Monday, November 24, 2008
Shanghai Sojourn, the sequel: A week in China (11/4 to 11/12)
(Background: I was invited by the Shanghai International Strategic Studies Research Institute to give a talk on the US Elections in early November.)
As I arrive at the Cairo Airport for my Qatar Airways flight, I place my two small bags on the conveyor belt. My cell phone and watch cause the metal detector to beep. Mr. Security man comes to me and takes my right hand with both of his. With his right hand, he holds my fingers. With his left hand, he feels my pulse, making me slightly nervous.
“Where are you going?”
“What time is your flight?”
He looks me in the eyes the whole time. He smiles and lets me go. Apparently, I pass the Cairo Airport human security screening!
Doha airport / layover
In the waiting room are mostly Chinese passengers, who are listless. They play with their loud cell phones belting out lively, Chinese pop songs. One is wearing a NY pink cap and yellow T-shirt with red stripes. Each man wears the standard Chinese businessman outfit: dark, leather shoes, khakis, black shirt, short, cropped black hair, and an aloof stare coupled with impatience. The man facing me is bouncing one leg up and down; when I look up again, both legs are now bouncing. One man suddenly walks away briskly and announces, “smoke!”
Arrival in Shanghai
Johnson says, “I hear that you’ve been working in Iraq? In what capacity?”
I can’t talk too much about it.
“Is it working with local government and city administration?”
Yes, something like that. (In some circles, I’ve come to be known as the secret Agent Man.)
Shanghai is clean, bustling, and building…constantly building…
Bound for Beijing
Friday night, I depart Shanghai on the night train, soft sleeper. My cabin mates are three Chinese businessmen who are not very talkative; the only thing I get out of them is the next morning when they explain their trip is both business and pleasure.
Upon arrival, I look for a phone to call the hotel, but see none. I notice a gentleman on a cell phone with some bags at his feet. I ask him if I can give him one yuan for a phone call. He gives me his phone, but does not take my money. I try a second time, but he adamantly refuses. His behavior surprises me a bit. I am so used to being spit upon when I ask for directions in China. He is from Jiangsu province and visiting the capital. He explains that Cantonese people are especially notorious for being mean to anyone asking for directions.
It is about 7am when I arrive. The air is crisp and cold. The Chinese Authorities have installed x-ray machines at the entrances to all the metro stations. Any Al-Qaeda terrorists will be hard-pressed to plan a successful attack against Beijing infrastructure!
A visit with Mrs. Xie pei pei
Mrs. Xie is a dear family friend. Her husband, Mr. Gu passed about four years ago from stomach cancer. Their friendship with my family spans three generations, going back to my grandfather who first befriended her husband in the early 1980s. Mr. Gu was among one of the first groups of government scientists and students to be able to work and study abroad after the US and China first established diplomatic relations in 1979. Somehow, he wound up in Berkeley, California. As fate would have it, he was trying to buy a metro ticket in the local train system, but the ticket machine proved to be too confusing. My grandfather, who was always a helpful man, especially to fellow Chinese travelers, approached him and tried to help. Perhaps, his first question was, “Are you Chinese?”
Mr. Gu was invited to dinner at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised if grandfather invited him right after Mr. Gu bought the ticket. For the year that Mr. Gu was in Berkeley, their friendship developed. After Mr. Gu returned to Beijing, grandfather wrote to him and asked for his help with his daughter—my mother—and family, who would visit the capital city later to apply for a visa to immigrate to America. And sure enough, when my family traveled to Beijing in 1982, Mr. Gu and his wife proved to be invaluable in helping us navigate the metropolis.
When my mother last spoke to Mrs. Xie, she reported that her health was not good. I felt it was time to visit. My last visit was in the summer 1999, after I completed teaching English in China.
When I arrive at the apartment, Mrs. Xie greets me at the door. She has a thick shock of grey hair. Glasses. At her side is a little dog. It is becoming a common sight to see Chinese with dogs and cats as pets. Her older son, Gu Hong is also present. Although he is in his mid 30s, he has the face of an old man.
Mrs. Xie’s main demon these days is a chronic cough. It gets much worse when she is around fumes or smoke, so she avoids cooking with oil. She has difficulty sleeping, so she must rest in a sitting position.
When I take some photos with her son, she politely says, “No photos, please!” I honor her wishes.
She feeds me some “jiao zi” or Chinese dumplings. I gobble them up, after not eating dinner the previous night or any breakfast. I giver her the live crabs that I had bought in Shanghai. I was told that these crabs are only in season for a short time and are renowned in China for their taste. She steams them for a mid-afternoon snack.
