Re-entry blues

The Family laughs at me as we scan the menu in a fish restaurant in Mumbai. I said "This is expensive, nothing costs less than 90 RMB". We are still talking about China as we tuck into the Bombay Duck, the squid and the Rawas. Every table around us has a few foreign businessmen: a contingent from Japan to the left, some Germans to our right, mixed in with Indian hosts.

We came to eat shark, but they don’t have it today. The Lotus decides that we stay. I have eaten everything on the menu a hundred times, but I know that the Family has never eaten mussels here. I order a plate. The flesh is hard to extract with fork and knife; chopsticks would have been useful. I use my hands. The spices and coconuts are specific to the Konkan coast. Home feels different after more than a month in China.

The last days of the empire

We walked through the Summer Palace in Beijing on a very hot day. The leafy roads were protected from the hot sun. The cooling breeze from the Kunming lake gave respite from the heat. In spite of the crush of people you saw immediately on entering palace gates, the rest of the huge grounds did not seem crowded. We walked through the corridors of the palace of the Empress Dowager Longyu. She was married to the emperor when Chinese empire was already crumbling. She brought the two thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom to an end by signing the instrument of abdication in 1912 on behalf of the child emperor Puyi. China burned through the next century. It is only now that you see a new society being born.

If you know the outlines of the history of those troubled times you feel odd walking through these peaceful leafy corridors. The country was already torn apart when these halls were being refurbished for the Emperor’s consort. The European powers had burned and looted the Summer Palace twice, the Boxer rebellion had occupied it, China had lost battles to Japan. But the opulence of the palace of the last empress did not reflect this. You walk through the corridors as an exquisitely painted cat turns its back on you in contented peace from its place in the rafters, forever seeking mice in the gables. Chinese tourists walk past, cameras clicking on simulated auto.

Chinese things which put a smile on our faces

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This is my last post from China, so I’ll list the things which I think will stay longest in my memory.

Selfies is definitely the highest on the list. Interestingly, while youngsters take selfies left, right, and on a stick, somewhat older people don’t. I saw a young couple at the Summer Palace in Beijing taking photos of each other. When I offered to take their photo as a couple on one of their phones, they seemed very happy. They never thought of taking a selfie with both.

Enjoy Dental Clinic may be the next on the list. We saw this from a taxi stuck on Beijing’s 4th ring road. I thought I would go back to take a photo, but agreed with The Family when she said there was no reason to believe that we would get stuck in traffic right there again.

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Couples with matched T-shirts are smile inducing always, but especially when they wear a pair of well-designed black heart on off-white with her heart saying "No", and his saying "Yes". Closely related to this are families in matched clothes: papa, mama and pre-teen daughter wearing white trousers and fluorescent green shirts with grey trim, for example.

Architectural marvels which stay in my memory are not only the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but also the experience in Shanghai of standing near the top of one of the tallest buildings on earth and looking at several others among the ten tallest.

The crowds at Badaling on the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City gave us a sense of how many people there are in China. When you are in India, you get this sense only in railway stations. In China the railway stations are relatively more quiet, at least in May.

The variety of food was something we both expected and didn’t. Chinese food is not unfamiliar anywhere in the world, but eating it in China is an experience. I’ve never sought out vegetables so willingly before. There was only one road in Beijing which served insects and snakes for dinner, so that seems pretty exotic also for the Chinese.

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But most of all, the overwhelming helpfulness. The Family and I remember the worst day of our trip, caught in a thunderstorm in West Lake in Hangzhou, totally drenched, unable to find a taxi, not knowing which bus to take, since we had not planned to take one, and without a single useful word of Putonghua. A completely unknown young couple shared their taxi with us, and directed the taxi driver to our hotel after dropping off enroute. On another occasion I asked a security guard to help me with something, a passing student stopped to translate, and then took the guard’s place so that he could come with me. The most populous country in the world, and so many kind and helpful people!

Beijing fathers

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Beijing seems to have many fathers actively doing their part in bringing up children. Here are two who are involved in taking care of their child while the wife takes the grandparents into a temple to pray. It is impossible to compose the photo when you take shots like this, because you do not want to distract the people from what they are already doing. As you can see, both fathers noticed me.

What China has more than any other country in the world is people, and it pays as a tourist to concentrate on them.

Pollution alert

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These are three successive attempts to take close ups of architectural details in Beijing’s Lama Temple. I never thought that the amount of incense burnt in a temple could possibly drive me out choking and coughing, but eventually it did. Before that I did get a few decent shots when occasionally the smoke would let off.

Ming Buddhas

In the National Museum in Beijing I saw these three beautiful statues of serene Buddhas from the Ming period. The symbiosis of Buddhism and ceramics has to be seen to be believed. I was especially impressed by the large and colourful porcelain Buddha (photo below), whose buffed surface looked like any of the decorative Ming vases in an adjoining hall. If it were not for the serenity radiating from the face and fingers of the right hand held in the Karana mudra, warding off evil, I would have had a tough time guessing who this represented.

We nearly did not go to the museum; three weeks is not a long time in Beijing if you are also in meetings most of the time. The museum is not billed as one of the must-sees. After our visit we thought it is unfairly neglected.2015-05-28 15.35.36 In any other city it would be one of the star sights.

The immense building has eight large exhibition halls on each of its four floors, and more in the basement. We knew we didn’t have time to see everything, so our list of priorities was based on an abstract idea of classical Chinese art: ceramics, paintings, statues and jade. Each of these collections was enormous. We missed much, and we plan to visit the museum again when we come back to Beijing.

Daily lives

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In ancient China the emperor was the ultimate teacher. Next to the old Confucius temple in Yonghegong is the Imperial college, where the emperor would teach ethics to monks from the throne in the photo above. However, even earlier, in Marco Polo’s time a traveler could learn from anyone. I find that is even more true today.

