Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Chinatown tour of New York City 3/25/06

I invited my parents to visit me during the Cherry Blossom Festivities in late March. Since my dad has never visited the East Coast, I thought I would arrange a tour for him and my mom through a Chinese tour company to go visit New York City . This was my mom’s third visit to DC and her second visit to New York .

We met the driver in DC’s Chinatown by the Starbucks cafĂ©. Mr. Peng was a fellow from Mainland China ’s Hunan Province – known for its spicy food and revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Mr. Peng had an amiable demeanor. He has a slight build and showed us the white van, where there was one other Chinese gentleman riding shotgun—a young Shanghai man with spectacles. Behind him was a group of International Monetary Fund (IMF) consultants: one gentleman (Benson) from Kenya , one gentleman (Pushpa) from Sri Lanka , a lady from the Philippines , and a lady from Armenia named Miriam.

Our first stop: Baltimore ’s inner harbor. Mr. Peng also served as the tour guide During the drive, it became clear that our driver spoke very poor English. When we drove up to the harbor, he informed everyone that he would return in 30 minutes to pick us up again. So, we quickly strolled the harbor, took a few quick pictures and then promptly returned to the van.

Our second stop was Philadelphia , the city of brotherly love. Upon arrival in downtown Philly about 12:45 pm, Mr. Peng found a small alleyway with a parking space. As we got out, he flashed us a forced smile and used his right index finger to tap his watch, saying, “I return at one and 30 hour.” In other words, we had 45 minutes to get in line for the Liberty Bell. If we were lucky, perhaps we could get inside Independence Hall.

As we walked away from the van, I turned to the IMF group and explained that the line for the Liberty Bell was too long and we would not be able to view it in time. I’ve certainly heard enough foreigners belittle the bell to caution them that they, too, might be a little disappointed as it was a large bell with a crack in it. So, the group followed me and decided to focus on getting into Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. We crossed the street and got into line. It was a bit cold and now a light rain was upon us. The docent informed me that the line was at least 30 minutes long and the tickets for Independence Hall had been passed out for the day. However, we could still view Congress Hall and the other buildings within the complex.

At this point, I turned to Miriam and the Filipino lady, saying, “Remember—the tip for the driver is just a tip, not a tax!” They nodded in agreement.

After heavy security, my parents and I passed through. However, Benson, the Kenyan gentleman had to remove his belt. We quickly viewed the old Supreme Court building that was used from 1791-1800 before the US Capital was moved to Washington , DC . Our second and final site was the Congress Hall, where a docent was in the middle of his lecture:

“So, perhaps the second most important date was the day President-elect John Adams was sworn in on March 4, 1797.” In this very room sat members of Congress, President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, dignitaries, the cabinet, and Supreme Court Justices. Outside in the courtyard were throngs of people trying to get a look at the ceremony. And people were afraid, “was the Army going to wrest control away from the new President? Would the mob come in and assassinate the new President?” However, none of that happened and a peaceful transition of power took place that day.

When we returned to the van, my parents and I were the only ones there to greet the driver. Mr. Peng chatted with us for a few minutes. He has lived in Maryland for 9 years, but intends to return to Hunan Province to reunite with his family in the provincial capital of Changsha . He worked as a police officer in China and still pays a monthly premium to maintain his retirement account there. Mr. Peng explained that as a police officer, one could get by, but “every now and then, one could do better by accepting bribes.” After a few more minutes, Mr. Peng grew impatient and went to look for the other group.

We were now heading toward New York City . Traffic was pretty light as we passed endless toll booths. Once in the city, we visited our first museum, the battle carrier with the British Concorde that was retired a few years ago. We had about one hour to view the ship and then had to return to the van. This time, the IMF group beat us to the van, but the Shanghai gentleman was missing. Mr. Peng went looking for him. After another 15 or 20 minutes, he finally returned with our missing traveler, who had now been dubbed “ Shanghai boy” by the IMF group. Although he was walking toward the van, he seemed to be in no hurry. In fact, he turned around and started taking pictures of the dock and lit a cigarette. Benson, our resident Kenyan, became visibly upset and yelled, “No. No! We are behind schedule!” He got out of the van and started toward Shanghai boy. “We are late and have no time for this. Please—return to the van at once!”

Our next few stops: Empire state bldg –1.5 hours, Rockefeller plaza—25 min, Time square—15 min.

* * *

We returned to New Jersey for dinner at a buffet restaurant. Mr. Peng got lost and found the restaurant at 10pm. Mr. Peng informed us that if we pay individually, the price would be $16 a plate. However, if we paid as a group, then our bill would only be $12.95 a plate. “So, tonight I will pay the bill and you pay me at the end of the tour, ok?”