That night at my youth hostel, I meet a gentleman from Ha’er bin, in the North East part of China, who has visited North Korea four times. He speaks very fast and with the accent of the Northeastern Chinese. All his visits to the Hermit Kingdom have been for business. He says the city is very quiet and uniform. People get up about 6am, attend political sessions to praise the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, then go to work. The farmers till the fallow fields for a few hours, then break for lunch. They praise Kim Jong Il again and then return to the barren fields for a few more hours; then they return home.
When I tell him how impressed I am with Shanghai and Beijing, he explains that 10 years ago, China was like a man “who hadn’t washed his face yet.” However, today, China’s goal is to have its infrastructure and facilities at the same level, or surpass that of the West.
Loaf Bakery and Café
On Sunday morning I move over to Chao Yang district, which is in the North East of Beijing, to an empty studio, belonging to a friend of Gu Peng, Mrs. Xie’s son. Gu Peng is in his early 30s. We first met as children when my family visited Beijing in 1982 for our visas to leave the country. I took his toy and hid it somewhere. Unfortunately, it was never found. My mother always tells this story when his name comes up.
His wife studied three years in New Zealand, so has fluent English. She worked six years as an X-ray technician, but was bored silly. She soon dreamt of opening her own café. With plenty of foreign students living in the high rises, there would be plenty of customers. So, a few months ago, she finally opened the Loaf Bakery and Café, which serves an American menu of sandwiches, pastries and coffee.
The customers consist of students from Canada, New Zealand, Russia and Angola. The men from Angola seem to stay the longest and order the most amount of wine. They chat with the Russian gal in English and amongst themselves in Portugese. I try to strike up a conversation with them in Chinese. They tell me they are from Angola, but not much more. I return to my table, with my banana milkshake in hand.
The staff are young, mostly in their early 20s. A few are still teenagers. They come from the neighboring cities where educational opportunities are limited. None of them has attended college. Many of them have not even finished high school. Xiao Hao is one of them. He works as a waiter, and sometimes, the fill-in cook. He is trying to improve his English by meeting with an Australian customer weekly for language exchange.
798 art district
Gu Peng takes me to an art district called 798, which is a renovated area of former warehouses, but now serves as a venue for artists. As we walk by the store fronts, we see an old, faded slogan on the walls: Long live the great Communist Party. Graffiti cover some of the walls. Artistic expression exists! Rebellion is in the air. Not so fast. Gu Peng explains that the graffiti is officially sanctioned by the government and carefully painted to look natural. Welcome to post-Modern China.
Zhou Ying lunch at the World Trade Center
I met Zoe Zhou in Spring 2007 through my friend Sophal. She was a student at Syracuse University in New York state. She tried looking for a job in the DC and New York areas, but found more opportunities in China. The recruitment process took her more than 7 months, with 5 interviews, including several panel interrogations. Now, she works as an operations analyst with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a subsidiary of the World Bank. Zoe has traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia and within China for her work. She may have the chance to visit Cairo, Egypt early 2009.
She is in her late 20s and has a warm demeanor. Large eyes accompany a big smile. We dine at a restaurant with a Taiwan flavor. Afterwards, two women stop by to administer a questionnaire on the service quality of the restaurant. They ask her question after question about the lighting, the food selection and the atmosphere. They thank her with a little plastic food storage box.
After lunch, I make my way to Tiananmen Square. Seven cranes surround the square. The building projects in China are ongoing and omnipresent. Toward the bottom of the square is the Mao Mausoleum, his final resting place. The shrine is open 8am-noon, Tuesdays to Sundays, so I must return tomorrow morning. A friendly proletariat behind the fence tells me that people start lining up after “sheng qi” or the flag raising ceremony about 6:40am. He notices my flag pin, with the US and Chinese flags. I tell him that I live in the US these days and last visited 9 years ago, but never had the chance to visit the great Helmsman. He tells me that even if I arrive by 7 or 7:15am I should still be able to secure a spot in line.
As I prepare to leave the great square, I see a throng of people surrounding the main flag post opposite the portrait of Chairman Mao. They must be waiting for the flag lowering ceremony at 5:04pm. While not as exciting as the flag raising ceremony, I decide to stay until the great anti-climactic event. No music, no horns. Only a column of green troops with their rifles march silently from beneath Chairman Mao’s portrait to the flag post, retrieve the red flag and return to their post.
