On foot, I made my way to the quaint Beijing art and antiques shopping street and of course got pulled into an antique store by a charmingly persuasive, youngish shop-girl, who came out of her store to “admire” the necklace I had on. Good ploy! I was treated to tea, which is a lengthy and ritualized affair and met her assistant, who kept bringing objects for me to look at while I was savoring the tea. It was actually quite lovely, and the shop had some nice things. In fact, several of the objects I purchased there remain my favorite mementos of that whole trip.
“Joan” spoke very good English and Mai spoke a little. We got into a lengthy chat about San Francisco, California, and America. Upon taking my leave they asked if I would like to join them for dinner, to experience hot pot in the non-tourist part of Beijing where they live. Yes indeedy, say I. Well not really. I probably said, “Yes, thank you very much. I would enjoy that immensely.” And off I went.
The July evening was not too hot, tempered by a slight breeze, as I retraced my steps to the shopping street, wondering if they would really be there. They were waiting for me and I was greeted by genuine smiles. I reflected that they were lovely young people. Curious, ambitious, well-mannered, and fun. We got along well, and I fantasized that we could put a great Beijing tour together.
The hot pot place was teaming with Chinese people. Not another Caucasian in sight. We sat outside midst the throngs, grabbing an open table with the peculiar hot pot cooker in the center. Excellent guides to hotpot etiquette, they revealed the magic of this tasty Chinese cuisine. In due course, they asked about my travels. When I told them I was headed to visit some Tibetans in the West, they were both taken aback. Why would anyone want to visit Tibetans? Then Joan cautioned me, “Tibetans are filthy and disease ridden. You must have your shots up to date if you are intent on visiting with them. But, really, they are deplorable, and you shouldn’t go.”
I thought of the words from the song from South Pacific, “You have got to be carefully taught.” And I thought about my own biases, not the least of which were the negative notions I had about mainland Chinese in general. Different, but much the same as Joan’s in terms of disparaging prejudice. Remember, China was the country I loved to hate during the Olympics.
The footnote to this experience is that two years later, in a different part of Beijing, I actually recognized Joan on the street! Amazing as that is, her story was even more wondrous. She had taken the new fast train to Lhasa, and loved it — both the train and Lhasa. She now has Tibetan friends, with whom she stays in touch via the internet…and “yes” she plans on returning. She also proudly sells Tibetan trinkets in her store. I spent quite sometime looking at pictures of her sojourn and it was clear that the trip was special and she had a wonderful time.
While there are plainly conflicting feelings about and probably motives for the train, it certainly opened the heart of one young Han Chinese woman.