Back in 1982, our neighbor Mr Verly said that it took a decade to wrap up a deal in China. He usually didn’t expect a direct answer from his associates in Beijing. I got a glimpse of that. It’s not efficient, but it’s complex-system thinking: in a place as layered as China, all is relative. Yes and no don’t exist. I won’t earn an artist’s trust just because I flew 24 hours to get there. They’ve been doing their thing for thousands of years even with the speedbump of the Cultural Revolution, which looks horrific to me but they felt was necessary. I won’t change anything besides myself by being there, so let’s start with me.
Oops, we land at the wrong airport: Chengdu, Panda capital. After we sit 4 hours on the tarmac getting smelly in a closed plane, the skies clear enough in Beijing to finally get there. The storms have blown out the smog and we have cool blue days all week.
The city seems familiar: trees, lanes on the highway in which drivers stay, signs, sidewalks, building construction nearing completion. I step into another situation when I try to talk to people. The self-protective fear of getting involved with complicated foreigners is still there. English is rare, even and especially at the higher echelons. The voice-activated translation app on my phone is a magic wand. Suddenly, smiles and a moment of mutual recognition appear when I explain that I’m here to study arts advocacy.
To my dismay, people in Beijing don’t eat Indian food. Chinese food in Beijing is no more to my liking than the Chinese food I’ve had in the US. But there is more of it. It’s not appropriate to order a plate of food for oneself. The servings are too large. Everything is destined for the whole table. A long hunger begins. But with sweetened bubble milk tea, I stay hydrated and energized.
When our guide advises us to bring a picnic to the Great Wall because there are no lunch spots, I imagine we’ll get dropped off on the Mongolian border. How am I supposed to assemble a lunch from a grocery store where I don’t understand the labels? I pick up a package and I don’t know whether the contents are sweet, salty, vegetarian, eaten raw, boiled, or pickled, with fingers or chopsticks, and whether they need to be peeled or shredded. Instead, we pack 12 lbs of cheese popcorn, cucumber Pringles and Oreos. The Great Wall is an hour outside of Beijing. We’re now sitting on a two-week supply of junk food and we feel a little sick.
Photos of the Great Wall don't show how steep it is. I work my skirt up that thing just in time to attend the program director’s marriage proposal to his companion, in front of us kids. Sorry, those aren’t tears pouring down my face--it’s sweat. The next day, the massage therapist finds the great wall all up and down my thighs. Now I’m crying, in pain.
Cheesily, I also cry during our visit to the ballet theater. The photos of dancers taut in their expression, striving to negotiate gravity, bring me to tears. I’m homesick. Or I’ve realized that I’m still inspired by dance, even half-way around the world.
Most souvenirs look a lot like made-in-China plastic junk. But hey, I’m supporting the local economy. I get a teddy-Panda for Tibby, who will tear, gut, and dismember an iconic symbol of animal extinction. My apologies to the WWF. Belatedly, I find the Liulichang cultural district, and the stunning paintings strengthen my resolve to return one day to learn about scrolls and purchase a well-curated set. Surely, days spent staring at them will help me find inner tranquility. First, I need a home to hang all that stuff. No plan for that yet. Urgently paging Inner Tranquility.