the local movie theater
where I swept theaters and tore tickets. I went through my awkward
minimum wage years in the wrong country.
The museum itself was an extremely
immense, beautifully carved building with an expansive collection of
exhibits throughout China's history. While we could have spent the
entire day going through these, we chose to walk through an exhibit
which walked the visitors through the history of China from early
colonization to the modern day. This collection of artwork,
artifacts, dramatic artwork, and video reenactments was one of the
best displays of history I'd ever seen. Academically speaking,
however, every country has an agenda. China's agenda was represented
with a heavy emphasis on the conquering and oppression by Western
countries, the glorious rise of Communism, and the horizon of
victories throughout various wars. This is not the place, but I must
say the omissions and portrayals of certain events have left an
impression on me,
Regarding Chinese history, I have to
comment because it was one of the factors that drove me to where I am
right now. My grandfather was a linguist for the Flying Tigers, the
American Air Corps unit that trained and led the first Chinese Air
Force during the second World War. He was one of the first Americans
to catalog and outline Mandarin, and was the sole translator who
trained a squadron of pilots in every outlet from how to order food
from the canteen to advanced dogfight tactics. This trip will count
as the final class of my minor in Chinese studies which has entailed
three years of non-stop research into Chinese history and how it has
shaped the modern culture. Days before he died last December, he
inquired about this trip and encouraged me not to give up on learning
the language and culture. Walking through this exhibit and hearing
the story it told...It wasn't the selective history that irked me, it
was the fact that the visitors walking through it every day cannot
legally learn anything that wasn't highlighted in this museum.
Following the political history
exhibit, we made our way through a portion of the anthropological
history section. Years ago, I joked that I sold out my
anthropological tendencies and became a sociology major because I
couldn't spend the rest of my life looking at clay pots. However,
this exhibit was a fascinating collection of early weapons,
spectacular early human remains, and...thousands upon thousands of
clay pots. Braving a half hour straight of walking past nothing but
pots, urns, casks, and...more pots, I stumbled onto something that I
never imagined I'd see. As a child I owned a book about types of
rocks, and one page featured a picture of an ancient jade suit that a
Chinese emperor was buried in to try and resurrect him. Turning the
corner of the world's largest Pottery Barn, there was that very suit
of faded gold jade lying in a glass casket. For those who aren't into
jewelry, Chinese jade is one of the most valued treasures by both
souvenir hunters, jewelry makers, and the Chinese themselves.
European explorers wrote about how the Chinese seemed to inlay things
with gold because it looked nice and was worthless to them, while
jade was valued as an almost mystical substance with various powers.
To this day, Chinese of all social classes and backgrounds are known
for wearing jade weather it's custom-made jewelry or a cheap carving
hanging from string. Standing at the foot of this jade burial shroud,
I made a small note to myself to look for a jade trinket for myself,
something small and conservative. It's not just a green rock, it's
history.
After a straight mile of pottery, we
had to turn back. On the way out, some members of the group suffered
some culture shock that required some comfort and sympathy for the
next half hour or so. While our hotel bathrooms are well-equipped
with an some oddly designed but modern components, the typical
Chinese bathroom fixture is...a square hole in the floor with a
drain. Some clearly labeled rooms in our hotel feature these for
native guests, but buildings catering to Westerners make a point to
install the ceramic thrones we're accustomed to. The fact an advanced
government building featured traditional...eh...crevices is an
interesting indicator of how the tourist experience has clearly
assigned areas. Everyone has that one friend who preaches cultural
acceptance and how you need to break out of your comfortable routine
on a daily basis, it's the only way to live life. Take that friend
into a room with a hole in the floor, hand them the paper which you
have to bring yourself, and ask them to say that one more time.
Seeing the world involves sacrifices. Don't sugar-coat it, gather up
your dignity and survive it.

Having left the museum with a good deal
of emotional history on our minds, and minus one treasured Zippo
insert, our next destination was the 'World Park'. You won't hear
about this one in the States, it's a local landmark that is a magnet
for Chinese travelers. The park is an expansive walking area divided
into countries from around the world, complete with small-scale
replicas of countless landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the
pyramids, and the White House. We soon found out that this park is
one of the most popular locations for wedding photo shoots,
throughout our stay we counted over a dozen brides and grooms posing
next to various monuments, sometimes with entire wedding parties
present. While the models themselves were detailed and charming, the
park itself was an often ironic display of culture as seen by the
Chinese.

