The thing about flying 12 hours to get to a place, and then having to fly back after only 48 hours, is that it tends to focus the purpose of the trip. You don’t really have time to mess around, and you don’t really have time to do a lot of different things.
One of my best friends from Australia has been living in Beijing for the last four years. In that last four years, I’ve only seen him twice. During that time, he also had a son, who I had not seen. (I attended the christening ceremony, which was held in a Sydney church, via Skype and a laptop held up by his sister.)
When you’re working in two different continents separated by the world’s biggest ocean, time and distance seem to create a pretty big barrier… but not as big as you’d think. And so, for the Memorial Day long weekend, I decided on impulse to put my small stash of miles to work and booked a flight to Beijing in first class. It only cost twice the miles of an economy class ticket. I figured if I only had 48 hours, I might as well show up well-rested.
It turns out that it was a good choice, because the denizens of first class pretty much spent all 12 hours of the flight in various recumbent poses. It was the middle of the day in San Francisco when we departed, but somehow two of my neighbors managed to sleep through almost the entire flight. The flight attendants even switched the cabin lights off after we took off. I took a stroll through business class to stretch my legs and noticed that most people there were sitting up – tapping on laptops, reading Kindles, watching iPads or whatever. Their cabin lights were on. I stepped back into the darkness and settled once again into my flying lectus among the hedonists. I then had to sit through a five course meal served over what seemed like a gratuitous two hours. The food wasn’t very good either.
On United, the more senior flight attendants get the long haul routes. They have some sort of tenure, so most of them don’t aim to please. They left me alone for most of the flight, except for the one time they came to inquire whether “everything was alright,” just when people started getting naked on the episode of Game of Thrones I was watching on my iPad. I would never pay money to travel on United in first, even if I could afford it.
I was lucky to arrive at the massive Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport at an off-peak hour, and I met Kevin in the arrivals hall only about 20 minutes after stepping off the plane. We climbed into a black taxi* he had chartered.
The last time I had been in Beijing was in the winter of 2005, where I was taking a law school class which doubled as a sightseeing tour. Cold, miserable, and viewed through the eyes of a student on a budget, the Beijing of 2005 was a much different affair to Beijing in the spring of 2012. Freed from the obligation of needing to see the major tourist attractions like the Great Wall and Forbidden City, the focus of this trip was going to be catching up over food. But not before getting a foot massage. You know, because the flight was so long and arduous.
Kev worked in finance and was living what appeared to be the typical expat life (for someone in finance) with his wife Cath and 10 month old son. Work had provided him with a nice apartment in the city center, surrounded by other expats, affluent locals, and a host of white-skinned kids running about the community playground, rattling off fluent Mandarin.
We had dinner that night with Steve Fitzgerald and his wife Gay. Steve was the father of a mutual friend who was visiting his daughter in China and had decided to stop by Beijing for a couple days to catch up with some of his friends. Back in Sydney, we used to go out each week to pub trivia nights at the Paddington RSL, so it was different and interesting seeing him in this new environment. He had been Australia’s first ambassador to China in the early 70s. The dinner was at Temple, a restaurant operated by a Belgian which was set among the grounds of a beautiful, restored 600 year old temple, which itself was nestled in a hutong.
As you can imagine with someone like Steve at the table, the conversation was engaging, but unfortunately by midnight the jetlag was kicking my ass and I was literally nodding off at the dinner table. However, I was lucid enough to see John Dawkins, the former Treasurer of Australia, randomly materialize at our table to say hi to Steve, before he vanished as abruptly as he had appeared.
The next morning I woke up with phlegm down my throat. The previous day had been cloudless, but where the blue sky was meant to be, there was only gray. Pollution is a constant issue in Beijing, and the U.S. embassy has been publishing air quality statistics for several years. Their AQI, or air quality index, has become a frequently bookmarked webpage among the expat community (also, available as an iPhone app). The index is logarithmic, with 0-50 being “good”, 51-100 being “moderate” and 101-150 being “unhealthy for sensitive groups”. At the top of the scale, 301-500 is “hazardous”. I was told that international schools start to send kids home if the index exceeds 300. Like a snow day, but with particulate matter.
The U.S. embassy has a Twitter feed which pushes out air quality info periodically. One day, the Twitter feed was reporting that the AQI had risen to a “hazardous” level. It then tipped past the 500 mark. An automated tweet immediately went out reporting the air quality as “500; Crazy Bad”. It turns out that an AQI of over 500 was considered unattainable, so the person who had programmed the tweeting bot had just coded in whatever came into their mind. The US embassy quickly revised the language to the more diplomatic, “beyond index”.
