Friday, November 7, 2008

Beijing and Moving On ...

It should be such a schlep to come to Beijing. I feel like it should take more effort, and then I feel like being here, in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world, it should feel soulless, fast-paced, unwelcoming.

I can’t be more wrong. Every time I land in Beijing, the expanse of grassy land around the airport is the first to remind me that this is not what I am expecting. Yesterday it was grassy with blue skies and little wisps of white clouds. The air was clear with just a slight chill.

The airport has just undergone an enormous expansion and remodeling. I flew through its shiny, wide hallways, and out into the shortest taxi line I’ve ever seen in China. The taxis lined up in such an orderly way that I wondered which country I was in. My driver popped the trunk, jumped out of his cab, and gently hoisted my luggage into the back. We sat down in the front seat side-by-side, he roared his engine, turned up the radio to his favorite CD of Michael Jackson songs, and off we went.

“You foreigners like this Michael Jackson. We like him too. He can dance AND he can sing. And he has a couple signature moves that you just can’t forget, like this!” at which point the middle-aged cab driver grabbed his crotch and jerkily shrugged his shoulders. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

We drove down the newly paved highways lined with newly planted greenery. This road to Beijing was as welcoming as it could get. I remember this same road eight years ago as my first introduction to China. Potholes, bikes and trash lined it. Then our bus broke down, leaving us, a group of 50 high school students, waiting for an hour with our year’s worth of luggage on the shoulder of the highway. Now I was in the nicest, cleanest cab I think I’ve ever been in.

Beijing is wonderful. We drove straight downtown via the second ring road into the heart of the city – Wangfujing, an upscale shopping district just next to Tiananmen Square. Here I met with a colleague for lunch at the Oriental Plaza’s hotel restaurant called Made In China, an upscale northern Chinese restaurant. Tea was served in glass mugs lined with a sterling silver webbing. The dumplings were delicate and tiny, the rest of the food was lightly oiled, the stir-fried cabbage with dried prawns was just salty and green enough, service and stylish clientele were enough to make me want to eat there every day. It was a memorable lunch to say goodbye to a very special colleague and friend.

After work that evening, I headed north to Shangdi. This is a new high-tech district on the outskirts of Beijing that my host family from that high school year abroad had recently moved to. Here they had enough space to grow their own vegetables, and it was close to both my host mother’s work unit along with the hospital that Meimei spent about three years of her life in. My host mother called five times while I was in the cab to make sure the driver was driving the right way. When I arrived at the gate to their residential compound, she was standing outside poised to shove money at the cab driver before I could pay myself.

As we walked into the compound she said, “Oh yeah, we have a baby boy now! Nainai brought him from the north and he’s seven months old.”

And little baby they did have! His full name is Li Chengbing, but he goes by Jiujiu. The baby is chubby and smiles and gurgles almost constantly. After holding him for about two minutes, my host mother asked to have him back, mentioning that he had to pee. She sat on the edge of a nearby chair, baby held with his legs splayed between her open legs, his bottom naked, hanging out of his split leg pants, gurgling and grabbing his toes, while my host mother said, “Alright pee!! Shhhhhhh!! Pee!!!” At which point, he grunted and started to make the other instead. “That’s right, ERRR!!!” she said along with him. Both sitting there, grunting while Jiujiu pooed on the floor, I couldn’t help but laugh and laugh and laugh. She looked at me every once in a while and laughed too.

She said, “You see his head, it is so big while the rest of his body isn’t! This is the opposite of Meimei – her body grew long, but her head didn’t catch up for years!!”

I stayed that night through a delicious home cooked dinner with my host mother and the two ayis. Then, we put Jiujiu to sleep. He gurgled and giggled all the way until he was unconscious. Mama drove me back to the city center, driving 25 miles an hour on the highways. We arrived at the Bookworm – an old Beijing expat institution where Wifi, English books, yummy coffee and hipsters are in abundance. Here I met up with an old friend. Life, it seems, goes on.

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