Doodad Kind of Town

Back from the Land of China
July 8, 2008, 7:18 pm
Filed under: Blogging to China

“In the land of China, they got no possessions. In the land of China, they got no religion, too.” – Forrest Gump.

Let’s just say things have changed since Forrest Gump took his ping-pong game on the road.

Two of my great passions in life are movies and travel. And those two passions have fed one another to some degree.

For many years, I had dreamed of visiting China, and my dreams were largely shaped by the films “Farewell My Concubine” (which inspired me to want to attend the Beijing Opera one day) and “The Last Emperor” (which gave me the desire to visit the Forbidden City.) To be clear, “Forrest Gump” didn’t enter into it at all, but my goofy brother has been doing his Forrest Gump impersonation with the lines quoted above every time we’ve talked about my trip, so I couldn’t resist leading off with them.

I got to achieve all my dreams on this trip, but they weren’t quite as I imagined they would be.

For example, not once in all the times I imagined myself climbing up the Great Wall of China did I imagine I would have to pause while the person climbing ahead of me stopped to answer his cell phone. (No, he was not an American tourist.) Nor did I imagine that a Starbucks would be conveniently located just off the Wall.

I had imagined myself walking through the Forbidden City, but in my imagining, the courtyards had been largely empty and lonely-feeling (as in “The Last Emperor”), not packed with throngs of camera-toting tourists and vendors of tourist trinkets.

And I had never imagined that my experience of the Beijing Opera would be anywhere other than in its original location and format – certainly not offered as a sort of “sampler platter” of Beijing Opera favorites, presented for tourist consumption in a comfy, air-conditioned theatre inside a luxury hotel.

In the China of my imagination, the face of Chairman Mao – and not Colonel Sanders – loomed over Beijing. But, in reality, KFC is wildly popular in China, while Mao Zedong is mostly just an ironic presence on novelty watches, T-shirts, and paper fans.

I switched on MSNBC this morning to find Ted Koppel being interviewed about his upcoming Discovery Channel series on the People’s Republic of China. In his words: “Totalitarianism has no problem co-existing with capitalism.” That pretty much sums up my recent experience. There was little evidence of a repressive totalitarian government; we were even invited to comment on the quality of service offered by the passport inspectors at the airport by selecting a smiley face or sad face on a little touchscreen. But there was ample evidence of a Westernized consumerist society in the making. I spotted luxury auto dealerships, as well as American chain stores like Sephora and Ikea, in Beijing. Teenagers and young adults frequently sported T-shirts with upbeat slogans in English (“Let’s Dance,” “Have Fun!” and the occasional awkward translation, such as “I Were Sentenced to Life.”)

One of my fellow travellers (who was apparently a bit confused about recent Chinese history) asked our tour guide what dynasty China is in now. The tour guide jokingly replied that China is in its Ka-Ching dynasty.

Granted, this country is gearing up to host the Olympics and obviously eager to impress. And yes, it was a bit naive of me to expect that I would find China’s largest cities free of Western consumerist influence. (In addition to Beijing, we visited Shanghai and Xi’an; I’m sure that if we had been able to visit some outlying, rural areas, we’d have had a more varied and accurate experience of the country.)

And, for the record, I did take advantage of the comforts of home when they were available. In the course of the trip, I indulged in a Starbucks Mocha Frappucino, a Papa John’s pizza lunch (on our last day in Shanghai when none of us could face another lazy susan full of rice, pickled vegetables and pork or tofu-based dishes), and every bottle of Diet Coke I could get my hands on.

But it would have been nice to walk away with a more authentic appreciation of China’s culture and day-to-day life. While I did enjoy my trip, I was always a bit frustrated by the limitations of being part of an organized group tour. Our tour guides were wonderful, giving us exhaustive lessons in Chinese history, sharing their personal experiences with sometimes unexpected frankness, and coaching us on basic Mandarin phrases (the one that stuck with me was “ding ding hao” meaning “Excellent!”) But we saw Beijing mainly though the windows of a tour bus, and ate only at upscale restaurants vetted by the Olympic Games Committee. (No deep-fried scorpion on a skewer, deer penis soup or camel’s foot for us; I could feel the disdain of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern as if they were right beside me.) And we were steered almost exclusively to shopping experiences – rather than cultural ones – in Shanghai. (One exception – a performance by the Shanghai Acrobats troupe that we all greatly enjoyed.)

