I take for granted the tag on most of my belongings will read Made in China. Regardless of your personal locavore predilections, the reality is that most of what we purchase is made overseas, and the overseas in question is predominantly China.
You can understand something in theory, but it’s oftentimes made much more clear when put into practice. It has now become suddenly and painfully clear to me how FAR those goods have really travelled. Having now done the journey myself, I can attest that by the time I arrived in China, I was less than freshly pressed…and I didn’t even come over crammed in a shipping container.
In fact, while I imagined China Eastern Airlines to be the flying equivalent of a rusty metal tube, in reality the almost-new plane and the flight were both pretty good… including the spaghetti Bolognese and red wine with dinner, and the in-flight entertainment selection which, much to my relief, included more than just kung fu movies and weird game shows. So that’s saying something.
But even through these distractions, it is painfully obvious that…
China is far. Really far.
Seventeen hours on a plane with a total of 24 hours in transit gives me a long, long time to muse about the lost days of elegant air travel….and to get serious about collecting enough air points to start regularly flying business class…
After 24 hours in transit, the bus ride through Beijing is foggy…both mentally and because of the pollution. The hotel is 6-star and very elegant, and I slip into bed, hungry for vertical sleep after countless hours of upright plane napping…only to find the bed is just slightly more cushy than a wooden pallet. According to Chinese medicine, a hard bed is best for the back. I drift to sleep assured my back will be in the best shape of my life by the time I leave China.
Saturday, October 24, 2014
It is rarely sunny in Beijing. I carry my sunglasses with me in the vain hope they will be useful against anything except air pollution. They are not.
We follow our local guide Jerry on to the bus that will ferry us around Beijing. Jerry, like Tom and Jerry, he says. Not sure what his Chinese name is. Jerry, I will soon come to learn, is more interested in whining about his love life than pointing out the sights we drive slowly by in the endless Beijing traffic jam. Due to the one child policy (which was repealed several days into my trip), there are more males in Jerry’s age group than females. I presume this limited supply of women tilts the choice in the girl’s favour and fellas like Jerry have to step up their courtship game. Sadly, I fail to see what Jerry brings to the proverbial marriage table. In fact, we as a group decide Jerry is in no way marriage material…unless the young woman in question is looking for a somewhat whiny, cheap, mama’s boy. Poor over-indulged, Little Emperor Jerry…he doesn’t know it yet, but there will be no little Jerrys for his mother to dote upon.
Jerry will be with us for the next three days, and we will quickly learn that his indoctrination has been complete. He actually says at one point that the Chinese are very lucky because whenever anything bad happens – floods, earthquakes, major disasters – the people do not have to worry in any way as the government will take care of it. There is only happy news on the TV and in the paper, extolling the great triumph of the government. No wonder Facebook is banned…no chance of an Arab Spring-like revolution fostered by social media here.
The thing about the Chinese is that they like to have the biggest of everything. The biggest population (China), the dam that used the most cement in the world (Three Gorges) and of course, the biggest square in the world (Tienanmen).
It’s immediately understandable how a space this vast might encourage a gathering of the masses, which might in turn encourage protest, protest such as the one that unfolded right here in 1989 on the ground under my feet…that iconic image of the student, standing firm against the tank moving ever closer toward him that we in the West remember so vividly…is totally absent from the collective Chinese conscious. The state-owned media simply didn’t report it. Therefore it didn’t happen.
Instead, families and tourists file in through the security gates to take in the Square’s vast vista and watch the ceremonial raising and lowering of the flag. Much like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, there is great precision and unsmiling faces, firm in the knowledge that their job is of great national significance and personal pride, with Chairman Mao gazing appreciatively from his mausoleum above…
I look around. Today there are no tanks. Only groups of tourists posing for photographs in the world’s biggest square…and to my left, the Centre for Chinese Re-Education….in case you didn’t totally absorb all the rhetoric from Mao’s little Red Book, which any number of ruddy faced guys are willing to sell to me for cheap.
The Forbidden City
No longer forbidden to the common man, the Forbidden City was once the seat of power from which the Emperor ruled his vast empire. Only the elite were permitted to enter the outer courtyards and even fewer permitted to step foot into the inner sanctum.
Having flung opened the gates wide, today literally millions of people tread in the footsteps of the Emperor and remind themselves of the experience by trolling the Forbidden Gift Shop for appropriate mementos. I bought a Coke.
