Saturday, October 27, 2012

Asian Chronicles-2

China 2 Beijing - 9/28/2012

“The restaurant opens at six o'clock,” Derek said before sending us to our rooms. “Some of you will be up at four - so you can come to the restaurant at six.” Mom and I arrived at 0545. The wait staff kindly seated us and served coffee while they finished assembling the breakfast buffet.

“I wanted you kids to be captivated by China like I was,” she said. “When I first came to China and saw all this; I've never been more proud to be Chinese.” 
Mom was a teenager when WWII fractured a flawless Hawaiian sky and descended like swarming wasps upon a quiet, Sunday morning. They watched Zeros dive-bomb Pearl Harbor from the roof of the family home near Chinatown. After that, ostracism of all Orientals became ubiquitous and unavoidable. Mom moved to Florida for a tour of duty with my Dad and the US Navy, where their inter-racial marriage was not recognized. 
Mom has felt the sting of racial bias seldom experienced by Caucasians. Arriving in China for the first time imbued her with a sense of ethnic pride, a these are my people sense of belonging. Raised in a large, Chinese family with traditions of a Cantonese-speaking Popo (grandmother), I understand this well. I too feel the Chinese are my people, though they might disagree.

Breakfast was the wonderful, international buffet commonly found in better hotels across Asia. Its menu included Chinese: congee (rice porridge) flavored with pork, pi dan (fermented duck egg), chicken, or plain; dim sum, fried rice, seasonal fruit (predominantly dragon, cantaloupe, and watermelon), and tea-boiled eggs. Japanese: sashimi, nori-maki (rice with veggies and/or fish rolled in seaweed), miso soup, pickled vegetables. Noodle chef for making Asian soups. American: egg/omelet chef, bacon, cereal, milk, pastries, pancakes, waffles. European: bangers, roasted tomatoes, pastries, croissants, crusty bread, preserved meats and cheeses.

The tour book read: Beijing is the nation’s political, economic, cultural, and educational center as well as China’s most important center for international trade and communications. ...Beijing is one of six ancient cities in China.

We gathered in the lobby and were sorted by lanyard color into the red (lanyard) bus or green (lanyard) bus. It then became clear, red lanyards were on the extended tour floating the Yangste River. 
Our tour of Beijing began on the green bus with local guide Angela - a 30-ish sylph with a deprecating, ingratiating way. “Ne hou?” she said over a microphone. “That means good morning or hello. Can you say ne (knee) hou (how)?” 
Ne hou,” we chorused.

Chinese language now refers to Mandarin but China includes over 50 recognized Chinese minorities, most with their own language. There are eleven major Chinese languages and each has multiple dialects and sub-dialects. 
When the last dynasty toppled in 1911, there was no national language and in many ways, China remained as fractured as before Emperor Qin (the First Emperor, pronounced Chin) conquered six neighboring countries and unified them in 221 BCE. In 1913, the intelligentsia and new government proclaimed the Beijing Guanhua (Mandarin) dialect the national standard and language. Controversy erupted as Mandarin is filled with words from assimilated northern peoples and is considered impure Chinese. The argument for Cantonese was that it is closely related to classical Chinese, more pure. Nonetheless, Mandarin was spoken more broadly for it served as the lingua franca for centuries and with it, it was thought the entire nation could be unified linguistically within 100-years. In actuality, one century later, schools continue to instruct using local languages and Mandarin is studied as the universal language, like a foreign language.
Mandarin uses four tones; Cantonese uses six. Tones lend the sing-song quality to the languages. Change the intonation; change the word. 
This tonemap helps visualize the four pitches of Mandarin. To correctly pronounce ne hou, the word ne (knee) is level, or the first tone. The word hou (how?) employs the 2nd tone, intoned up as if asking a question. Nē hoú.

Ne hou,” Angela repeated. “Good, very good. You are quick learners. How do you say I'm good?”
Hou,” I said with others. Her eyes widened and mouth gaped in surprise. “Oh you Hawaii people are very smart,” her voice warmed with her smile. “Hou is good. If you want to say its very good you say ding hou. If you want to say something is extremely good, you say ding-ding hou.” Someone giggled at the back of the bus. Ding-ding has a different meaning in the islands; not extremely good, ding-ding means penis.

