Sorebrek's Musings and Ramblings

In search of the holy grail of an MBA (class of 2008 hopeful), this space will hopefully chronicle the search and my other quixotic pursuits.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Double-Delight Dragon

I wrote this oirginally for someone I know as a mini-travelogue of my trip to China a few weeks back, but now I see no reason why I shouldn't post it for public consumption. I like to play around with my writing style every now and then; this is one of those times. To some the style may sound highfalutin, but rest assured that there is nothing affected about the experience itself.

In the months since I first visited Beijing in May '05, there are things that remind me of my time there, small everyday things that have nothing to do with me living in the bay area. To say the least, Beijing gradually grows its roots into you much after you left its shores, much like Rome or some Indian cities do. An opportunity to visit again in less than six months was undoubtedly thrilling. These are my impressions - half-formed as they are.

Beijing is clearly the show-case city, the place of pride, the crown jewel of China, the middle kingdom. To start with, I have never had a more hassle-free ride from the airport to the hotel, courtesy the efficient 'taxi chaperons' at the airport and the four-lane wide toll highways. I was surprised to see that the four-lane highways extended well into the city with wide bike lanes and service roads on either side. Unlike the States, these don't happen to be for recreational purposes where someone such as your's truly dressed to resemble a parakeet would take out a road bike on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Reminiscent of Amsterdam, factory workers in suits ride bicycles to work, a reminder of China's economic transition, a vestige of the old co-existing with the new, the latter manifest in shiny German luxury autos. Sky-scrapers line the main thoroughfare; nowhere have I seen construction cranes (building more sky-scrapers) outnumber sky-scrapers. As a reminder that embracing the capitalist west does come with its unsavory fallouts, a constant haze curtain hangs over the city day and night. I took the subway for the heck of it after copying down the characters for my home station and allowed myself to get lost in the system. Not quite the Japanese Shinkansen or the San Fran BART, but the Beijing Subway is an efficient, practical and more importantly a human, organic system. There is constant conversation, unabashed glances and spirited jostling for space - it is almost like everyone is headed for a carnival and not to the daily grind.

Business conversation is still largely in Mandarin. Translation seems to serve dual purposes: while most white-collar workers understand English, translation is used to reaffirm their understanding. I also suspected that this was also a way to buy time before articulating a response. Conversation is very pragmatic, humor is common and topics taken head-on; no Kabuki dance going on here. However there is clearly reticence when it comes to asking questions - an Asian trait exemplified by the Japanese saying: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Hai Guis (literally: Returning Sea Turtles), returning Chinese immigrants from the west, seemed to be doing very well.

Due to little free time, I decided not to take the city tour all over again. Having been to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Ming Tombs and the Great Wall (at Badaling) on my previous trip, this time I was picky about where I wanted to go. So I left the camera behind and walked all the way to Tiananmen Square. The balcony of the gate facing the square was opened up for visitors this time. Nothing can describe the feeling of being suspended over the vastness of the square in the mist, the moat below, soldiers on guard, the ancient forbidden city behind, straggler tourists, eager students, the Great Hall of the People and the Mao Mausoleum in relief. The first time I heard about the square was in '89 during the student protests (still a taboo topic in mainland China). In my own agnostic way I sent up a prayer for the unknown rebel who stood up to the tanks in the Spring of '89, a stark memory from my pimply teenage days brought to closure. The evening brought out the Asian city neons and along with it the seamier side of the city. Foreigners, especially curious looking ones as your's truly, were constantly hassled by shady characters plying the world's oldest profession.