The Forbidden City is also home to a 2-star toilet (rating courtesy of China Tourism and Culture). It earns its 2 stars because it has a selection of toilets – sitting and squatting – running water, and a bathroom attendant who keeps the place tidy and monitors the flow of people in and out, ensuring overcrowding is not an issue. “Happy Paper” not included. In comparison, a 5-star toilet has not only the above amenities, but includes toilet paper, hand dryers, piped-in music and video entertainment on the back of the stall door. Several days later I will use one of the many public toilets in China – no stars provided – which is not nearly as horrific as I imagined. Indeed it was cleaner and fresher than some in the Toronto Subway system. This may not, however, be representative of all public toilet conditions in all places…
The Temple of Heaven
Once a Temple reserved for the Emperor who came to pray on behalf of his subjects, the Temple of Heaven and the gardens that surround it are now the hip meeting place of Beijing’s senior community. Everywhere I turn, spry seniors are practicing tai chi, playing hacky sack (!!), honing their calligraphy skills, playing mahjong, or taking a ballroom dancing lesson in the shadow of the Temple of Heaven.
The Pearl Market, or Getting Out My Great Wallet of China
All pagoda and Emperor’ed out, I take to the Beijing underworld…
The Beijing subway, that is. Because I am in China with a tour group, I am required by the Group Leader Lilly, to essentially write myself a permission slip absolving her of any responsibility should I become permanently lost in Beijing.
I happily sign myself out of the tour and go in search of faux designer goods at rock bottom prices.
Turns out, Beijing is my city. I am a person who almost entirely lacks a sense of direction. Even in my own home town I take the same route each time so I don’t get turned around. And yet in Beijing, I negotiate the subway and several walking kilometers without once getting lost. I can’t explain it.
The Pearl Market is a vast, multi-level mall crammed with stalls selling virtually the same thing over and over. First floor electronics and daily necessities. Second floor scarves, handbags, and shoes. Third floor jewelry and fourth and fifth floor, increasingly more expensive pearls.
You might assume the pretty, smiling, friendly young women running the stalls would be a haggling push over. You would be wrong. Behind the complimentary exterior of “good price for you. You are pretty, you are my friend” lies the bargaining prowess of a cut throat pirate. Suddenly you are holding a wallet or wearing a scarf that just a few seconds ago you didn’t know you wanted, and the bartering begins.
First volley: sales lady. She shows me on her calculator the incredibly over-inflated price that she claims other vendors would likely show me for the goods in question (variation: she shows me the incredibly over-inflated price she would show other people, but not of course me, as we are already friends).
Second volley: sales lady. She shows me on her calculator the first price at she’s willing to part with said item.
Return volley: me. I am shocked at the price and offer half less 100 yuan.
Return volley: sales lady. She is offended and absolutely could not accept this price. Her children would starve! She composes herself, thinks a moment and makes a return offer, which is still miles too high.
The ball is now in my court. I am equally shocked and make a return offer, which is still too little, but comes up just enough for the negotiations to continue.
We go back and forth like this for some time, each giving a little on either side, until we come to the moment when we each state our best price.
This is the moment of truth. Do I pay or walk away? The game is won only if I am willing to walk away from the purchase. I can’t want it too much, or the other side will win….
Walking away has only two outcomes…pay the buyer’s best price or lose the item all together.
Each time I end up paying my best price, but I know in my heart that I’ve likely still overpaid. But that makes both of us the winner – each thinking she got something over on the other – and we both walk away happy.
Although all the things I ultimately purchase are most certainly faux…heck everything in China is a reproduction – from the Pelee Island wine served with dinner (spelling mistakes on the bottle give that one away), to the scarf that came in a bag marked 100% silk but whose tag said 100% silk like feeling polyester – to the Hermes belt, Chanel wallet, Burberry scarf and Louis Vuitton scarf I walk away with, they are indeed are leather, cashmere (made in Inner Mongolia!), and silk. They most certainly didn’t originate from any of those illustrious French design houses, especially since I paid less than $135 for the lot, but I’m thrilled with my purchases and exhilarated from the thrill of the hunt. (And let’s just leave the conversation of copyright infringement and illegal reproductions to the side. Again, it’s China. They don’t just limit their copying to foreign goods – even the Chinese beer I’m drinking as I write this is a copy of the Tsing Tao beer I’m used to drinking at home. )