“So how was your breakfast this morning?” Angela paused then responded to someone nearby, “Ding hou? Oh, ding-ding hou!” She was baited by another. She beamed and was visibly pleased with the report that breakfast was ding-ding hou but her look of puzzlement grew with our laughter. “What? Tell me,” she pleaded. 
I watched her listen intently to an explanation at the front of the bus. Angela gasped and covered her mouth, “Oh you people are nasty!” A roar of laughter filled the bus and ding-ding hou became our categoric response until Peter taught us ma-ma-hoo-hoo in Xi'an - but that is a different story for another day.

Our bus crawled onto a freeway - that at 9am - was bumper-to-bumper. “How many people do you think live in Beijing?” Angela asked. We hollered out numbers. “Oh, that's too much,” she scolded with a feigned scowl. “Nineteen million,” she corrected. “They say 15-million is perfect but we have 19-million so travel into Beijing is restricted. You cannot move to Beijing without a job.”

A BMW sedan nearly grazed us as it squeezed in and passengers on the right cried out. “Don't look,” Angela instructed, covering her eyes. “That's why we call our bus drivers sher-fu. You know sher-fu?” Yes we did, we are from Hawaii and we are Donnie Chen fans. We know sher-fu means master, most commonly - kung-fu master. 
That bus drivers are called sher-fu is two-fold: first, they are masterful drivers negotiating large buses through treacherous traffic tangles. (While Beijing's freeways might have four delineated and painted lanes, actual traffic lanes may number six or seven!) In Xi'an, Peter explained that Chinese drivers are inexperienced and drive as the spirit moves them. Yikes! Secondly, many - including our driver - labor away from home for six months or more, so like a kung-fu master before battle - if they are faithful, they are celibate. They earn the title sher-fu.

“We have many joint-ventures with foreign companies in China now,” Angela continued. “That BMW was made here in China. We have Buick, Hundai, and VW.”
“Beijing is like your Washington DC. You are going to Shanghai later? That is our financial center, like your New York City.” 

H2O Cube
Olympic Torch
“What's that?” Angela pointed to a structure on her left. “Yes, the Bird-nest. Did you watch the Olympics in Beijing? Very good. The Bird-nest holds 90,000 people and is the largest stadium in the world.” Of course it is, I thought. 
“What's that next to it? Yes, the Water Cube, the aquatic center for all the water events.” We looked at a silver, cuboidal building covered in fluffy, convex squares. “The skin of the Water Cube is plastic. The outside coating? Plastic. Your Michael Phelps swam there. Did you watch him swim? Yes, he is ding hou.”
“Ding-ding hou!” we insisted, causing Angela’s color to rise with a chuckle.
“Your hotel, The Trader's? It was built for the 2008 Olympics. It is on the east side of Concentric Road.” Beijing has many concentric roads that encircle the city in concentric rings. The concentrics are bisected by connectors, roads to ease Beijing's 24-hour flow of newly minted cars piloted by Spirit.

Angela filled our drive with the facts, figures, customs, and history of Beijing.
You might remember Peking? When Mandarin was adopted as the national language, many names were officially changed to their Mandarin equivalents - and Peking became Beijing.
Beijing is located on a plain surrounded by the Yan Mountains. The Yans create a bowl that cradles smog until its scrubbed clean by wind or rain. It had stormed the previous day; the sky was sunny and bright. 
“You Hawaii people brought Hawaii weather with you,” Angela exclaimed.  And so it was for the entire sixteen days - bright, warm days arose with the sunny people of Hawaii such that every local guide commented on the wonderful state of the weather.

We drove to the Emperor's Summer Palace and as we neared, Angela began with its tales. "The Summer Palace Yíhé Yuán, the Gardens of Nurtured Harmony, was built during the Quing Dynasty, 250 years ago. Its two dominant features, Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, are manmade. Kunming Lake is the world's largest man-made lake (Of course it is, I thought again), covering 2.2 square kilometers." 
     Like all of China's antiquities, the lake was manmade, handmade, hand dug by calloused hands and sweated brow of Chinese peasants. The soil excavations were used to build Longevity Hill. Its purpose - to provide relief from inclement summers within the Forbidden City. Both Palaces were occupied until the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty was overthrown by Sun Yat Sen's democratic government in 1911. 
The Empress Dowager or Dragon Lady was its most infamous occupant. She was the last to rebuild the Summer Palace in 1902. She siphoned millions for the restoration from the Navy just six-years before the First Sino-Japanese War - which China lost. Talk about David and Goliath! 
The Palace is a garden and like all Chinese gardens, strives for the harmony of four essential elements: water (yin), rock (yang), flora, and architecture. In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.” 

