After our whirlwind tour of Seoul, we were still uncertain about what to expect from China. Just last week a friend from home warned us to prepare the kids for thick, brown air and an almost complete lack of English speakers. We’ve been all over the world, but perhaps nowhere as truly foreign as China. We had visions of frustration and confusion. Now that we’re here, we realize our concerns were largely unfounded. The air in Beijing is in fact thick and brown, but with only a week or so here we figure we’ll live. As for communicating, our one month crash course in Mandarin on the iPod has proven invaluable. Tom especially excels at diving into conversation and usually can make himself understood, though the language’s complex intonations are incredibly difficult to simulate much less master. We carry a map with us so we can point out where we want to go to taxi drivers and most menus include pictures so we can point when ordering as well. We are liberal in our gesticulation and find ourselves nodding for reasons even we don’t understand. But the bottom line is we love this place. The people here are warm, the food hearty, and the culture fascinating.
We arrived on Tuesday and were picked at the airport by three men who are co-workers of Tong West, a lovely young woman we met in Armidale, Australia. These guys took a big chunk out of the their day to wait for us at the airport and then shuttle us to our hotel. Tong had contacted them after I told her we were worried about figuring out how to function in Beijing. Though only one of them spoke a little English, we exchanged nods, laughs, and pleasantries and magically arrived at the hotel stress free. We couldn’t express to them with words how grateful we were for their generous gesture, so we offered to take them out to dinner. This didn’t go as we planned, however, because since we are guests in their country, they have insisted on taking us out instead.
Our first few days in Beijing have been busy. The first day Tom visited the American embassy to have more pages added to his passport in preparation for all the upcoming visas we will be getting. On the second day we took his newly fattened document along with our others to the Vietnamese embassy only to learn that our visas from them will not be ready until next Tuesday. (This could make life interesting since we subsequently learned we need them to move to a new hotel on Sunday.) With business squared away, we headed to Tianamen Square, the site of many of the city’s most important attractions. Some people would cover them all in a day, but not us. We like to take our time. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have seen them all by December. The blame for our snail’s pace does not reside solely with our little people, whose feet tire easily and who need frequent bathroom and snack breaks. Well, I take that back; it is their fault, albeit indirectly. Making the Koreans look shy, the Chinese cannot get enough of our kids, especially the little blonde one. They stop dead in their tracks, point, touch, smile, take pictures, and want to talk. They simply cannot comprehend that we have four children in a land where one is the norm. That none of them have black hair is even more amazing. Though I am brunette, I’ve even found an admirer or two who undoubtedly confuses me for Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie and asks to pose with me.
When we are not posing for pictures, we are fending off salespeople and scammers. We went with the first English-speaking “art student” we met by the embassy to view his work, which not surprisingly was for sale. Our Rough Guide had warned us about this particular con, so we accepted his gift of our names rendered in calligraphy, extended our thanks, and departed. That only took 45 minutes. When we got to Tianamen, McKane was eager to spend some of his pocket money on trinkets. We warned him that the hawkers would be aggressive, but according to the dictates of his typically refreshing worldview, this is a bonus. Tom gave him a brief lesson in negotiating and he proceeded to strike hard bargains with more than a few salespeople. He then took it one step further and started approaching them, brandishing a 1 Yuan bill (the equivalent of 12 cents) and begging them to sell him whatever they had for that price. When we were approached by more art students, Tom’s twist on this version of reverse psychology was to tell them he was an art professor. All in good fun, he would weave stories of how we all are from different countries and speak different languages. This worked well until one of the students started speaking Swedish to him. Oops. Dax and I prefer to say no and walk away, but Tom and McKane like to engage in lively conversation and have fun. I guess what’s fun for some people is painful for others.
We have managed to see the Forbidden City and walk up and down the Square about 5 times (it’s a really big square). We’re going out to a remote portion of the Great Wall early next week and will spend the weekend soaking up the city. What a city, what a country, and as always, what good people!