American Culture

China, Day Fifteen: Give My Regards to Beijing

Final part in a series…filed from home….

I say goodbye to China with a ride in a taxicab.

sm-flag01I’ve been grading papers and need a break, so I leave my hotel room and catch a cab out front. I show the driver the card I have, furnished by the hotel, that has a list of popular tourist spots printed on it in English and Chinese. I point to the line for Tiananmen Square. The driver nods, and off we go.

The “I honk, you move” rules of driving fascinate me. The roads are bedlam, but my driver seems so unperturbed that I can’t help but relax.

I take in the surroundings as we go. Beijing, on the whole, is not a beautiful city, and it doesn’t have the cosmopolitan flair of Shanghai, but in my short time here, I’ve grown to love it nonetheless. As in Washington D.C., there’s always a museum to visit, a park to stroll through, a site to see.

The cabbie drops me near Mao’s Tomb. I pass through the security checkpoint uneventfully. In some closed-off part of the tomb’s grounds, I hear soldiers drilling. Their boots clomp loudly on the pavement.

I take more photos and jot down more notes. After a few minutes of scribbling, a pair of high school students approach to ask what I’m up to. “I’m trying to write down as much as I can so I don’t forget this place,” I tell them.

Even with everything I’ve been able to write about China so far, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all my notes, and yet even still, I don’t feel like I’ve written down enough.

Just to the north of Tiananmen Square, for instance, past the Tian’an Gate, sits Sun Yat-sen Park and, beyond that, the great Forbidden City—home of the former emperors and the soul of the Middle Kingdom.

One of the open plazas in the outer section of the Forbidden City
One of the open plazas in the outer
section of the Forbidden City

Beijing is a planned city, built around the fortress-like palace, which serves like the heart of a dragon. Tiananmen Square, the dragon’s head, sits to the south and the dragon’s spine runs north to the Bell Tower in the Hutong—or so explained our tour guide there. In 2008, the dragon’s tail was extended straight north even farther to terminate at the Olympic Village.

The Forbidden City is the only thing I’ve seen in China that makes Tiananmen Square seem small, and I’ve not had time or space to write about the City at all.

I’ve not written about the Hutong district, with its public bathrooms and its narrow streets full of rickshaws and the government’s frantic efforts to preserve the old way of life that once existed there. I’ve not written about the Temple of Heaven or the Big Bell Temple or the Summer Palace. I’ve not written about so much.

The two young men who watch me scribble my notes, it turns out, are visiting family in the city. “We come from a province seven hundred miles to the west,” they tell me. “Can we walk with you and practice our English? We never see Americans where we are from.”

Like everyone else I’ve met in China, they are friendly and polite and curious about America. By the time we finish chatting, we’ve strolled the entire length of the square. I take their picture and we take our leave, and I feel better for the encounter.

I walk down Chang’an Avenue, toward the Silk Market. I feel like haggling one last time for one last something-I-don’t-need.

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz, one of the most senior journalists working in China
CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz, one of the most
senior journalists working in China

On my way, I pass into the city’s diplomatic sector and the neighborhood where we met with CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz. A Phillipino expatriate living in China meeting with American students in a Tex-Mex restaurant—it’s the kind of salad bowl/melting pot experience one might expect in the United States. But the international flavor was just one more aspect of the modern China.

“There is no one China,” FlorCruz told us. “There are many Chinas.”

In just my limited time here, I’ve seen for myself how true FlorCruz’s words are.

As I walk, I see a lone Chinese flag—five yellow stars set against a stop-red background—fluttering against a backdrop of steely glass. I see China juxtaposed against modernity, and the two create a complementary reflection. It’s Yin and Yang.

But beneath the surface, the balance hangs together with “fragile glue,” as FlorCruz put it.

“There is this centrifugal force pulling China in all these directions,” he said, citing national pride, economic growth, quality of life, increasing environmental awareness, and even the country’s membership on the United Nations Security Council. “If there is no anchor, no moral compass, this place could implode,” FlorCruz said.

The Chinese suffer from an identify crisis, FlorCruz suggested. “Most of the country is rudderless in terms of ‘What does life mean to me?’” he said. “They are trying to get back to their sense of values, ethics, philosophy. Right now, making money has become the goal. But now that the country has made all this money, what is it for? People are questioning that.”

For instance, China has more millionaires than the U.S., and yet it also has farmers living on less than $300 a year. In Beijing, I’ve seen shiny black Audis drive pass horse-drawn carts loaded with watermelons.

sm-horsedrawncartEverything I could have possibly imagined about China has been true—and so is the opposite. And I’ve only been here two weeks, so I think of all the things I haven’t seen.

The one thing I’ve seen the Chinese cling to tenaciously, though, is their sense of history, which dates back more than five thousand years. It makes America still look newborn. I have also noticed that even as the Chinese embrace Western pop culture they show a deep pride in being Chinese.

Despite government controls on information, the Chinese are well informed about what’s going on in the world and in China. The average person in China is better informed than Middle America, FlorCruz said.

“We need to treat China seriously,” he insisted. “Don’t underestimate them.”

And we should try not to misunderstand them, either, I would add. It’s so easy to do when stereotypes are built on Chinese restaurants and Chinese laundries and old kung-fu movies.

But this is an old culture, well aware of its history and accumulated wisdom. It’s a huge society, well aware of its strength and numbers.

“They come from a different direction, a different history, a different trajectory,” FlorCruz told us.

We mustn’t confuse “different” with “inferior.” We mustn’t underestimate.

I wish everyone could spend a week or two in this magnificent country. Whatever faults the government might have, the people have been nothing but wonderful to me—kind, friendly, curious, and helpful. I would never think of Beijing as Mayberry, but that’s just one more way China has surprised me.

“We should all wish China success,” Flor Cruz said. After all, he said, “They are as human and as humane as we are.”

I hail a taxi for the trip back to the hotel. The driver could be the Chinese version of the guitarist from my college band: a little overweight with a big smile and a shock of jet-black hair. He takes my hotel card. Like many other cabdrivers, he wears white cotton gloves, the kind museum curators wear.

After reading the card, he gives a big friendly nod like a St. Bernard, and then off we go. He honks, others move.

Look out, world. China is coming through.

3 replies »

  1. “Most of the country is rudderless in terms of ‘What does life mean to me?’” he said.

    I’ve learned a lot about China in your posts, Chris. But this surprises me most.

  2. Thanks, Russ. There’s a lot more about China that I DON’T know than what I’ve been able to learn, of course, especially since we didn’t get out into the countryside at all.

    But what FlorCruz said really resonated with me because I saw hints of it in all four cities I visited. It’s the haves/have nots, the ancient traditions/modern way of life, China’s sense of self/Western influence, Communist government/capitalist economic system, even the old/young. There are so many opposing forces pulling at China right now.