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A Family’s Adventure in Wonderland – Sightseeing

(This is one of my earlier English essays.)

Mornings in Beijing always brimmed with anticipative and adventurous vigor as opposed to repetitive and routine monotony at home. Even a frustrated Mom scurrying around with either a comb or a broom produced a special effect of amusement and novelty almost as pleasant as the blue sky outside the window. Autumn leaves danced in the sun as a lure of the outdoors. Beds made, dining table cleaned, floor swept, garbage collected, satchel packed, shoes tied, down we jumped the six flights of stairs to greet the cool morning air and the Chinese roses and a prospect of a full day’s adventure.

A blonde woman cycled her way into the gate of our temporary residential complex. I gave her a smile and she smiled back. A dog furiously barked at two Central-Asian-looking passersby, who jumped away laughing and pointing at the poor little creature now held back by its humiliated Chinese owner. There was a Westerner swimming in the cold creek. A handsome young man, as usually featured in Hollywood movies, briskly walked out of an office building with a stack of files under his arm and a determined look on his face. A mother wheeled a baby carriage, in which sat a curly-haired toddler very much resembling to a Barbie doll marketed for Asia. A pitchy black man in robes raised a cell phone up to his right ear and spoke to it in a perfect Beijing accent, “Hello…may I speak to…” A group of foreigners walked by, talking fast in a language quite alien to my ears. Then one of them said, “Oui, c’est bon.” Hey, that’s French! I squealed to my mother as if I had discovered a New World as diversified as today’s America.

This racial diversity was attributed to embassies of Korea, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and then some scattered nearby. Their “villas”, as we call any one, two, or three storey building surrounded by fences, exuded an aura of tranquility and dignity with Chinese young soldiers stationed at designated posts outside the formidable walls. Exclusive restaurants, nightclubs, and grocery stores were companions designed in French, Indian, and Arabian styles and completed with exquisite outdoor chairs and tables. A mere look at them created more to an impression that I was an alien bursting into a town in Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, America, anywhere but in China.

It was only when I climbed down the nearest subway station and arrived at Subway Line One with my parents, did an image of China come back to my wide eyes.

It is a world of people.

Hordes and hordes of people, mostly black-hair and yellow-skin dressed in early winter coats, rustle and hustle down the underground tunnels winding up to transit lines, exits, and the subway platform. Up and down the escalators and stairs they scuttle carrying briefcases, satchels, hand bags, backpacks, wheeled trunks, hamburgers, or just cell phones. When the train comes, some hop out of the automatic doors to join the crowds that are trying to get aboard. The commotion stops at once as the doors closed 30 seconds later and the train speeds out of view, leaving a less crowded platform. Within seconds, the gaps are refilled with new arrivals forming in lined to board the next train that will arrive in four or five minutes.

“Isn’t it like a giant ant nest?” Father raised his voice over all the noises. “Surely a prosperous one!” This joke left me chuckling and marveling how in effect humans stay close to a simulated lifestyle of creatures they regard as inferiors.

The trio now wriggled their way into the train and moved to a clearing large enough to stand firm amongst passengers between two lines of occupied seats at each side. Some people read books and newspapers. One or two examined a map on the wall. A young man watched a Hollywood movie on his DVD player. But many simply stared into nothingness or, if in company, joined conversations in low voices. At each stop people flew in and out of the train to pursue an assortment of chosen destinations.

“We are arriving at [your chosen] Station. Please prepare for your arrival.” Came a clear female voice that speaks true American English. With the help of buses, our tour thus began for the day.

At the Tian-An-Men Square, my memory was retrieved of a young woman wrapping in her arms a frowning camera-shy girl, who now towered her mother and smiled confidently to a digital Olympus held at odd angles to obviate people’s heads.

The Great Wall, though defenseless against ancient well-trained troops and today’s missiles after being built at the cost of a million lives, infused “nothing is humanly impossible” into our hearts with its stone slopes, steps, and watch towers that, with the indifference of nature herself, crept up the mountain side and ran miles and miles on mountain ridges.

The National Stadium, also known as Bird’s Nest, sprawled over on the ground like an exhausted warrior, impressive only by what remained in the memory of that splendid night that attracted the whole world.

In the Park of Xiangshan Mountains, global warming burned out my hope of observing and perhaps collecting red maple leaves, the beloved Canadian symbol. We had a great time, though, inhaling the fresh air and feeling the serenity once shared by monks in the Qing Dynasty, Mao Zedong, and the spirit of Sun Yat-sen.

A special visit to the Beijing Office of the Institute of International Education renewed my memory of its director, a mild-tempered American who speaks excellent Chinese, and a couple of the staff I met in Xinjiang three years ago. Quiet and clean, this small office earned every ounce of my respect for its contribution to China with the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program, by which hundreds of young people have been financially supported to further their education abroad and then expected to return home and make a difference in their communities.

The Capital Museum showed us an array of jade, brass, bronze and wooden antiques as well as facilities and services fashioned out of the international flavor. The Museum of Natural History, on the contrary, provided outdated services and facilities in an old building crammed with children and parents. Nevertheless, it gave me a rare opportunity to observe nature in its immobilized state. From butterflies to whales to mammoths to microbes to apes to humans, I meandered through the course of natural history with my parents and Sylvia, a dear friend I had never met in person. “What a marvelous set of courses intelligent life has chosen to evolve and diversify with deaths and births on a tiny matter that we call Earth!” I exclaimed voicelessly as we examined a skull of a Peking Man, at which Mother gave a distasteful look while mumbling something like, “I can’t believe my girl likes this kind of stuff!”.

Each tourist site in my memory drew a unique experience to which written literature would, despite efforts by a most learned writer, show its inferiority at its fullest.