I whined about the trip, and about getting ready for it.
It's a daunting prospect to fly across an ocean, especially the bigger one. I had never done it before, and it's not something I'll put down for a monthly rotation. Flying in the front of the plane makes it darned near tolerable, though. It's a 14-hour flight from Toronto to Beijing, and stunningly, the Canadians are pretty not-wacky about smoking, so I got to load up on nicotine in a smoking lounge before boarding the aircraft.
Air Canada is pretty civilized, too, at least in business class (I've never flown in their livestock section). About an hour into the flight, they start loading you up with a gourmet meal--multiple courses, decent enough food, a little tablecloth over your lap tray, and all the red you can swill. It's a leisurely, 90-minute meal, and this aircraft had a beautiful little on-demand feature for videos. I watched a movie (the latest Harry Potter thingie, I think) and got real drowsy by the end of it. When I woke up, it was time for a mid-flight bowl of noodles (AirCan's nod to the destination, I think, in addition to a nod in the form of a really hot Asian stewardess named Vivian whose idea of passenger service for not-horribly-ugly-or-smelly male passengers includes just about everything short of a tug job*), and another movie (the very bad Zorro movie starring Antonio Banderas and, thank the gods, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who provided a lot of very entertaining, heavingly bosomy footage). That occasioned another nap (plagued by sweet heaving dreams). I spent only about 7 hours of the flight awake, and that? Is a lot less daunting.
When I landed in Beijing, it was about 1 PM local. I was pretty tired, but well within range of toughing things out and semi-normalizing my time orientation by staying awake until bedtime and getting a decent night's sleep. With my faithful travelling companion Andres (not his real name), I disembarked into the Commie's lair.
Andres is a real good guy. He's a fairly high-ranking servant of a major multilateral institution, and without his help, our project--i.e., the topic of this fabulous Beijing launch activity--would not have come to fruition. He personally ensured that his organization did about a million bucks of work on spec--which is to say, I was very, very slow to pay him (we still owe him about a quarter-million bucks)--and another half million just out of the goodness of his heart. He's appallingly handsome, debonair, well-dressed, classy, distinguished. I feel dirty standing next to the man, he's so fucking shiny. He's a really, really nice guy, too, and quite pragmatic about getting a job done. He had been in Toronto visiting his son for a day or two, and we ended up on the same flight. We weren't sitting together, which was likely a good idea, because Andres is far too nice to be able to put up with the likes of me for 14 hours, and because he didn't deserve to sit next to someone who snores as obnoxiously as I do.
But at the airport, I had hand, because the car was there for me. Somehow, our conference organizer had forgotten Andres' existence, and he was riding into town at my sufferance. I almost never get rock-star treatment at an airport, but this? Was my day.
After the fright with the money and the visa, Chinese Frontier Security was pretty laughable--remarkably cursory. I didn't have SARS and I wasn't a religious activist. They just didn't care. We got through the formalities quickly, and strode confidently out into the arrivals hall.
Which was mobbed. Oh my Sweet Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ, I have never seen such a sea of pulsating humanity. Thousands of 'em, crowded up to the perp walk you have to do coming out of Frontier Security, waving signs, shrieking, elbowing, weeping, and just generally...well, pulsating. The sign with my name was pretty obvious, and after a quick rendevous with an ATM that dispensed currency with pictures of Chairman Mao, we made for our car, escorted by our guide, who told us her name was Echo.
The car was handsome--like a small Town Car, but the Chinese apparently don't believe much in trunk space, because my giant duffel and garment bag and large laptop/briefcase/flight bag would not coexist peacefully with Andres' giant rolling monster and smaller flight bag (Andres is a much smarter traveller than I am, at least for longish trips). We ended up with my duffel and flight bag in between us in the back seat.
Echo introduced us to the driver, Mister Somebody, who looked and acted like a mobster. Fine with me, he's on my side. Echo told us proudly that this car model was the first Chinese-manufactured limousine, the Red Flag. It was pretty nice--leather seats, very comfortable, nice smooth ride. I felt like Dan Akroyd as a mohel.
Echo nattered constantly during the ride in. This suited Andres--he's a people person, and can sustain a conversation with just about anyone, even a surly sociopath like me. He kept Echo occupied while I surveyed my surroundings.
Which were bleak. Beijing sits on the edge of the desert, a fact I found quite surprising. I wondered, as we drove in, about the long, perfectly straight ranks of trees planted along the highways; I found out later that they had been planted, in a massive, hero-project effort, as erosion breaks, an attempt to cut down on pollution from sandstorms. Good idea, as it happens, because Beijing is polluted enough from other sources.
