Saturday, March 8, 2008

Greetings from Beijing

Greetings from Beijing!! This post comes to you via email and my good friend Steve Matheson. It seems blogs originating from home are inaccessible here. So, I have been unable to read or post anything.

Our days have been full since arriving on Wednesday. So far Rowan has taken in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square; together we have visited the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. Our trip to the latter wore poor Rowan out, as he came back and slept for fourteen straight hours. After quite an ascent up the mountain and to the wall, Rowan was found to be in need of relief, and with no WC to be found… well…you guessed it…he was forced to pisseth against the wall, the Great Wall. I conjecture that his not yet being a man is to account for his continued presence among the living.

As you make your way up the lower part of the mountain toward nearly any segment of the Great Wall you are greeted by eager natives hawking their wares, which consist mostly of fake antiques, t-shirts and a variety of other souvenirs. Rowan had his eye on a sword and a couple of small lion figures. I had my eye on a small Chinese painting. So, on the way back down I girded my loins and readied myself to haggle. The sword was being offered at 620 RMB, which is roughly $88. It was a nice sword, but…um….me thinks they wanted to screw us. So, sensing that they smelled blood galvanized me into uber-bargaining action. I offered 30 RMB for the sword. You read that right, 30 RMB. The ladies selling it looked at me and giggled like school girls. 500 they wrote down on a piece of paper. No way; 50, I wrote down. This was greeted w/more snickers and noises I could only interpret as “foolish american, are you crazy?” 420, they wrote. 60, I wrote. Nothing doing. I started walking away. The two of them chased me several paces. They tugged and pulled on my sleeves. I said “boi yow”, which means “I don’t want”. 180 they wrote, desperation now evident in the noises emanating from their mouths. 70, I wrote. 160, they wrote. I walked. They chased again. I wrote 75. “Little more, little more,” one woman said. I walked. They chased. “Boi yow,” I said. “Okay, Okay.” Hold on! Was that English they spoke?—“Little more, little more” and “okay, okay.” Why, yes Virginia, I do believe it was. Hmm. Anyway, that was the end of that. What started out as an $88 sword ended up costing me $10 or 75 RMB. And I am quite certain a profit was still madeth by the women.

Ditto for my painting and Rowan’s lions. Both started in the 500 RMB range. When all was said and done, the painting was had for 50 RMB ($7) and the lions for 40 ($5 and change). It was quite an adventure and our local guides were thoroughly impressed with the deftness of my haggling skills.

The next day, while ambulating about Beijing and riding on the subway, I was struck with the following bright idea: surely, I thought, there must be clothes to be had here that will actually fit a man—how shall we say it?—whose stature is more typical of the Irish or…well…perhaps the Chinese. And such, if such there be I thought, would surely be more affordable here then at home. So, inspired by my previous bargaining success and persuaded by two very kind young Chinese women (who had been spending lots of time showing Rowan, me and two other American guests around) I was taken to a mall. The women said they knew just the store that would have clothes I like. Rowan said, “Dad, you hate malls; why are you going to a mall?” Son, I said, there is an ancient Chinese proverb: a purchase in China mall is like a dollar in american bank. So we ended up at this very large, very western-like mall where bargaining, sadly, is not practiced. Blast! But I must say the shopping experience was quite unlike anything in Grand Rapids. For there in front of my eyes were racks of clothes that actually fit—fit me. And—now I’m not kidding!—the “smalls” were actually too small! How different life is in China! Anywho, what turned out to be another successful shopping spree ended (rather quickly I was told by the women who accompanied me) with the purchase of a super-cool blazer/sport-coat with a European flair for 199 RMB ($28). I love China!

Oh, have I mentioned the food? Holy…skin and bone! The food is fantastic, and cheap. You can get a huge, tasty lunch for three or four dollars. The breakfasts, on the other hand, are a bit uninspiring even for someone whose normal breakfast fare is oatmeal. But lunch and dinner more than compensate. And Rowan is shocking everyone by consuming the spiciest of Chinese dishes w/nary a bead of sweat evident on his forehead and all the skill with chopsticks that the old man displays in bargaining. He did, however, let it be known that he was not very fond of the goose liver.

In a few hours (tomorrow for you) we’re going to visit the summer palace. Then, we fly out of Beijing bright and early Monday morning, and head for Hangzhou where Monday through Thursday I offer a series of four three hour lectures at Zheijang University. I’m very much looking forward to Hangzhou, whose weather is supposed to be a bit more pleasant then Beijing’s, which is very dry and heavy with pollution. The air so dry in fact that Rowan has settled into daily nose bleeds. And the pollution is so bad you can actually feel your lungs burn. It is said that breathing the air of Beijing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I believe it.

Well, I wish I could have included some pix for you, but alas I forgot the cord for the camera that’s necessary for transferring them to my computer. (At least I didn’t forget my camera!)

When I return, look for a post on autism and personhood to greet you. And maybe a few pix from what has so far been an incredibly wonderful experience! Indeed, more than the food, more than the bargains, more than anything, it is the Chinese people that impress me the most. They are the most hospitable, most generous people of any I have met. Their hospitality and generosity really do inspire me.

Peace to All,

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