Not that there was a lot of time for exploring, though. The real purpose of the trip was to participate in a 350-voice North American choir, performing in a set of concerts entitled “Perform in Harmony with Olympic Spirit.” To that end, we spent as much time rehearsing and performing as we did sightseeing. Our first concert, at a modern concert hall located inside the Forbidden City, was a rousing success. The song we had learned in Mandarin (or at least attempted to learn – the quality of our Mandarin pronunciation was an endless source of amusement to our Chinese hosts) was a nationalistic anthem entitled “Defend the Yellow River.” Despite our bad Mandarin, this number brought the Beijing audience to its feet, clapping and singing along in a wildly enthusiastic manner that made us all feel good.

Our audiences in Shanghai were more reserved, but still appreciative. And our Mandarin had improved a bit by that point. Our tour guide proudly told us she was able to understand some of what we were singing!

Other numbers on the program included: Leonard Bernstein’s “Olympic Hymn;” “O Fortuna” from Orff’s”Carmina Burana” (this is the music played on the current Gatorade commercial); John Williams’ “Call of the Champions” – originally written for the 2002 Winter Olympics and sounding like a mash-up of the theme musicsfrom “Star Wars” and the “Harry Potter” films; and the choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Meanwhile – to get back “on topic”:

I kept an eye out everywhere for a movie theatre, but saw only one: a theatre in Shanghai where “Hancock” was playing.

As for watching movies on the plane, let me just say “Kudos” to Air Canada for their fine, extensive selection of movies and TV shows available “On Demand” at each seat in coach. The movie selection included foreign, independent and classic films, as well as recent theatrical releases, plus HBO favorites in both English and French. (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” becomes “Cache Ta Joie” en francais, a title that definitely loses something in the translation.) En route to Beijing, I caught “Definitely Maybe” and all but the last 10 minutes of “Charlie Bartlett” (we started our descent into Beijing just as it was reaching its final scenes; I must definitely rent this sometime soon to see how it all ends.) For the brief time that I was awake on the return trip, I was able to watch the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic “Charade,” a nice, feel-good experience for the long ride home.

And now, I return to life as it was before and to movies and reviewing. I’m off to a matinee of “Hancock” today and back to the office tomorrow. And a nap right now – jet lag is setting in again.


12 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Welcome home, girlie!I absolutely agree about the love of movies and the love of travel being intertwined. Both are really about seeing the world, and experiencing other points of view. They’re very symbiotic.I’m so glad you had a good time, but I’m still insanely jealous.

Comment by Nayana Anthony

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at your Starbucks @ the Great Wall and Colonel Sanders experiences. That’s just sad, especially the Great Wall business. Get Starbucks and every other chain the hell out of there. Then again, it’s not like we’re any better with our monuments. Then again on top of that, we’re capitalists, so we’re supposed to sell out our history for a buck. ;)Welcome back, and get well rested!

Comment by Fletch

Great to read about your trip, Pat! As to KFC infiltrating China, I can remember when the first one showed up in Shanghai in 1992. It was like the second coming for my family. We would travel 45 minutes to downtown just to pick up a greasy slice of life from back home. Honestly, chains like Starbucks and KFC are probably the best things for China. As China opens its arms to embrace things like Western influences and the internet (which it has to do if it is going to remain relevant in today’s global world) it will come inches closer to the death of Communism. That Ted Koppel quote is very astute. But China can’t go on serving two masters like that forever. Sooner or later people are going to realize, en masse, that there is a different way to live, a more free way, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. It almost did back in 1989, and you can see the fast tracking the government had to do over the whole Tibet fiasco a few months ago. Starbucks is the first step towards democracy. China is going to wake up one day in the near future and, just like the Soviet Union did, find their empire in shambles.

Comment by Evan Derrick

I am glad you are home safe and sound. Thanks for such a great post. I loved it–and you know I ALWAYS love a Forrest Gump quote-HA.I find the whole Starbucks and KFC thing sad too–and Papa John’s……really? But I must confess I would have enjoyed a mocha frapp and some friend chicken too.Isn’t it nice after being gone on a long trip to come home to Jesse Jackson wanting to cut off Obama’s balls? Lovely.Looking forward to your photos and more stories!