While I had always suspected the authenticity of many of the so-called Chinese dishes served in America, this was truly an opportunity to put my theories to test. There exists a cornucopia of styles, none of which resemble the American interpretation of Chinese food very much. From the hometown Peking duck, to the mild Shangainese or southern style, to the strongly flavored northern style with dark sauces, to the fiery Schezwanese style to the rather exotic Cantonese cuisine, food in Beijing runs the whole gamut. The Chinese love for eating out clearly shines through. Ordering is an elaborate conversational process: huge menus are consulted, ingredients demystified, veracity of claims tested, opinions sought, polls taken and waitresses flirtatiously chided. This forms an operatic prelude to the food itself, which arrives in never-ending courses to be shared using chop-sticks with only a few dishes coming with serving spoons. Food is not be gulped down in a hurry. It is to be savored with sips of Mao Tai, a fiery rice wine, apparently a favorite of Chairman Mao, Jasmine or Oolong tea while dragging on the omnipresent cigarette. The dishes reflect an almost French-like love for offal: thyme, liver, gall, sweetbreads, giblets, brains, rooster crowns, pig feet (a la Jambonneau) all make for exotic eating. In fact, in Hong Kong, the Fook Lam Moon restaurant has truly elevated Chinese food to haute cuisine by pairing it with blue-chip Bordeaux. Hopefully, mainland will follow suit. The offering at the traditional duck restaurant is almost symphonic - starting with duck flippers (an acquired taste, unless aided by the mustard sauce), it goes on to the duck's heart, tiny eggs, liver, giblets, gizzard etc. until it finally hits the high crescendo with what the west knows as Mu-shu: roast duck wrapped in tender crepes. The Schezwanese hot pots with sea horses bobbing up and down in the soup may deter the foreign palette, but once the initial apprehension is set aside, you die and end up in spice heaven. Christened 'devil berries' by your's truly, Hua Jia, the Schezwanese pepper corns, banned in the US, produce an unsettling numbing sensation on the tongue and work well as a conversation inhibiters :-)

I am neither an economist nor a food writer, so you will pardon my naiveté in these departments. Writing about a nation’s people is another matter. I have always loved to dabble in amateur sociology, such a subjective science.

People do make up a place and I couldn’t agree more about Beijing. A Beijing character emerges, unique and differentiated from that of other regions, all the while retaining a unifying Chinese quality. The youth share a brashful optimism I saw nearly paralleled in India and to a lesser extent in Poland, a feeling increasingly becoming uncommon in the west. The youth of Beijing see the clear promise of possibility. They earn in salaries several times more than what their parents could ever dream of. Slowly, but surely, a youth cultural identity in fashion and music, distinct, but only just so influenced by the west, is emerging, much like the distinctive Japanese style. Perhaps a fallout of socialism, women appear more emancipated than those of other Asian countries. It was heartening to see women riding in the front passenger seats of taxi cabs and even more so to see women driving taxis.

On the other side, the older generation exudes an ennui, an almost Teutonic stoicism, an overwhelming resignment to kismet, a studied detachment and pointlessness that I conjectured to have come from lessons of the past. The fatalistic vulnerability of 5000 years casts a long shadow. It is hard not to be fatalistic when you have 5000 years of history bearing down on you. George Santanaya said: “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it”. I was heartened to see a sense for ancient and immediate history and a distinct pride in the past. The Chinese will do well in observing the Japanese model in preserving their past and amalgamating it with their future. To the accidental tourist, the brashness, the lack of a service culture and the jostle for space and opportunity are unpalatable as at once at odds with the traditional Chinese cultural emphasis on genteel conduct. However the perspective of immediate history brings a new understanding to this matter: a nation still recovering from the cookie-cutter policies of socialism has not learnt lessons in survival by holding doors open for others. It is this grit, this determination to succeed, this hunger, this aggressiveness, this earthiness that I think that will make China the America that America itself has forgotten. In such a pragmatic society, I suppose it does not pay to be a dreamer. However, youth are realizing that sensibility is not altogether a virtue to be cast aside. For a fast-developing China, it cannot be ignored as a first-world luxury, for from sensibility springs ingenuity and ingenuity is the only insurance against obsolescence. So much capacity for sensibility exists in the national character, but hidden by a scarred exterior.

