The kids and I have now had our first adventures out without Manuel. I’m usually quite daring with these sorts of things but I have to admit I was nervous here. I can’t read maps so I usually get around by gut instinct and asking people direction every three feet. That doesn’t work here. The Olympic park was our first activity and we were basically tossed out of a cab at what looked like a large abandoned highway. The place is truly bizarre, large and gorgeous with nothing going on. Four lane highways are slow pedestrian zones. The excitement really came a few moments after we sat down to have a snack and read our books. The kids quickly realized that a group of about 20 tourists were taking or pictures of us. As soon as we looked up photographers got even more excited and animated and many wanted to pose with us including quite a few who actually picked the kids up. I’ve bee stressing to the kids that we are interlopers in another culture that we have to be polite and respectful and understand that things are different here. So they’ve been reasonably good sports with the photographs. But after about twenty minutes of this even I started to get irritated. I’ll have to figure out the protocol on this. I’m not comfortable saying no but I’m also not comfortable with complete strangers picking up my kids, hugging them, kissing them, and surrounding them in crowds of 30 or so.
We then met Manuel at a dinner hosted by his colleague at the Chinese Academy of Science. I was predicting the worst; miserable behavior from the kids, etc… But was pleasantly surprised. The boys went to sleep and Rebecca enjoyed being the belle of the ball; flirting up a storm and trying a ton of new foods. It was truly spectacular food speaking; there must have been fifteen side dishes surrounding an entire roast lamb. The lamb included eyes, kidney’s and other parts I’d rather not think about.
This morning we went to the Lama temple; the largest Tibetan Budhist temple outside of Tibet. It was perhaps my favorite thing so far. The 18 meter high Buddha was stunning. It’s easy to see what early modern explorers were so utterly captivated and even afraid of what they saw. The kids were awed in good and bad ways. Eli was frightened of the fires that are kept burning for worshipers to light their incense. He ultimately relaxed enough to start doing his own bowing before the Buddha. (this seemed very bad form to me; like kneeling in a Catholic church when you’re a Jew) Jonathan and Rebecca were very intent on identifying every Buddha and figuring out what they stood for.
Eli has now extended his pretend play to include quite a lot of Chinese and interject his own imitations of Chinese phrases into the star wards leitmotifs he regularly sings. Rebecca and Jonathan are spending a lot of time in their own slightly wacky twin world. They have a system for walking up and down stairs and escalators that involves holding hands and have all kinds of fantasy worlds up and running. They are thrilled with the fact that boy/girl twins are called dragon and phoenix.
This is not news to anyone who has been to Beijing or read about it, but the cognitive dissonance between old and new is stunning. On the one had the CCTV building designed by looks like two gigantic futuristic donuts hugging each other. On the other the tiny streets of the hutongs are full of elderly Chinese people squatting before dilapidated buildings playing cards. Many of the buildings apparently still lack running water. The city I know best outside of the US is Rome and it too is a remarkable mix of old and new. But Rome is a city of layers; ancient ruins, topped by baroque churches, next to fancy designers. This seems more a city of polar opposites.