By Bob Nesoff
It was a long flight from the East Coast to Beijing made all the more tolerable by the thought of tasting those Chinese foods in the country of their origin. Little did we realize that we had just come from that country.
The ride from Beijing Airport into the city proper was slowed by cars and herds and herds of Chinese on scooters. There were some so overloaded with packages and even little children strapped to their chests and back, that it seemed more like a Charlie Chaplin comedy.
It was choreographed to an amazing extent. When a traffic light turned red, the herd stopped. On the green it moved much like a moon tide rapidly advancing on the shore. Surrounded by dozens of scooters, our taxi moved through the clean and surprisingly modern roadway into the heart of the city.
We checked into our very modern and clean Excelsior Hotel, dropped our luggage in the room and four of us headed down looking for a place to eat. There was a huge underground mall adjacent to the hotel and right off the restaurant were a host of eateries, much like you would have found in the United States. One thought resonated…let’s get some real Chinese food.
Easier said than done.
The menus were all in Chinese characters and the pictures of the available meals resembled nothing we were familiar with. Where was Gen. Tso? What about scallion pancakes? No chop suey? After hearing stateside rumors about the Chinese eating dogs and cats, hunger was starting to dissipate. But not altogether.
Finally, someone who spoke a smattering of English. He pointed out some foods that we could safely eat. What they were is still to this day, a mystery. But the taste was pretty good.
We were met with a blank stare when we asked about the familiar foods. He said he had never heard of any of them. The mystery was later solved when our privately hired guide met us. All the Chinese foods we were familiar with were invented or developed in the United States. The only common food was a vegetable-stuffed spring roll. The next two weeks were promising to be a culinary adventure. Not necessarily a great one, but an interesting one.
China, as modern as parts of it are, still maintains much of its own culture and heritage. That’s profoundly interesting to Occidental visitors. Again, not necessarily to our liking, but culturally unique to China.
If we thought eating was a challenge, using “the facilities” was even more so. Especially for the women.
They came out with odd looks on their faces after using the facilities. They described what could best be described as a “squatatorium.” Inside were none of the familiar closed cubicles. In their place was a porcelain rectangle with a hole in the middle. The women were forced to squat over the hole to relieve themselves and then an attendant rushed over to mop up. Men were able to stand for most of what they had to do.
There were some facilities we were familiar with, but they were rare and hard to find. They were called “Western Toilets.” Oh well, when in Rome…” Or in this case “When in Beijing, do as the Chinese do.” In one stopover we found a Western Toilet with railings to help the user rise. Next to it was an exact miniature, apparently meant for Westerners traveling with a child.
Food in the upscale hotels throughout China had a menu varied and familiar enough that there was no problem ordering or choosing from a buffet. The hotels were all upscale and very clean and comfortable throughout the country, especially in Beijing and Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong has limited independence, the Chinese government considers the territory to be part of China. The “Hong Kongers” don’t fully accept that although at some point in the future, unless there is a major upheaval, they will become fully integrated.
The Chinese have a reverence for their native animals. The beautiful pandas in zoos around the world remain the property of China, as are any offspring born beyond their borders. In their zoos the pandas are given considerable amounts of bamboo shoots and other panda delicacies. The young have wide open enclosures where they can easily move round, climb and much of what they could do in the wild.
They also are working to protect endangered species. In the same Beijing zoo as the pandas are several beautiful snow tigers. As with the pandas, the enclosures are open, giving the tigers more than ample room.
The Chinese love cultural theater and the costumes are absolutely exquisite. The productions use music and movement rather than dialogue. They also are enamored of acrobatics and many of their shows could have made it on an American late-night variety show.
Sailing the Yangtze was a relaxing change from the bustle of the capital city. The ship was similar to those plying the Danube, Rhine and other European waterways. Cabins were clean, spacious, comfortable and all with a pseudo-balcony affording a view of the river and the sights along the shoreline.
The Chinese seem to be rather patriotic in a country totally dominated by the Communist Party. Flags abound from homes and store fronts. Giant flags adorn sections of the shore. A visitor from he west, conscious of the student protests, would not see any sign of dissent.
That being said, a tour leader spoke quietly and confidentially informing a visitor that people did disappear and dissent was not tolerated. That was not unexpected in a one-party Communist country and the person took life and liberty in hand trusting the visitor not to identify him or repeat what he said.
One unexpected and very interesting situation is the respect the Chinese government has for the Jewish religion and Jews living in China. There are synagogues in the country and one in the capital has been declared a national monument.
Michael Blumenthal, who served in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is a revered figure n China. He and his family escaped the Nazis in 1939 and settled in Shanghai. There is a plaque on the outside of the apartment building they lived in, across the street is a monument to the Jews of Shanghai. Blumenthal followed his stings with JFK and LBJ in the Carter cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury.
With all of its failings as a result of the Communist dictatorship, American tourists are not only welcomed to China, but have the opportunity to see a country that clings to its heritage and past while becoming a world power.
Photos: Bob Nesoff