Angela & Yang Fu Dog
We disembarked and Angela unfurled a light green flag atop a meter-long, collapsible rod, like an old pointer used prior to the advent of laser pointers. We would follow this green flag throughout China for it would be passed like a baton, from one local tour guide to the next. 
“Turn on your receiver,” she instructed. In addition to name tags on green lanyards, we also wore small receivers that hung from a blue, synthetic cord. We donned earphones and heard Angela clearly. “Alohaaa - green bus; follow me.”

Yin Fu Dog w/cub
The entrance gate is guarded by two enormous Fu Dogs. Fu Dogs are paired lions - one female, one male - representing both Yin and Yang. They seem identical in every way, one foot propped atop a ball. But under Yin's foot, that ball is a cub rounded playfully on its back. I have seen Fu Dogs my entire life, looked at thousands of them, and have never seen that cub! You know, we look without seeing.
Ancient symbol for Dragon
The most ancient symbol for Dragon, dating back 2000 years, is C-shaped with a dorsal scale and was sculpted in green flowers. The dragon is yang to the phoenix yin. Typically, he is a four-footed, scaled, and wingless serpent and the symbol of power, strength, and good luck. Just two days before the Moon Festival, a national holiday, the city was bedecked, bejeweled, and bedazzled in flowers and this floral symbol of Dragon was our first example of hundreds to come. I have seen this symbol many times with unknowing eyes; now I know.

Raised thresholds keep evil spirits out; their height denotes rank and stature as do the ornamental roof corners. The Palace entrance thresholds were approximately 12-inches high and spanned three doorways.  In ancient times, the central door was for the Emperor only. That tradition was upheld for decades following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty but no longer. A group of school children in matching uniforms entered the Palace willy-nilly; I carefully stepped over the Emperor's threshold with mindfulness to its station in history. 
The Palace grounds are dotted with bronze statues of mythical creatures and imported rocks from sacred lakes. The worlds largest man-made lake is home to a floating lotus garden and the Marble Boat (Qing Yan Fang - Boat of Purity and Ease). 
Pavilion ceiling
We traversed sections of the Long Corridor barely stopping to appreciate its grandeur. The Long Corridor was commissioned in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong so his mother could stroll through the gardens year round.  It is 728 meters or 2,388 feet or 0.45 miles long. Log crossbeams divide it into 273 sections and four octagonal pavilions. Its wood members are richly adorned with 14,000 paintings depicting scenes of classical Chinese literature, folk tales, historical and legendary figures, famous buildings and landscapes, flora and fauna. Long Corridor is the longest painted corridor in the world. Of course it is, I thought yet again.

“Five-star toilets,” Angela sold them like a barker at a carnival. Step right up folks, gichyer five-star western toilets that are clean and comfortable. We got toilet paper, we got seat covers. Git em right here, right now!  Five star means  toilet paper is stocked as are seat covers for western toilets. This location had two western toilets. 
     “Chinese people prefer squatty-pottys,” Angela said, “Because they consider them more hygienic. You’re not sitting on a seat; you’re not touching anything.” Ah, the bulb of understanding was lit. I don’t mind squatty-pottys, in fact, I highly recommend them to maintain limberness and strength - but that’s me.
Do you know the Chinese do not have the rate of falls, hip/femur fractures, and death by subsequent pneumonia of western countries. Wanna know why? Squatty-pottys keep them limber and flexibility is the difference between recovering one’s balance or falling. Squatty-pottys man, I’m telling you, install one for longevity and good health - but I digress as I am wont to do.
Apparently there were a great many western toilets installed preceding the Olympics. Now bathroom doors picture a western toilet if one is installed and many bathrooms have at least one.

“Lady, lady; you lye hat?” The street vendors pounced thick as thieves as we exited the Palace and made our way to the bus. “Ten dollah. Okay, okay, foh you lady? Speshow price jes foh you; fy dollah. You lye? Fy dollah! So cheap lady!”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Asian Chronicles-1

Getting There 9/26/2012
“How’s preparations for China going?” my friends asked.
    “I have a suitcase parked at the edge of my living room - at which I throw things,” I replied. Two-days before departure, I laid it out in an organized fashion. I would be traveling for 24-days; what did I really need? Passport - check. Camera - check. Wilderness and Travel Medicine handbook - check. Two skorts and long-sleeved shirts - check. Bikini and sarong - check, check. Sling-shot, sock monkey for sister Gina - check. 

