Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Zai Jian!

Update: Edited from Hong Kong, where I can see my work after a couple of weeks under the censors' gaze. I have a hellish 12 hour layover -- enough to go into the city, not enough to keep me from staring at my watch regularly.

First off, it should be noted that almost everything I have written this past couple of weeks invoking Chinese has been utterly based on my own understanding of phonetics and misunderstanding of what I have heard.

Quick final night story:

So, I was just out drinking -- not too much, but wanted to do a little tippling on my last night. I went to a place near campus and had a couple of pijiou (Beer, or in this case, big assed bottles of beer). I am reading a book, but feel nature calling. I hit the bathroom -- I cannot even begin to tell you just how nasty many Chinese public toilets are, plus so many of them are just these odd little one-person porcelain troughs in the ground -- and have two options for a stall. I picked the one I used the other night (the one on the left), when I went with a bunch of colleagues to the same humble streetside eatery after our final banquet. Squatting just beyond the door is a tiny Chinese women. She screams. I scream back. Which leads her to scream more. I scurry to the other filthy stall (I guess my reading of the symbols for women and men got crossed) take a quick wee, and realize that in her mind, I might be some sort of sicko. So I head back to the sidewalk, tag down about 16 ounces of remaining beer (a man's got to have priorities) and take off, not wanting my last night to be characterized by some sort of bizarre Chinese revenge ritual.

The lesson: Drink all of your beer before you go pee; Learn the Chinese characters for the women's room; Knock. Loudly. (Another lesson one could draw is that those toilets teach Chinese folks to squat deeply; it's a country of catchers in the making. But that was not the first lesson I garnered from that little experience;) Yet another is that I pissed in the women's room on Friday night.

Went solo into Tiananmen and the Forbidden City today. The first observation about Tiananmen is that it is vast. It is supposed to be the largest public square in any city in the world, and I believe it. I tried to eyeball it in terms of football fields, and my sense of space failed me, but the answer must be dozens, maybe scores. It is huge. Mao's mausoleum is there (didn't visit; knowing he's dead is enough for me) and flanking it on the sides are the Chinese museum (didn't go in. Knowing it's there is enough for me) and the Chinese equivalent of the Parliament, which is enormous. It has a regal, vaguely Stalinesque look (go figure), and I don't know if I could have gone in (Knowing I shouldn't have been there was enough for me).

I don't need to remind any of you of 4 June 1989. The facts, as we know them, are somewhat sketchy. It is quite possible that no one was killed that day in the square. It is quite possible that thousands were slaughtered once students were rousted out from it. That day is misunderstood, and it was not a simple morality play -- there were serious and important reformers within the Communist Party who pleaded with students to leave and by many accounts their legitimate and brave attempts at reform from within during Deng's time died on that day; The vast majority of the students had no idea why they were there, many descended on the square because it was an event, a jol, the thing to do; The ones who thought they knew oftentimes had no real concept of democracy. And so forth. In any case, there are now just enough soldiers on the grounds to remind anyone who has any ideas that they are probably bad ones. And there are cameras. Lots of cameras. And yet more desperate hawkers. Lots of desperate hawkers. I've come to hate them.

I have to admit, I took on the Foridden City (so named because for more than 500 years it was off limits to outsiders, with punishments ranging from 100 lashes to death to those who violated) in a somewhat perfunctory way. It is enormous beyond comprehension (the Chinese do big well. Americans are pikers by comparison, which may not be a bad thing) and I did spend a couple of hours or so there. But I was a bit touristed out, and my main goal was to get to this hill beyond the Walls of the Forbidden City, on the north side of the axis that is Tiananmen-Forbidden City. That hill is part of a bucolic park complex, the centerpiece of which is the steep hill that quickly rises from the pool-table flat surroundings. The climb was a tester, but I presumed worth it, until I discovered that the pagoda- or temple-like building at the top, which promised exquisite views of the city on all sides, was closed. I saw a leggy Chinese girl get beyond the mesh gates. When I opened the gate and peered within, I was brusquely waved off by a soldier. The soldiers here tend toward the scrawny and short, but with visions of 1989 in my head I demurred, even if I muttered complaints that they did not understand ("Fuck Mao" becoming standard juvenile boilerplate nonsequiter by now.)

The rebuffing granted me time to wander the park, which is lovely, then to make my way back through a hutong that, given its proximity to the Square and the Forbidden City, and given that 10,000 hutong are disappearing a year, is surely ill fated. Intermittently in the hutong were scattered what is to me already a familiar dual-role business: hairdresser shops by day, and shall we say red light districts by, well, apparently at least by 5:00. I could have gotten some serious tail, but my newfound status as an engaged man and love for my fiancee, coupled with my aversion to venereal disease, trebled with the fact that my fate in matters intimate was clearly to walk in on some poor woman taking a dump, led me to keep on walking.

I have to be up in 5 hours for what will be 48 hours of: Flying, getting one last shot at Hong Kong, lots more flying, and then arriving in South Africa. I'll try to touch base from Hong Kong, where I'll have the benefit of being able actually to see the blog. China has been remarkable. Too much to absorb. I've learned so very much, met some great people and new friends, immersed myself as deeply as possible, eaten amazing food, drank lots of pijou, and avoided becoming a political prisoner. Not a bad couple of weeks.

Zai jian, China.


montana urban legend said...

Nice post.

montana urban legend said...

Perhaps it's possible that you literally scared the crap out of that little Chinese woman.

dcat said...

(rim shot)
Montana Urban Legend will be here all the week. He just flew in, and boy are his arms tired. Please tip your waitstaff.