Peering between the perfectly spaced ranks of trees, I could see...a poor country. Bleak, sandy villages without motor vehicles, with wooden shacks or huts or hovels. Few bicycles. Dirt roads and tracks. Not much of an infrastructured look. This only 20 miles or so out from the center of the national capital. I began to wonder what the fuck I had gotten myself into--this place is supposed to be a dangerous, modernizing superpower, right?
I don't think I was supposed to be noticing this, because Echo started to try to draw me into the conversation, which was mostly about banal stuff like how progressive and forward-looking China is, and how the Chinese have many sayings, and how they are very excited about the upcoming Olympics in 2008, and how the Chinese have many sayings. By the end of the ride, Echo had related about 114 of them, of which maybe 3 made sense. Damned if I can remember them now.
After 15 or 17 miles, we were obviously in the urb. Traffic was thick--devastatingly so. The smog was choking--at least, I thought it was the smog. It turned out that about half of it was sand, blown in from a Gobi sandstorm. Damned Mongoreans.
Which gets us to the most difficult challenge I faced during my eight days in Beijing, which was not speaking out loud these words:
Why Mongoreans attack Shitty Wall?
Ilse had spent days prepping me for this, and not kindly. Every day for a week, she pranked me with phone calls delivered in a pidgin accent, trying hard to get me to stop laughing like the diseased imperialist racist piglet that I am. If I was going to a Chinese prison, it wasn't going to be for laughing at the letters R and L.
It's a filthy city, far dirtier than my favorite European and American cities. There are, as you'd expect, many banners and billboards and placards, all unintelligible to the likes of me, but there's something about an exhortation to Work Hard for the Glory and Well-Being of the People that manages to transcend alphabets and bore itself into your skull anyway. There are things about Beijing that you can find anywhere; traffic, noise, diesel fumes, mobs, uniformed persons of all stripes and types, wide avenues and choked alleys, grandiose buildings, a mix of the ancient and modern.
It's just that in Beijing, you don't really know what the uniforms mean (I found out a little bit later on), the smog and fumes are far, far worse, and it's a real stark line between the ancient and modern. Looking out from any vantage point in the central city, you can see a mix of ancient Asian rooftops and modern skyscrapers that you certainly won't find in London, obscured by an indeterminate haze that you won't find even in New York or LA.
You'll also see a forest of cranes (the construction sort, not the origami sort). Beijing is a rework in progress, owing to the upcoming 2008 Olympics. The Chinese are tearing down and rebuilding huge swaths of the city. The Olympics are important to the Chinese, to an extent that is hard to convey. They are stompdown fucking nuts about it. They understand the importance of presenting a good face to the world for this one, and they're damned if anything's going to stop them from doing just that. They're building a new international terminal at the Beijing airport that is bigger than the rest of the airport put together. They're building countless new hotels and shopping areas. They are going to have a functioning market economy in place in Beijing in time for the Olympics, if it kills them, and one wonders, seriously, if it will. The Chinese are not afraid of hard work, and they're at it. We should all be grateful that they're doing something constructive, because if these people decide to focus all that energy on cleaning out our skinny white asses? We're gonna be a in world of hurt.
The traffic in Beijing is insane, beyond the wildest imaginings of any Washingtron or San Franciscan or Bostonian, and the drivers unimaginably more primal and aggressive. I cannot recommend, by way of sport, jaywalking in Beijing. There is a zero-sympathy policy for anyone caught hanging around the midline of a city avenue waiting for oncoming traffic to clear. Just when you think the terror is about to end and you can make a dash for the far shore, more traffic materializes in a way that can only be described as deliberate and malign.
This problem is compounded by the street layout. There are no curbs in much of the city; the sidewalk and street are the same pavement, and there is only a nodding respect to the concept that some of this pavement does not belong to wheeled traffic. There are some undefined boundaries between the spaces intended for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, and it's just not a good idea to be more than four feet from a building. On my eventual visit to Tienanamen Square (on my penultimate day in the city), I survived only because my friend Beth is really, really fast and twice bodily yanked me out of the way of onrushing vehicles--police vehicles.
I staggered in to the Beijing Hotel, and arranged to meet Andres in two hours or so for a walk down to Tienanamen Square, which was only a 5-minute walk away. My room was perfectly continental in every respect--the place is apparently a 5-star hotel. While there was an annoying acetate smell in the hallways--we never did find out why--it was all pretty serviceable. Not wanting to fuck up my internal clock any worse, I settled in to test my Internet connection and see what the Chinese government would let me transmit over the Web. Various guidebooks had warned me about the degree of electronic monitoring there, so I was real cautious, and I didn't experience any problems.