Let’s see if I can survive Beijing’s morning rush hour traffic to pay homage to Chairman Mao tomorrow before my flight back to Shanghai…
I arrive about 7:45am. It is still fairly chilly—about mid 40s, perhaps. Maarten Troost in his book Lost on Planet China warns his readers that the line is long. Extremely long. He should’ve written great-wall-of-china long. The line snakes back and forth several times. There must be several thousand people in line already. Most of them are middle aged or elderly tour groups from interior China. Line Monitors are spread every 150 feet or so with bullhorns and a nametag. Little else to keep people in check except an official voice and a stern look. Surprisingly, the line moves at a steady pace. At some point, two men try to sneak into line. They are quickly discovered and ejected by the line monitor, who admonishes them with a disparaging sneer, “what are you doing?! How dare you! Go towards the back of the line!” Everyone else laughs at the pathetic fools. How dare they cut in line to see Chairman Mao! They have to line up like all the other comrades!
The recorded voice announces in both Chinese and English: no spitting or improper attire such as sandals or shorts.
As we enter through security, people begin to throw their cigarette lighters onto the ground. Right before the metal detectors, the line behind me ebbs forward, pushing into me. I politely tell the lady behind me not to push. She responds in a nasty way, saying that I shouldn’t complain as I’m too slow. I feel like giving her a karate chop across her Adams Apple, but I refrain, as I don’t want to wind up in a Chinese gulag anytime soon for battering a Chinese citizen.
Before we climb the stairs, there’s a fresh flower stand to the side where admirers can purchase a bouquet for only 3 Yuan (about 50 cents) to honor the Chairman. One wonders how many times these flowers have been recycled during the week. On the stairs is a woman hawking Chairman Mao Mausoleum brochures for only 1 Yuan (about 15 cents). I ask to see one before I buy. She is annoyed that I’m even asking her, saying, “it’s only one yuan!” I persist and she forks over one copy. After a perusal, I hand over one Chairman Mao bill for a Chairman Mao brochure.
The line rushes forth like a great river. I feel like a salmon returning to my roots, struggling to catch up with the others. We enter the great hall, where a row of flowers has formed already. At this point, I see the friendly proletariat from yesterday who patiently answered all of my questions. I quietly wave to him. He smiles back.
We approach Mao’s body, which is in a special glass case, with stargazer lilies beneath. A special light illuminates his face, which is very orange. It appears more plastic than anything else. Rumor has it that his nose caves in every year, so the whole body is sent to Cambodia, which apparently does an excellent job of embalming dead dictators.
Before we exit the hall, there’s a small gift shop where one can purchase various Mao paraphernalia. Glad to see the Chairman still contributing to the Chinese economy. The gift that keeps on giving.
Shanghai to Doha
In line at the airport, I meet Mr. FateH, an Egyptian businessman from Ismailia, by the Suez Canal. He’s done business in China for 4.5 years buying and selling restaurant equipment, especially plates and utensils. After a few minutes of waiting in line with several dozen passengers, he moves to the next line, which is for groups only. After a few minutes, I follow him. FateH is worried about his baggage weight limit, so I offer to take one of his smaller bags. He invites me to tea by the gate. In his heavily-accented Chinese, he belts out an order of “hong sa” or red tea. While he likes the Chinese people and has had mostly positive experiences here, he did convey a small reservation of sometimes being treated as the outsider. He wasn’t more specific.
On board the plane, my seatmate is a Chinese gentleman who is on his way to Khartoum, Sudan to work for one year; he appears to be in his 40s, which means that he could easily be in his early 50s. I ask him if he’s an oil engineer. He smiles and tells me that he’s in construction. He lived in Sudan a few years ago and even picked up some basic Arabic, but has forgotten most of it. He mentions the two Chinese oil engineers who were kidnapped and killed recently by Sudanese rebels. He then shakes his head.
I note that unlike America, China has developed great relationships with African nations in recent years. He explained that the Chinese government does not attach requirements to their foreign aid, like the Americans. While it would be wrong to say that the Chinese would eventually “control” the African continent, it would be more accurate to say that China would have a stronger influence with her African friends than the Americans. Certainly, time will tell.
I awake to the smell of dinner being served. Chicken or lamb? Mr. Construction takes a few bites of his meal before he falls asleep again. He must be more tired than I realized.
