Beijing Before The Fall

Saturday, July 18, 2009:

A brown-streaked sun sinks slowly beyond the Beijing skyline as we rocket along the Badaling Expressway. Tina, our driver, darts in front of a bus, weaves into the bicycle lane almost clipping an elderly man in a sweat-stained T-shirt, then whips behind a dented minivan the color of a pool table in a smoky bar. Part New York City cabbie, part Hollywood stunt driver, she’s talking furiously in Mandarin to our tour guide as she jerks our van around a pedestrian who’s foolhardy enough to step off the curb. My eyes dart over my right shoulder, expecting to see a cascade of arms, legs and twisted metal in her wake.

John, our tour guide, offers some reassurance: “Don’t worry. Tina is second best driver in all of Beijing. Best is ambulance driver.” My wife Bernadette is white knuckled and green in the cheeks and when I glance at her I suspect she’s either doubting my sanity (OK, that’s nothing new!) for suggesting a few days in Beijing or worried she won’t survive this trip.

Beijing is a last-hurrah honeymoon of sorts. In two days, we’ll fly south to Fuzhou to unite with our adopted two-year-old daughter who we are naming Penelope. We wonder constantly how our meeting will turn out, what Penelope will be like and whether she’s potty trained. OK, I’m more curious about that last one because I’m a little weak-stomached for soiled diapers. I gag when I get downwind of one our gassy beagles.

We’re apparently in a hurry to get to a buffet dinner of mystery fruits and ox tongue before catching “a mystical and amazing acrobatic show.” Well, that’s what it says in the brochure. Actually, I am anticipating something “mystical and amazing” because my friend Mark assures me that Chinese people can fly. This knowledge is based on numerous viewings of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I wonder why I bothered purchasing a plane ticket for Penelope when she could simply fly alongside us on the trip home.

We arrive safely at a hotel buffet and are promptly escorted to an empty dining room. I load my plate with a plethora of animal parts in brown sauce, leafy green vegetable-type things and flaky pastry. Bern stares at my plate for a moment and promptly turns green again.

“Really? You’ll eat that but turn your nose up at pork roll?” Bern asks.

“Well, that’s because pork roll is disgusting,” I reply, tossing a chunk of fried ostrich tongue down my neck.

Her fork hovers over a scallop. “Say, why do you think Tina and John never want to eat with us?”

I pause, wondering if the tickling sensation at the back of my throat is the ostrich tongue. “They probably want to talk shop. Bitch about gas prices, incompetent drivers and so forth. Or, maybe they just want yap about the capitalist swine that they are stuck driving around on a Saturday night.”

Before long, we’re back in the van. We narrowly miss flattening a man in a straw hat who’s driving a wagon loaded with corn. We plop down in our seats in the theatre seconds before the show starts. Turns out that Mark was right: Some Chinese people can fly. The acrobats leap through the air, bounding, bouncing and balancing across the stage for the next 90 minutes.

Later, back at the hotel, Bern flops into bed, and I decide to walk the Beijing streets one last night. The air tastes like warm tapioca. The sidewalks are writhing with city dwellers and tourists struggling to escape the heat. I walk half a block when a girl dressed in a business suit sidles up besides me. “You look for lady friend?” I chase her away but it’s not long before I’m approached again. “Are you lonely?” This scene will play out a half dozen times before I spin through the revolving doors of the hotel lobby. I stare through the windows and watch two teenage girls smoking under a street light.

I learn later that many of the prostitutes are former orphan girls doing what they can to survive. And, I’m grateful knowing one orphan will never wander the Beijing streets.

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