However, as we entered the restaurant, I saw the price was $12.95 a plate per person no matter how big the group. I grew increasingly suspicious of our tour leader from that point onward. At dinner, Mr. Peng sat at our table. He and my parents had a friendly exchange about family, children, and making ends meet. Although the hours are long, he works this driving job several days a week because the money is good. He manages to earn about $90 a day. With tips, he does pretty well. He admits that he does not explain much to us about the sites because he would not want to create an appearance of discrimination against the “foreigners” or non-Chinese passengers. So, he says as little as possible to everyone.

We stayed at a Holiday Inn that night. It must have taken us another 45 minutes to get there. To save on money, the tour company changes the hotel each week, depending on the cheapest rooms that Expedia and Travelocity spit out. So, unfortunately for Mr. Peng, he always has to look for a new location each time he leads a new group. Understandably, he got lost again. He missed the exit, so that he stopped the van on the freeway about 300 feet past our intended exit. As he stopped for a few moments, I could see him thinking: “do I back up or do I cross the median of grass and dirt?”

He reversed gears and backed up the car about 300 feet. Ironically, no one in the van protested or yelled at him to stop. Perhaps, they kept silent because everyone came from a developing country where they are accustomed to similar driving habits.

* * *

The next day, we see about 6-8 sites with only 30 minutes for each stop: UN Plaza-15 minutes; Financial district—10 minutes to visit the outside of the Stock Exchange and a snapshot in front of the Bronze Bull statue; Chinatown—a drive through, but no stop as there was no parking; the Fulton Fish Market for lunch. For Central Park , Mr. Peng drove us close to the top part of the park about 100th st. and drove the car south along 5th Ave. for the length of the park. “To our right is central pawk. Sorry, we can not enta pawk because no pawking.” For the Statue of Liberty, we boarded a boat that came close enough to Liberty Island for the passengers to take their snapshots, but it did not land.

By 2 pm or so, we were done with the sites and it was time to go. However, the English version of the tour listed the World Trade Center site as the last stop. There was no such listing on the Chinese version. The IMF group insisted that we make the last stop. Our driver parked a few blocks away from the site. Mr. Peng did not understand their desire, “It’s just a big hole! Can you tell them in English that it’s just a big hole? There’s nothing to see there. There’s a large fence surrounding the site, so you can’t really see anything.” The driver did not understand at all.

I took the lead and walked the group toward the site. There were flowers on the fence, some poems scratched into the plywood scaffolding, and the names of the nearly 3,000 dead printed on a large billboard at the top of the fence. One poem read:

As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,

We became one color.

As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building

We became one class.

As we lit candles of waiting and hope

We became one generation.

As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the infernoWe became one gender.

As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,

We became one faith.

As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,

We spoke one language.

As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,

We became one body.

As we mourned together the great loss

We became one family.

As we cried tears of grief and loss

We became one soul.

As we retell with pride of the sacrifice of heros

We become one people.

We are

One color

One class

One generation

One gender

One faith

One language

One body

One family

One soul

One people

We are

The Power of One.

We are United.

We are America .

I told our group of foreigners, “If you do not understand what happened here on 9/11/2001, then you do not understand the hearts of New Yorkers. And you will not understand why we are in Afghanistan and Iraq today.” They agreed.

After some minutes of viewing the site and taking the perfunctory photos, we began walking back to the van. The driver greeted us. “Wasn’t I right? It’s just a big hole!” He was right, indeed. The hole was so big that he could not ever grasp its meaning. Although the driver has been living in the US 9 years, he had made little effort in understanding America or its people.

At that point, I felt sorry for this little man, trapped by his self-imposed language barrier and inability to open himself up to the American culture. We proceeded to return to DC. However, once again, the driver became lost. He asked taxi drivers, pedestrians, and other drivers for directions: “How to Lincoln Tunnel?” He seemed like a man drowning in a sea of traffic. He tried to hold on, to tread water, but only had a very tenuous grasp. I felt compelled to intervene, more to get us home faster rather than to help him, so I opened up the New York Transit map. “Get onto Houston up ahead and then make a right up West Ave. You’ll hit the Lincoln Tunnel by 42nd st.” We made it back to DC by 9:30pm or so.

Strangely enough, my parents said they enjoyed the tour because they saw a lot of sites in a very short time period. I would rather not repeat the experience. As for the tip, my parents are much more generous than me and paid him the full $30 tip, plus $1.50 in change. He could understand that--in any language. Mr. Peng smiled as we got out of the van and wished us a good night.

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