Comment by Parisjasmal

Nayana – Thanks, it is good to be back. And you are right on with your comment about movies and travel – both things do take us out of our own lives and give us another perspective.Fletch – I know what you mean, I had the same reaction. I’m always dismayed to see crass American commercialism in other coutries. Then again, per Evan’s comments below, it may not be such a bad thing.Evan – I appreciate your insightful comments. It was obvious to us that the younger generation in China has embraced all things Western. One of our guides told us that many of her friends work two or three jobs in order to be able to afford nice things. Little kids seemed genuinely excited to approach us and be able to say “Hello” to us in English. I expect that as Westerner, I am jaded about such things as the availablity of fast food, stylish clothes and nice cars, so I don’t fully grasp what having all that means to people in China.PJ – Yep, they had Papa Johns! Actually they took us to a pizza buffet restauarant one night in Beijing, but it was NOT like home -no tomato sauce on the pizza, but they had toppings like sweet corn and fruit and weird names like Deep Affection pizza and South Florida Beach pizza.On the subject of Obama, it’s interesting: toward the end of our trip, our guide made the comment that “We hope Mr. Obama will spend less money on war, and will be good to China” (or words to that effect. It was like she already assumed Obama would be elected president.

Comment by Pat

Pat – Sounds like a great trip in spite of the lack of culture shock. I’ve been on those guided tours in non-Communist countries and they are all about getting you to spend money. Wouldn’t it have been great to slip off and find a movie theatre? Welcome home and looking forward to your further travels in movies and life.

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn – Your tours sound much like this one. Definitely geared towards getting us to spend money. At many of the restaurants we had to go through a large store full of tourist trinkets in order to get to and from the actual dining room – plenty of hard sells going on there.And, yes, I would have loved to have been able to visit a movie theatre. One of my favorite memories of my trip to Paris in 1992 was going to see “Bringing Up Baby” (in English, with French subtitles.)

Comment by Pat

Welcome back, Pat!

Comment by Rick Olson

Yes, a belated welcome back!

Comment by Daniel G.

A few years back, my wife and I and our son went to China to adopt a baby girl. We spent 2 weeks there. I saw both sides of China. There were streets that I walked where I felt like I was in a third world country, and then there was a Starbucks in the middle of the Forbidden City (I’m told it has been since removed and I’m sorry to hear that there’s one at The Great Wall). The day after we landed, we climbed The Great Wall, visited the Forbidden City and flew a kite in Tiennemen Square (spelling sucks). We went on the Golden Harvest Day, the day that all of China gets off. So imagine hundreds and hundreds of people climbing The Great Wall at the same time. And every person stopping to rub my son’s sandy hair and look into his big blue eyes. When we received my daughter she was very sick so we had to take her to the hospital the next day. Being there, I knew I was in a communist country. The hospitals are terrible and the medicine they practice is about 100 years behind.I think you really felt the effects of the Olympics. I don’t remember so much Western influence, but it was definitely there. It’s true that China is a far off land, but I never understand why people leave the US and seek out other US locations. We went with over 100 families adopting and they were so excited when they found a Wal-Mart. Give me a break.It was an amazing time and we saw some amazing things as well.Anyway, welcome back. It was very hard for me to get back on a schedule, but I kind of enjoyed watching movies with my new baby girl at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Comment by Piper

Piper -Thanks for sharing your experiences. It sounds like an amazing and emotional trip for you, and I’m sure the hospital trip was wrenching. Hope your daughter is well and thriving now. Some good friends of mine have two adopted Chinese daughters, and I think their trips were more like yours, although getting to be there on Golden Harvest Day sounds particularly special.I have no doubt that our experience was influenced by the upcoming Olympics, as well as the fact that we were on a tightly scheduled, organized tour conducted under the ausipices of the Chinese government. I would had loved to roam Beijing freely, visit a street market, or even the Beijing Zoo to see the pandas, but there was no available time in our schedule for these kinds of wanderings. We had a lot more free time in Shanghai, but it was all in touristy shopping districts.And, yeah, the jet lag is a killer. It took me a full week to feel back to normal.

Comment by Pat

Fletch and Pat,Thanks. Sorry about this, didn’t mean to tell a story that would take away from yours Pat. Our daughter’s name is Sing and she is doing wonderfully, thanks. She is going to be celebrating her 5th birthday this October. Fletch, adopting from China (or anywhere) is an amazing thing and I feel blessed that I’ve been able to experience a child by birth and a child by adoption. Anyway, I’m with you on the opportunity to roam. I didn’t get a lot of time to do it that wasn’t controlled. In Guangzhou, they have an entire area dedicated to different markets. An entire sky scrapper was dedicated entirely to Pearl vendors. And there was an electronics building that I could have lost days in. I found a DVD vendor where I could buy DVDs for about a buck a piece. A Kill Bill Vol 1. DVD in Chinese is pretty damn cool.

Comment by Piper

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