If you ask any of our group members
about the park, you'll hear about an immaculately replicated Japanese
house in which guests can dress up in traditional Japanese clothing
and pose for pictures. Our group had a blast doing this, it's simply
a lot of fun regardless of what country you're in. While my group was
getting dressed, I noticed a young Chinese woman adorned in a pink
kimono with matching umbrella posing on a tatami mat in the bedroom
area. Looking over at her, I could not get over how bizarre the
moment seemed. To explain, while I minor in Chinese and have a large
crowd of Chinese-American friends, it's not the only culture I ever
run into. I have a background in a Japanese martial art, frequent a
major anime convention, and my roommate back in DeKalb is strongly
rooted Japanese. Seeing these two cultures combined in one image was
something to stare at. Seeing a Chinese woman costumed as a Japanese
women is a subtle idiosyncrasy that reflects on the many Americans
who consider the two nationalities interchangable.
Walking through the few replicas of
American monuments, I spotted an outdoor stand which also offered the
option to dress up and pose for pictures. Walking up to examine the
outfits, I simply could not form a reaction. The females wore dresses
covered in bows and lace, I'm guessing this is based off depictions
of Betsy Ross in her elaborate dresses, except these came in bright
neon colors. The males, however, wore what appeared to be loose
interpretations of British Naval uniforms complete with fringed
shoulder pads, bandoliers, and wide frilly collars. Imagine two
people dressed like that, and standing in front of the Lincoln
Memorial. I'm glad USA was included in this simply awesome collection
of global architecture, but...really? That's all I have to say.
Really?
After a long day in the sun, we finally
got a chance to sit down for the night. We'd have been fine in the
hotel lobby, but instead our local connections set us up with a once
in a lifetime opportunity at the famous Laoshe Teahouse. Teahouses
are a unique outlet which combines the ancient tea ceremony with
variety show entertainment. The Laozhe Teahouse is one of the most
famous teahouses in China which requires booking seats online months
in advance, being able to get a seat during a show is a notable
achievement. Upon walking into the door, you're greeted by a life
size statue of the leader of China meeting H.W. Bush during his
Presidency in this teahouse. The second floor is a literal museum to
the entertainers and celebrities who have made appearances, complete
with dioramas and statues. Getting seated comfortably near the back,
we spent the pre-show period enjoying the season's tea and staring at
the appetizers trying to figure out what they were made of. I'm
honest. We sat there poking the food trying to determine if it was an
animal, vegetable, or mineral.
The show featured several top-level
performers ranging from singers to martial artists, all of whom were
working the crowd and showing incredible energy. The major headline
group was a Peking Opera performance of 'Farewell to my Concubine',
which features a mind-blowing dangerous dance wherein the female lead
is elaborately twirling two jian swords.
This was followed up with a trio of performers who pulled off complex
spins, aerials and catches using long-necked tea kettles. Reading
into the program during a musical portion, I proceeded to tug on
every sleeve on the group screaming that a face-changer would be
performing. I'd been a fan of the act for years, but had only seen
videos and movies online. My group raised their eyebrows at my
poser-ish enthusiasm...but ten seconds into the performer's act, they
were clapping and yelling in amazement.
Face-changing
is one of the most well-kept secrets in Chinese theater, a slight of
hand trick that baffles people around the world. The performer in a
fabulous feathered outfit takes the stage wearing a silk mask which
tourists will recognize from souvenir stands around the city. He
dances a bit, builds up with the music, and brings his sleeve to his
hand. When he removes it a millisecond later, the colorful mask has
been completely changed. Then he simply does it again, and again, and
again...each time faster and with less movement, to the point where
the actor is simply glancing away with his hands at his sides and
still changing his face in a flash. Finally, the actor casually
walked off the stage into the audience and began shaking hands with
members of a table. During the handshake with both his hands
occupied, not even looking away, this performer still managed to
change his face. After years of studying this trick and finally
seeing it up-close...I still have no idea how it could possibly work.
I've also never seen a performer who could pull it off close-up like
that without turning his head, it was incredibly bold. Walking out
for the night, my group couldn't get over it.
After
a day like that, sleep is a challenge worth fighting for. This is the
Beijing that you have to see to believe. 
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