I set my out of office response: Traipsing through China, hanging in Hong Kong, munching in Macau. Ne hou ma? Email communication is best. A hui hou kakou! and boarded Hawaiian Air for Honolulu. There I joined my family and our tour group.

Early the next morning, I donned the forest-green, "Grande Holiday" lanyard holding my name-tag. At 10am people congregated along the wall at Korean Air’s check-in counter. Decibels grew steadily with the crowd. 
Lael, Mom, Gina, Michael, Collin
Mom had signed on with a small tour of twenty - perfect - but Air and Sea Travel had tossed our tour into a larger one. Some lanyards were green, others red; I knew not why. The group grew to eighty. Many were elderly and I felt some relief for my niece and nephew upon spotting a few twenty-somethings wearing name-tags. Most travelers had lunched in Chinatown on September first - for a tour debriefing. There I presume, they met our guide Derek. 

Derek is a slight man of Chinese descent. He wore a striped pull-over, faded jeans, and Keen sandals. Mostly Derek lives in hotels and out of suitcases. His wife and children however, live in Beijing while he straddles the dateline. His English is heavily accented in a way that is both familiar and homey.
Derek gathered us round, "They change the plane; I like this one better, it's bigger. We have ten rows. The seats are arranged two and four and two. Yup? Alright? Two, four, and two,” his fingers, extended overhead, reconfigured themselves from two, to four, to two.  “So married couples can sit together - two; easy. And one can have the window and one can have the aisle and you can switch so no one is trapped. Okay? Alright? And if you are in the middle four, you can go out on the right or on the left." His hand waved, gesturing right, then left. "Okay? Alright?"

I was reminded of a friend who passed his camera to an oncoming hiker for picture-taking. "You look through the little hole here," he said stating the obvious, "And you push the  little button there." That my eyes weren't captured rolled to the welkin was pure luck.

Derek continued, "The alcohol on board is free. You can have red wine or white wine. They will show it to you and you can tell them. Please enjoy but DO NOT GET DRUNK," he giggled, softening his caveat. Yup, okay, alright Derek.
My nephew Collin, a big, Hawaiian kid, mimicked, "If you in da middle, you can exit right oh lef. Alright? Okay?" We giggled our way to security.

We flew a newer, Korean Airlines airbus A330 with individual eight-inch LCD screens and USB ports for charging. We would travel 9.5 hours and 4,549 miles, crossing the dateline into a Korean evening nineteen hours ahead of Hawaiian-time. I watched several movies, made preliminary journal notes, and cracked the cover on a new and highly recommended book, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

    In preparation, I loaded my iPod Shuffle with favorite instrumentals - classic and modern - purely for escape and relaxation. I downloaded three audio-books into my iPad and iPhone. I however, still gravitate to paper and The Corrections was no exception. So when I say crack the cover, I do mean it.
    The Corrections is a best seller, winner of the National Book Award, and Pulitzer Prize finalist. It was also a recent finalist for NPR's top 100 by American novelists. It is a must read for those who are or have aging parents. Did I get everyone? Within its pages I felt revealed and known and expressed and celebrated and devastated and illuminated and transformed.

    Many hours later, we processed through Incheon International Airport in Seoul, Korea to catch our connecting flight to Beijing. It was 11pm Hawaiian time. Incheon was clean and spacious, its surfaces gleamed, its air - fresh. These features hardly impressed me at the time but would assume new shimmer and shine upon my return.
    Our China Airlines carrier was lackluster after the Korean airbus, sans individual LCD screens and USB ports. Domestic carriers, even in the states, have few amenities. We landed in Beijing at 6pm local time and 3am Hawaiian time. Darkness fell as we collected luggage and cleared customs.
    The barricade outside Receiving was lined with eager greeters including, not surprisingly, Starbucks. Our bus awaited two-blocks away, across a densely packed street that rose in resentful and incessant blaring at the mere notion of stopping to let 80 people cross. We negotiated uneven and unlit sidewalks, shiny with rain, and waited in the bus while the lost were found.

    My head spun and circled on approach for landing on a Beijing pillow at approximately 9pm local time,  6am Hawaiian time - after a full 25-hours of wakefulness. I was tired but with the jittery alertness that comes with sleep deprivation and a body driven by will and necessity.