Friday was the last day at work in China, and there was a relaxed sense of winding down. We went for lunch in little groups. I was in a knot of people with two of our hosts, in a very relaxed mood. Talk came round to children and their education. One of our hosts had a boy and the other had two girls.

The one with the boy was concerned about the future: she had to put aside 100,000 RMB a year for his education. But isn’t education free in China? Only if you send children to school in your own neighbourhood. She wanted a good education, so the school she’d chosen was in the university area. She could either move there, which would be more expensive, or pay for the school.

Moreover, as we had discovered some time earlier, it was common for the boy, or his parents, to pay for the wedding. Talking to my colleague I had the impression that there was more to it: the parents of the boy were supposed to set up house for the new couple. I joked about buying a flat outside the 6th ring road, currently the limit of the city, because the city would probably have an 8th ring road by the time the boy was old enough to marry. It turned out that this was not a joke, she had already done that. Were they far-sighted parents of a two-year old boy? No, this was common in middle class China.

My other host told us a modern Chinese saying: parents of boys were supposed to be construction bankers, parents of girls were investment bankers. The sex-ratio in China is heavily is skewed towards boys, so both of them agreed that this expense was inevitable, the market correcting social imbalances. They were aware that India also had significantly less girls than boys, although not as bad as China. So they were puzzled why in India the parents of the girls still had to pay for the wedding. I did not talk of the wide-spread violence against women in India; I had not seen or read much like this in China, but my experience is short and the news in China is never complete.

We talked about expenses in general, and both my hosts stated that life is not as comfortable as in the west, and that China is still a poor country. I could agree, but from my Indian perspective I thought that the middle class was quite comfortable. Their arguments centered around the huge costs of buying houses and cars. I see construction all around me even as I go from the hotel to work. The roads are choked with cars: on the road I see Volkswagen, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes around me in traffic jams. In our trip to the 798 art district we saw local people buying art all around us. If my host’s complaints were correct, then there is incredible income inequality building in China.

This was confirmed when I challenged their statement about poverty by saying that costs of things I saw in supermarkets were double that in India. The answer they gave is that normal people cannot afford to buy these things. Maybe that is the reason why there are so many fake handbags in China. But China remains different from India, even among fakes there is a clear gradation of quality, with some good-quality fakes called AAA quality being very well made. In India you can often pay good money and get completely shoddy work. I used to put this down to the lack of a legal system, but China also lacks these laws, and they do better.

We talked mostly about China, but I sensed an immense curiosity about India. At one point I said I knew the names of only two animals in Chinese: the dragon (lung) and the elephant (xiang). The two laughed and said these are China and India, which was more powerful? I tried to be diplomatic saying that they never meet. This was an answer they liked, it was repeated a couple of times in agreement. But even so, every explanation about life in China was followed by a question about what it is like in India.

China and India are not direct rivals: the dragon and the elephant are not in a struggle. But both know that there is another power nearby. There are hostile voices in both countries. The struggle of the future will be to figure out how to avoid confrontation. Travel and mutual understanding may eventually help.

Tea

Chinese tea is so different from Indian tea that I don’t even know how to begin to list the differences. So, one of the exciting things you can do in China is to taste the teas. It turns out that the best place to do this in Beijing is to go to the Maliandao tea street. This whole street is lined with shops selling tea and tea paraphernalia.

My target was the Beijing International Tea Center, whose entrance is shown in the photo above. This was the only door flanked by elephants that I saw in China. In this one large building you can go from one shop to another tasting their tea. I did not meet a single person who knows English, but this should not stop you. The people here are not only good salesmen, but also seem to like tea. It is an interesting experience to sit down for a tea tasting and converse about tea without understanding the words which are spoken.

I met one young lady who surmounted the language barrier by typing her responses into her mobile, listening to the English translation through her ear buds, and then repeating it. Sometimes I would have to look at her mobile to see the English and say the words out correctly, so I guess I repaid her for the tasting by teaching her a little English.

But there were people who did not try to achieve this mechanical level of communication. The best experiences were with people who would spontaneously bring out a new tea in order to explain subtle differences in flavours and methods of infusion. I would explain the price range I was interested in, but that did not stop anyone from bringing out much more expensive tea for the tasting. I guess the cost of tastings is factored into the prices.

You can walk out of any tasting without buying tea by saying a few words. But I found that when I wanted something I could discuss the price. Getting the price down by a third was not a problem: in my experience there would be an automatic agreement. Starting at half the price would usually lead to a more prolonged discussion, with the final price settling at between 60 and 65 percent of the initial bid.

This was probably the most instructive evening I have spent. I wish there were similar wine markets in southern Europe.

Icecream

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Fortune cookies are unknown in China. In fact, most of the time you don’t get desserts on the menu in restaurants. But when you slide open the door in an ice-cream chest you see a really large number of colourful packets. It would be fun to trace the history of ice cream in a country where sweets are not a big thing. Many of the flavours are pretty exotic, I haven’t always figured out what I’m tasting. The Family has more experience in these matters, but she can’t always figured it out either. That didn’t keep us from trying them out again and again, especially since Beijing seems to have slid into summer a little early. I guess part of the fun is that we can’t read the wrappers.

Can anyone help with the wrappers in the photo?

Hairstyle

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I’d seen a lot of young boys with very closely cropped hair and thought that was the standard. In comparison, this little guy’s haircut looked pretty funky. Then I began to see advertisement pictures where this haircut seemed to be the standard. Anyway, I still think it looks funky. Teenaged boys in Beijing seem to have a wider variety of hair styles than I’ve noticed in most countries.