On the way to lunch, we stopped by the National Art Museum, where an exhibition celebrating however many years of communist rule was on display. There were rows of paintings from the middle of the 20th century glorifying the peasant class and persecuting the merchants and the landowners.
Lunch was at Capital M, a restaurant owned by Australian Michelle Garnaut which occupied a prime location overlooking Tiananmen Square. Officially, the occasion was that Kev and I were celebrating a joint birthday (we were each born on the same day of the year) so about 20 people showed up, including a handful of people I knew. We had a pavlova for the birthday cake.
Kev’s friends were an interesting mix of expats – mostly Aussies and North Americans. I was pleasantly surprised when almost everyone I spoke to recognized the startup I worked for (we do not market our product to China), although the follow up question was invariably, “How does it make money?”
To add some entertainment, Kev had put together a trivia competition which featured questions such as “What is a wobbegong?“, “Translate ‘snow ewe smite’ from Australian into English”, and “Who is the head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande F.C.?”
When conversation turned to the AQI, people looked outside the window and hazarded a few guesses. A Canadian guy whipped out his iPhone. The Chinese government was reporting an AQI of 131. The U.S. embassy said it was 198.
Dinner was at a Vietnamese restaurant called Susu. Like Temple, it was also located in a hutong, at the end of some dusty, non-descript alleyway. The restaurant was neither dusty nor non-descript, opening up to a courtyard shaded by a large boughed tree, overlooked by a wooden deck from which you could gaze across the roofs of the hutong. The birthday girl was celebrating her 30th, and being an employee at the Australian embassy, had invited quite a number of Aussies along. It was a relatively young crowd, but many of them had been in China for years. I guess in expat communities around the world, there’s a certain unique vibe and culture that develops based on the host city – there’s a certain cadence to the conversation – how people introduce themselves, what topics of conversation arise, the common vocabulary they use. Beijing was a community of diplomats, government workers, non-profits and certain types of business professionals. Frankly, even though I was myself an expat and an Australian, I felt out of place there.
Later that night, we ended up at a North Korean bar, owned by North Korea and staffed by real North Korean waitresses. It was as bizarre as it sounds.
It was not a classy venue. However, we were not there for the décor. Clearly, the Great Successor had picked the best women the DPRK had to offer and put them on display in front of a crowd composed mainly of curious South Koreans drinking beer by the gallon. The waitresses were impossible to make small talk to, and we could only imagine that they had family back home that were at risk if they ever went “off message”. At one point in the night, each waitress went up on a stage and did her thing. There were dancers, a violinist, a zheng player, an opera singer, a drummer and an electric guitarist. The acts were accompanied by canned applause and the reverb and echo of their microphones had been turned up to 11, but despite those handicaps, each performer was of a quality that was startlingly incongruous with the setting.
Two friends I went to law school with in California turned up after the show. They were meant to have arrived before the show, but had got lost in the maze of suburbia entangling the bar. We had not seen each other for almost three years and had a lot of catching up to do.
On the way home, we stopped by the bar at the Shangri-la. Normally, being on the 80th floor would afford spectacular views, but Beijing was shrouded in haze and we could barely see the ground.
The next day, we took a stroll through a nearby park. It was a Monday, but the park was filled with grandparents socializing, exercising, and looking after their grandchildren. It had a feeling of community that you don’t get in the West – not even in a Floridian retirement community. On the other hand, it was a somewhat strange sight – the one child policy had essentially created a park full of grandparents fussing over grandchildren who had no brothers or sisters. I am an only child, but at least I have friends who have siblings, so I kind of know what it’s like. This is a generation of children who are going to grow up without any frame of reference. They won’t even have real aunts or uncles.
Ironically, the Chinese food in Beijing is not good, but I couldn’t leave the city without eating Peking Duck – one of my favorite dishes. Also ironically, we ate it at a restaurant owned by a Cantonese chef called Duck de Chine (the restaurant, not the chef). The duck was delicious.
And then I was in a black taxi on the way back to the airport.
*Black taxi: not an official taxi. Someone who makes money by driving people to and from destinations and willing to lop off a passenger’s legs if not paid. “I’ve been on a trip to the Great Wall with a U.S. diplomat friend and when we weren’t satisfied with the black cab and wanted to pay less. He held on to my backpack and almost physically assaulted me. This was despite my U.S. diplomat friend flashing her dippo card and saying she was a U.S. diplomat. These guys have nothing to lose and don’t care. We paid him when he started calling his friends for help.”