On my last day before leaving China, I took an early morning flight to Xi'an, the ancient capital in the Shaanxi province. If Beijing had the weight of centuries, Xi'an had the weight of millennia. I was fascinated by modest houses built on land that might one day unearth a 2000-year-old artifact. I was later appalled at my own naiveté in my assuming that the significance of this would be lost on the residents. I realized later that there would always be a wisdom in their eyes that most of us at our articulate best would never be able to express, much less understand. The terracotta warriors that I had gone to see, stood in majestic relief, but it was on my way back, half-asleep from jet-lag in the back of my cab, that I watched China unravel before me: a film of dust clinging to roadside trees and tiled houses, corn drying on window ledges and terraces, women hanging their washing, little school girls in their uniforms crossing the street, flashes of yellow as the wind rippled through bamboo groves, the deceptive irreversibility of seasons, places where time stood still and took its time, yesterday’s rain in the puddles, hitch-hikers: an her adolescent boy with a changing voice and his mother who spoke of a simple life lost, of pain of petty losses and of forgotten times while her son listened with a youthful disinterest barely concealing his curiosity, with the simple guile that precedes the loss of innocence.

I woke up with a start in the mist to the blare of a menacing Dongfeng truck. I had fallen asleep to a simple melody played on qin, a seven-stringed zither, as I dreamt of clay warriors coming to life, ancient wind chimes, the folk tale of a couple by a lake and cold rain on a thatched roof. Along with Monet's water garden in Giverny, the back-waters of Kerala and the Fjords of Møre og Romsdal, China will always be a magical Shangri-la for me, somewhere I could go to when I sit in a blue funk stuck in traffic on the bay bridge.

11 Comments:

  • At 1:53 AM, Blogger Paa"ji" said…

    S, very nicely written...would read it again...coz I just finished a kaplan exam n my brain was all fried up...got some refreshing oxygen reading it..will come back for the real flavour in the morning

     
  • At 12:26 PM, Blogger Mave said…

    That was an awesome post, SB!

    Good luck with the essays; hope they're shaping up well. I just spent the entire day doing nothing. Yes, practically nothing. Feels good, though :)

     
  • At 12:59 PM, Blogger sorebrek said…

    Thanks P, Kaplan tests have been known to have that effect on most people.

    M, thanks. I did exactly that on Thursday; well not quite, but busy stuffing myself with turkey, green beans and pumpkin pie like the government was banning food starting tomorrow. Believe me - the break helps.

     
  • At 5:52 PM, Blogger sghama said…

    very nice... you have a fallback career if the mba doesnt' work out :P

     
  • At 7:54 PM, Blogger sorebrek said…

    sghama, That is plan C. Plan B is to work for the neighborhood seedy Burger King joint - I can flip a mean burger, you better believe it.

     
  • At 7:01 PM, Blogger i_will_make_it said…

    Ni hao! Hope you are well! Beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing. I visited mainland China for the first time this year, and what you described really brought back my experiences in Beijing and Xian as well.

    Did you really eat all those duck innards? If so, then you are way braver than I - and I'm Chinese! I've only acquired a taste for pig stomach and ears, but haven't ventured any further. :-P

    Good luck with your R2 apps as well! About a month left to deadlines and counting...

     
  • At 1:08 PM, Blogger Marina said…

    hmmm I swear I commented on this post before....I must be going crazy. I hate leftovers, especially turkey, so it is very possible that I would contribute it all to my beloved classmates. And unfortunately I am an analyst, so I cannot stop analyzing =/

     
  • At 2:44 AM, Blogger i_will_make_it said…

    Have you tried the buffet @ the Bellagio? Now that'll make your mouth water.

    Go R2! Now don't stay up too late watching t... I mean, writing essays! :-)

     
  • At 2:03 PM, Blogger Marina said…

    This is painful for me to admit - but I have yet to set foot into Zara OR H&M. Freaking work has been so hectic and the holiday crowds are a huge turn-off. I hear the Zara prices are a little steeper then those in europe...

     
  • At 11:53 AM, Blogger Marina said…

    I will most definitely do my best :) After all, I owe it to the NYC population to try my best in order to grace them with my residence for two years.

    I heard that about the Zara prices...but I also heard that the sales they have are amazing. Did you check out H&M?

     
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