Morning: After two full days of sightseeing, we slept in today. Around noon, Brandon introduced us to the little bagel shop he had taken his Mom and brother to when they visited. Joe and I order “American” coffee from the menu and a bagel melt, a sandwich with bacon, lettuce, cheese, onion and tomato and a dressing. Brandon ordered a plain bagel with butter. We noted that the Chinese tend to use fresh produce and fruits in their cooking.
Afternoon: Brandon had planned to take us to the Summer Palace this day but it was raining. We decided that a ride on the bullet fast train to Tianjin would be a good idea instead. And besides, Mary Ruth had suggested that we pick up some of the fried dough knots (not donuts) for which Tianjin is noted.
Beijing has many train stations. We used the south and west stations during our visit. This day we would depart from the south station, again an expansive structure similar to the airport. Brandon purchased our tickets and we lined up at the gate. No need to rush, though the Chinese are big on rushing places, because the seats are assigned.
The train is sleek, modern, bullet shaped. Free bottled water was available as we entered our car. The train left exactly on schedule. Once outside the city limits, we hit speeds exceeding 325 km or a little over 200 mph. I got the feeling that it could do even better if needed. By car, the trip from Beijing to Tainjin takes about 2.5 hours. By regular train, about 1.5 hours. By bullet train, about 25 minutes.
The station at Tianjin is huge. People swarming everywhere. I had never seen so many Chinese people in one place at one time before. After scouting out some local shops for the requested fried dough knots, we walked around the area near the station, not as far into the city as Mary Ruth and Michael had gone due to the weather. Like other Chinese cities we visited during our stay, Tianjin is in building mode. Modern structures dot the landscape. I worry that China is modernizing at the expense of its cultural history. We make our purchases and head back to the rail station and Beijing.
Brandon had warned us early in our visit about beggers in Beijing who target foreign people. To be honest, we didn’t see many more beggers in Beijing than we would have in any large American city. I saw two handicapped persons begging in the underpass leading from the Forbidden City to Jigshan Park and once we were approached by children asking for money. I saw an elderly man, apparently blind, singing in Chinese being led through subway cars by a woman who collected the few donations offered by passengers. But this day, before going back to our hotel, we stopped at the 7-Eleven so Joe could get some bottled water. As Brandon and I waited outside, a man approached us and in very good English asked if we might give him 20 yuan. At first Brandon said no. The man said he needed the money to pay for a cab to get to a job interview. Then to my surprise, Brandon gave him the 20 yuan. The man turned to me, but Brandon said, “No!” Thanking us, the man turned and walked toward the street. I was pleased to see Brandon’s generosity even though we both suspected the man was not telling us the truth. “I thought he spoke pretty good English,” Brandon said justifying his gift. But you never know. ('I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.') Joe came out of the 7-Eleven. Brandon said he’d be meeting us around 7:30 for dinner. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the man hailing a cab.
Evening: Did you know that Beijing used to be called Peking? Probably misnamed by some westerner who could not properly pronounce “Beijing.” Obviously, the name stuck for some time. In fact, one of the universities in Beijing is named Peking University. And then, of course, there’s Peking duck.
We arrive for dinner around 8 p.m. More FOBs have been invited. Mike Peters is the international wire editor at the China Daily, the English language newspaper where Brandon did the internship last summer that got him to China in the first place. Mike told us he spent some time with the Dallas Morning News and has traveled all over the world, including Iraq and Iran. Now, he’s trying to get into Afghanistan. Ken McManus (photo at right) is a foreign expert at the South China Morning Post, an English language newspaper with headquarters in Hong Kong and a bureau in Beijing. He is a jovial, friendly individual, easy to be around and reminds me of Captain Kangaroo. Brandon has gone to Ken for advice numerous times when making important career decisions in Beijing. Ken has been a guardian angel watching over our boy.
Ken and Brandon ordered the food, including Peking duck. We sat at a large table with an equally large glass lazy-susan in the middle to facilitate the passing of food. I have not mentioned that food is not necessarily delivered all at the same time in a Chinese restaurant. Whatever is ready is delivered to the table. You eat as the food arrives. Eventually, the entire order gets delivered. So we started with a great eggplant dish and lemon chicken, a dish my wife urged me to try. There had to be a rice dish of some sort since every meal included rice and eventually the Peking duck arrived. The duck takes an hour to prepare and the final presentation is done right at table side. Thin slices of poultry, along with the duck’s head, are presented on a platter. To eat the duck, you place slices of the meat in a sauce and then put it on what looks to be a soft taco. You then add onions, carrots or garlic, roll it all up and eat it. Not what I expected, but enjoyable none-the-less.
Equally enjoyable was the dinner conversation. Ken and Mike talked about the tight control exercised over the print media in China. Mike said the 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square uprising last summer was never mentioned in the China Daily. Ken echoed a lament I’ve heard many times from Brandon. While foreign experts like Ken and Brandon are hired as “smoothers” to make English copy written by Chinese reporters read like real English, the Chinese do not always take the foreign expert’s advice. This, of course, can lead to some conflict. It also leads to some pretty unusual English like a subway Nike World Cup sign stating that “Impossible is nothing” or perhaps even the “I (heart) BJ” T-shirt.
I’m glad Brandon has these senior friends in Beijing who can be both mentors and friends who understand his frustration. As we left the restaurant, I quietly thanked Ken for being Brandon’s mentor in Beijing. “My wife and I really appreciate your guidance and friendship for our son,” I said. Ken smiled. “He’s cool.”
We decided not to end the evening. Brandon invited Ken and Mike to come along to the Fubar at the People’s Stadium. Ken declined. He doesn’t drink. Mike accepted and off we went in a cab. The Fubar is sort of like a speakeasy. You walk into a hot dog stand at the stadium and as you approach the bathroom area, you press a button on the wall and a panel slides back allowing you to enter the bar area. Brandon had taken his brother Michael there one evening with a group of friends. Mary Ruth spent that evening resting back at the hotel. Brandon and I had whiskey sours and Mike and Joe ordered a special drink presented in a rather tall ceramic Buddha, which you could take with you for a slightly higher fee. Both Joe and Mike decided to buy their Buddhas.