At the appointed hour, I strolled down to the elevator bank, where I discovered a disturbing fact; I was on the same floor as the staff office for the conference. Uh-oh. What was worse, I was spotted. What was even worse, the spotter knew that I had flown business class, and expressed the expectation that I should pop off of a 14-hour flight in business class refreshed and ready to actually work.
"Are you out of your fucking no-account mind?" I asked politely. "I'll work tomorrow. Leave me the fuck alone."
No dice. Energy Girl, who shall be known here as Ptraci, for obscure reasons that about two of you will understand, stood her ground. I was drafted. I slunk off to notify Andres of my plight, and slunk back up to the tenth floor to settle in to meet my fate.
I will try not to bore you too terribly much with the details of my fate. After all, you want to hear about the China bits, and in truth, many of the details of my fate could have happened in any dirt-poor country with a crappy banking system, a half-assed market economy, and a fluffy and ephemeral currency.
But here, my fate involved actual Chinese persons, of whom you will care to hear. We had a two-hour meeting to go over every detail of the conference, which was to begin two days hence. This meeting was attended by our on-site staff, a combination of employees and consultants of my sponsor (me, Ptraci, my buddy Slim, and our media grrrl, Foxy), local subcontractor employees, and the conference coordinator, Blanche, an imperious frosted-blonde sack of seething American contempt for all living things, most especially wogs or people who ought, in her view, to be wogs.
Which we had in abundance, because we hired a pretty good subcontractor to handle all the destination stuff, including the airport pickups and bodydumps, and logistical/administrative support, and translations, and registration/hospitality, which is not code for anything no matter how much Dweezil and Goth want it to be. They had four people there, and these four people are central to our story.
Tourism is important in China, an important source of entertainment, for those locals that can afford it, and an important source of hard-currency income from international tourism. I mentioned last time that it's not easy to enter China, and that's a little hard to understand, until you come to realize that it's a pretty officious culture and they mean nothing by it, and the not-easy part is mostly show, dedicated to keeping out those the government would consider political undesirables.
Once you're in country, though, it all changes, and everyone--I mean everyone--is eager to please, or at least tries to put on a convincing show of being eager to please. It is a nominally customer-service culture, at least for foreigners, and at least within the bounds of the usual Asian face-saving values.
To this end, the tourism industry is pretty huge. Colleges offer degrees in tourism, and the four lovely, young, cute, cuddly, eager-to-please little thangs in this meeting were all graduates of tourism school. Ordinarily, they conduct tours. One of them told me about spending two years in Tibet as a tour guide. I asked if it was difficult to get into Tibet; there is a special visa required, and they certainly aren't about inviting Richard Gere in for a book tour. She told me that it wasn't particularly difficult, there were lots of flights into the region. Realizing my error, I recalibrated the question, asking about the special visa.
"Oh," she said. "That's political. Is because the Dalai Lama betrayed the government."
Welcome to history. More about it later.
Tourism school includes classes in English. All of our lovely, young, cute, cuddly, eager-to-please little thangs had been given American names in their English classes, because it is thought to be courteous to not make our thick, moonshine-swollen tongues try to wrap themselves around Mandarin syllables. Hence, I set about a week's collaboration (still not code) with Holly, Susan, Joan, and Nancy. It is disconcerting to try to conduct a pidgin conversation, dropping all indefinite articles by force of habit after only a day or two in country (even in conversations with native English speakers), with a smiling, eager-to-please, fresh young Chinese girl wearing a giant name tag that says "NANCY." It just doesn't fly.
It turned out that Holly, Susan, Joan, and Nancy were among the most pleasant aspects of my time in Beijing. They were enduringly helpful, sweet, curious, and interested in comparative cultural analysis (Attention; ATTENZIONE: There is no code in this post. Thank you.) Hanging with them, working with them, talking to them, these were the high points of the work-related experience.
Except it took a few days for them to warm to me. We met, you see, less than four hours after I disembarked from the plane. I was pretty fucking hostile at this impromptu, let's-go-over-every-fucking-detail-for-the-forty-second-time meeting. Hostile, grumpy, hungry for viscera. This meeting was not the best getting-to-know-you sorta scenario.
But I am a perfectly responsible and artful person, and it didn't take us long to get to eager to please.
*I'm exaggerating, honey.
Tip of the horns to Dweezil for making possible the title of this post.