A brief sojourn, full of capitals, capitalism and vestiges of Mao. Arriving into the main terminal, we found a few domestic passengers waiting for pending flights. Still too few people for such a grand terminal. There were no shuttle busses into town. The light rail proved more expensive for two passengers than a taxi. I guessed this was the post Olympic, nouveau Communist normal. I have always enjoyed arriving in strange new places under cover of darkness, revealing brief snippets of nuance until daylight removes mysteries.
Here, now though just seven PM the city was as still and quiet as the airport had been vacant. Neon, and globular paper lanterns mostly red bathed every street. I had read that like D.C. Beijing was a city radiating from a central monument, in this case the Forbidden City the oldest preserved palace of Imperial Chinese dynasty. A few stray people were on bikes, some collecting garbage, carrying cottage products for sale, or just pedaling in the dark. The city was defined by a series of six concentric boulevards named rings. Directions were defined by one’s position to each ring and the cardinal directions. Cross streets intersected this ring, and within various neighborhoods, hùtongs, rabbit warrens of housing, business stalls and sanctuaries remaining from the _______ brought flavor and local color. Our hotel and room was much grander than my normal M.O., 5 stars, concierge and spa services. Generally I administer these types of properties, yet don’t tend to inhabit them. Befitting the new China, more American in strategy than Soviet, every juncture we crossed was met with a surcharge. Unknown airport fees, additional unforeseen room charges. So much for the proletariat, let’s get a pay to play mentality as fuel for this commercial enterprise.
In the moment, the luxe touches, even out of budget were welcome after the last three months and the reality of a world with little communication potential. Gary Jiang the front desk clerk had managed to effectively express the fundamental new guest information without incident in slightly British inflected English, until, the unexpected question arose and his security manager assistant, more fluent than he had stepped away from his post.
Our question, concerning specifics of Wife and internet access were fielded by the concierge in a particular tuxedo with golden cummerbund, cutaway jacket, starched winged collar, thin bow tie, hip glasses, and asymmetrical haircut. His manner as his garments affected both ease and sophistication. With little hesitation he consistently answered all of our inquiries, pausing briefly in his halting English, still searching periodically for previous references or phrases to utilize or test on us. Later on he had explained that he had had 4 years of high school, with English language instruction in the curriculum. The six years he had worked at the hotel had provided on the job training to improve his language skills. He shared that only his friends and families who interfaced with the westerners took English names, thus Liu Ye, begat Leo.
With our first questions answered and reservations made for dinner, and a slip of hotel notepaper with character and English name of the restaurant Leo had chosen we went to change and settle into our room for a moment, before heading out. Craig, my older brother had shared that when he had led a group of architecture students to China several years ago he had opted for taxis instead of subways or buses. The subway wasn’t hard to learn, but if you negotiated the right price the cabs were quick and direct. I assume that since the 2008 Olympics the cab industry has been regulated. There was no sense of a negotiated or haggled pricing structure. Everything ran on a strict metering system. Our cab drove through vacant dimly lit streets whizzing past a sea of neon character averts. we arrived at a three story mall-like building where he pointed for us to get out. Blue cylindrical modern looking Christmas lighting adorned the ent4rance. Two women in white long gowns and complimentary white ski jackets opened the double doors, beckoned us in, through a long foyer, decorated as many interiors and exteriors were with 4x6 foot C print photos of mostly modern and occasionally historic scenes or objects lined the walls. We climbed a dark carmine lacquered and wooden stairway and entered a long stone anteroom lined with fish tanks along one wall filled with live fish and shellfish, a cashier and a fish butcher. The gowned women deposited us in the hands of suited gentleman who led us to our table. Quickly, I learned that particularly on the mainland, red was the ubiquitous color in décor, ornament and furnishings. Oversized menus arrived with beautiful photos of various crabs and shrimp with names written in Chinese and English; each offered in two or three different culinary preparations. Our server spoke enough English to identify the names and weights of most of the crabs. It seemed obvious with 7 different crabs to choose from, that this was what we should eat. Michele wanted some vegetables and chose a picture that looked appetizing to her.
Just after thanksgiving I had begun a trade of Mandarin for Spanish classes with a Chinese national in Linguistics, Gao Yusi. With Yusi’s help I had several pages of notes in English and character, some of which he had taught me to write myself. Though repeating them was not a reality. He had told me that if I could gather 100-200 words I could speak the language fairly easily based upon the structure, but reading and writing would take 5-6 years. Nuf said. I carefully pronounced one of my key phrases, “she doesn’t eat meat: “.A snippet of language can bridge culture and initiate simple bonds. The key is to try and listen for what is implied in the patois and not spoken.
A small lacquered red and black bowl arrived first, chilled. Beautiful batons of Asian cucumber and freshly roasted young peanuts with a light glass of chili oil and vinegar. Refreshingly crunchy and clean. I recalled that our server had asked twice, without the beef? I said to Michele, these are your veggies, not a little pre-appetizer. Ooops. The scallion pancake she had chosen was an exquisite rendition of a classic starter. Deftly fried, chewy, crispy and spongy at the center, with no trace of oil on the doily. My crab, I had chosen Dungeness, she felt it was sweetest. It had been brought over in the same small plastic bag that every bodega uses for purchases; quite lively and frisky. I was informed that it weighed one kilo. I had chosen ginger-scallion sauce and it was perfect. Plump and meaty crab scattered with tender julienned threads of ginger and matchsticks of scallions cooked to yield to the tooth, still revealing an oniony bite at the core. I lorded over the crab for nearly thirty minutes, using all of the tricks Cliff had taught me for eating shellfish to the last sinew. Jasmine tea and a shared local beer finished this late light meal. The cab took us back to the hotel, and we decided to take in a bit of the hood, braving the bitter cold, -10°C we had been told. We made it about four blocks, before the wind and chill took its toll. Slipping into a subterranean bar, more rathskellar reminiscent of what a Chinese Beat or folk club might feel like, albeit with a computer drum machine and synthesizer to enhance any solo guitarist or singer. Some scruffy Europeans, possibly Aussies came in soon after us. They seemed straight out of freshman year backpacking on school holiday. There was no music, and we decided to head home instead of hanging out. We made it home quickly, and were in bed snoring soon afterwards.