On Friday afternoon I landed in Beijing. My first experience of China at age 17 was overwhelming, and made me pretty homesick. (There's a long-distance phone bill attesting to that.) But now I know enough Chinese, and enough of what to expect, to feel at ease there. Still, things that I remembered still surprised me yesterday: hadn't the Beijing air improved after the Olympics? The sky was yellow and thick with haze. Were Beijingers really like New Yorkers? Yes, a little--certainly in the terse way they sometimes talk to each other. Haven't I been here before? Yes, but the tangle of highways and looming high rises never fails to disorient me.
My friend Sarah* and I checked into our "Fotel" (I kept the slippers as a souvenir), then went to a Thai restaurant in Sānlǐtún'er, the bar and nightclub district popular among Chinese and expats alike. Banana Leaf is famous for forcing its patrons to dance. We watched a whole table get up and swing their hips to "Can't Take My Eyes off of You." There's a particularly notorious server there, a shortish man wearing bright red lipstick and long fake lashes, who hits on the men, stroking their hair as he dances close to them. "Don't take his picture," Sarah warned. "He'll get angry."
In traditional Chinese style, Sarah over-ordered. I'm used to this, but again I'd forgotten that taking home the leftovers isn't the point. The menu was book-length--it even had a table of contents--and the food was pretty good. I'm not sure if spicy chicken feet are a Thai delicacy, and I have my doubts, but they were good either way.
We then walked around Nán luógǔ xiàng (South Gong and Drum Lane), one of the few remaining hútong (alleyways) still clinging to life in the capital. Unlike the hútong which get razed, Nán luógǔ xiàng is neatly paved, broad, and filled with Obamamao shirts and other trinkets to attract foreigners. I actually like these upscale hútong--as a tourist attraction, they are able to avoid the wrecking block. The inhabitants of unheated sìhéyuàn (courtyard houses) who have no running water get evicted, then watch as the city builds high-rise apartments and skyscrapers where their homes once stood. Despite the inconveniences, people love their hútong. I myself have wandered through the maze of alleyways, past houses and little barbeque stalls, catching glimpses of Hòuhǎi, one of the city's lakes. A maze perhaps, but on a human scale. Sarah and I settled into a bar called Hútong'er. "People like this bar because you can rarely see a real hútong these days," Sarah mused over her Lindemans. "I tell people I don't like Beijing, and they ask why? Didn't I grow up here? But the Beijing I grew up in is gone."
The Shanghai Expo is on, but Sarah and I wonder how useful it is in our current age. Foreigners are no longer an oddity in China's major cities. The country is hyped for the World Cup, but still keeping an eye on the NBA finals. And now I'm in Ulaanbaatar, staying with a family who has family in Chicago. On the way from Chinggis Khan Airport, cows browsed under bilingual billboards. The world is the Expo.
* This is her English name. I will use initials or nicknames unless my subjects wish otherwise.
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