With an 8-hour layover in Doha, Qatar, I want to leave the airport and at least visit the beach. Or try to get a tour of Al Jazeera. A young man in a flowing white robe sits at the Information desk. He is bespectacled and I greet him in Arabic: Salaam Aleykoom wa rahma Allah wa barakatu. “Peace be upon you and the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you!” I ask him where I can store my luggage. He directs me to the side. It looks like I have to enter the airport and check my bags early. When I speak with the Qatar Airways counter clerks, they don’t have much to tell me about the sites of Doha. In fact, they seem to exhibit painful expressions when I ask them for suggestions on what to do in 5 hours. The lady just started about 2 weeks ago and has spent most of her time at the airport, so can offer me just a smile, nothing more. The Indian gentleman tells me that I should not venture too far from the airport, as it can be difficult to catch a cab back.
I return to the Info desk and ask my man for a map. “We have no maps here. Maybe you can go to the taxi and he can help you.” What kind of Info desk has no map? I notice the counter is clean. Very clean. It is utterly devoid of any maps, brochures, advertisements, post-it notes, staplers, paper, newspapers, books, rubber bands or pens. In fact, the only thing available is the young man, who is affable enough, but seemingly growing tired of my persistent questions. He tells me that I can go to the corniche, which is about 10 minutes away and not more than 20 or 25 Riyals (at a $US=3.65 Riyals, about 7 dollars)
As I sit down to check for a WiFi connection, two Filipina airport workers are chatting with each other. They tell me that they’ve worked here 2 and 4 years, respectively. They confirm what I just heard: there’s not much to do in Doha. Best to stay in the airport, where there’s Air Conditioning. Their ride arrives and they quickly scatter.
I hail a taxi. Rapig, the Bangladeshi taxi driver, has lived 2.5 years in Doha. He speaks some English and some Arabic. He must be in his late 20s. He says one Riyal is equivalent to eight Bengali Takas, which explains why he works here.
When I tell him that I’m from the United States, he smiles and says, “America—too muss money, too muss power!”
The roads are clean and there’s some construction of new buildings. The corniche is pristine. The water clear. The air fresh. Only a few people jog or walk by me.
From the Corniche to the souq or market, I hitch a ride with Ismael , an Iranian driver of a large van. He’s worked in Doha for a few years. He asks me where I’m from.
“Egypt. I’m Egyptian!”
No. Really. Are you from Philipines?
“I’m from America, but originally from China.”
He drops me off at the market and tells me that if I want to go to the airport in a few hours, I can call him. He leaves his number and I give him 10 Riyals for the ride.
As it is still early, the markets are empty. After nearly an hour of walking around, I decide it’s best to return to the airport.
I walk a few blocks, but see no available taxi. I cross the street, thinking that I can catch more cabs that way. No luck. I keep walking. And walking. Finally, I enter a travel agency and ask to use the phone to call Ismail, the Iranian driver. The man tells me to cross the street to the market area where I can catch plenty of cabs. However, when I arrive, there are plenty of cars, but no cabs. I walk a few more blocks and enter another store to call Ismail. He tells me he’ll come by in 30 minutes. As I wait outside the store on the curb, a random car pulls up and tells me to get in. I tell him that I have to make a phone call to Ismail and tell him not to come, if I’m going to the airport in this car. The driver tells me he’ll pull around. After I call Ismail for the second time, I don’t see the new driver.
So, I return to the curb. Two minutes later, Hassan, an Indian, picks me up. He has lived 20 years in Doha. Although a friendly man, he doesn’t say much as he drives me to the Doha Airport. We pass manual laborers resting on the sidewalks. They are mostly from Iran, Hassan tells me. I give him 20 Riyals as I get out of the car and check in for my flight back to Cairo. I am pretty sure this will be my last visit to Doha for a long time.
Adventure at the Cairo Airport bus station
Two young Egyptian men begin speaking to me—in very good Mandarin Chinese. Shihata accompanied his friend Ahmed, who was seeing his Chinese girlfriend return to China. He tells me he wants to marry her. The young men study Chinese at Cairo University.
When the bus arrives, they tell me it’s the 2LE bus, so they will wait for the 0.75 LE bus. I urge them to get on as I offer to pay their fares.
We take the bus and for the next hour or so chat about life. I ask Ahmed why he studies Chinese. He tells me because he likes Chinese girls. He asks me why I study Arabic. I reply, tongue-in-cheek, that I like Egyptian girls. We both laugh. Shihata gives me a wallet-size picture of himself. I feel the need to reciprocate and dig into my bag for a wallet-size picture of myself. I had brought a few with me for visa purposes. Later, when I ask my students about the picture exchange custom, they tell me that it’s an old practice and not very popular anymore. In addition, only girls still observe this custom. In either case, I think I have two new Egyptian friends who speak very good Chinese.