Last week I accidentally spent $US400 on lunch.
This happened in Beijing — a city where a cab all the way across town costs $US5 and a full pack of Tylenol costs roughly $US0.80.
For my money, I am now in the possession of two things. A wooden box full of tea cups that have drawings of Confucius on them. And this story.
The original plan for my Tuesday was for a guided tour of some of the city’s most famous sights: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. I was to get up at 6 a.m. and meet a tour guide in the lobby of my hotel, the Kerry Hotel.
Having gone on a similarly guided tour of the Great Wall on Sunday, I knew what I was in for: a consumer-packaged-goods version of China that would cost about $US100, and have me back at the hotel by 5 p.m.
That plan went out the window Monday night at about 1:30 a.m.
It would make me sound tough, adventurous and very Bourdain-y to say I did so because I wanted to see the “real” China.
But really, I canceled the tour because on Monday night I was exhausted. I’d just spent a day flying to and from a city near Shanghai called Hangzhou. My flight back to Beijing had been delayed, and I didn’t want to get up early the next morning.
I woke up Tuesday morning feeling conflicted. I hadn’t filed a story in a week, so I felt behind on work. But I also felt guilty about cancelling my tour. I felt like I was missing out on China.
So I went to the hotel restaurant, ate some of the strange tiny fruit they serve, and then worked on slideshows until noon. It was a cozy few hours. A non-HD version of Monday Night Football was on Chinese cable. I used my iPhone to Facetime with my wife. I was in my comfort zone.
At about noon, my fear of missing out on China finally overwhelmed my obligation to be posting.
I went to the lobby, walked over to the concierge desk and asked how hard it would be for me to take a taxi to the Forbidden City by myself and to later find a taxi to bring me back.
The concierge said it would be very easy. Then, before I even had a chance to say, OK, I’d like to do that, he walked quickly out from behind his concierge desk, out the hotel’s front door, and flagged down a cab. I followed him outside. He opened the cab door for me. Then he leaned in and gave the cab driver what seemed to be detailed, lengthy instructions. Then he handed me a piece of paper with the hotel’s name on it and a little map showing its location on the flip side. He said I could give the card to any taxi driver and the driver would know how to take me home.
We pulled away from the hotel. I felt a little rushed. I was also a little worried. If it was going to be so easy getting back, why did I need a map to do it? But I was also exhilarated. Finally, I was headed off the beaten path. It was time to see China.
Then I noticed something annoying. The cab, a newish Hyundai, had over-the-shoulder seat belts. The straps hung where you would normally find them. But there was nothing to click the seatbelt into by my thigh. This was worrying.
I believe that Chinese drivers are just as “good” at driving as American drivers — that statistically, the place is no more dangerous on the roads.
But it doesn’t feel like it. People in China do not line up for things like ticket counters or airport gates. They rush in and fill all available gaps, sometimes gently shoving to create new ones. They bring the same mentality to the roads. They will turn two-lane roads into three lane roads by driving between two slower cars. They will turn right at an intersection without slowing down or even looking left at on-coming traffic.
In the back seat of my taxi, I stuffed both hands into the gap between the back rest and the seat, frantically looking for a buckle. I didn’t find one.
(An American I later met in China tells me cab safety used to be much worse in Beijing only a few years ago. He said that when he visited China then, he’d gotten into a cab where the back right door wouldn’t stay closed. His driver told him to hold it shut. “Don’t worry,” the driver said, “I won’t be making many left turns.”)
We rode through the wide, car-clogged streets of Beijing. We drove past endless new buildings — the kind of generic structures that belong as much in Beijing as uptown Charlotte, office parks of US-101 south of San Francisco, and anywhere in the vast sprawl of Dallas. Only the characters on the signs said this was China. The cars around us were almost all new: many Volkswagens, some BMWs, lots of Hondas. They were sedans and SUVs. There were no trucks and no beaters at all.
After a 20-minute drive we arrived at Tiananmen Square.
My driver gestured that to get to the Forbidden City, I would have to get out and here, enter the square, and then take an underground passage.
He spoke to me very loudly and slowly — just the way I remember my dad talking to the French during our European vacation when I was a kid.
I got out of the cab. I went through a metal detector and a pat-down from a woman in a uniform.
I stepped onto the Square.
I pulled out my iPhone and opened an app I’d bought for a self-guided walking tour. It was one of those “augmented reality” apps where you point the camera at something in front of you, and on the screen there’s text telling you what you’re looking at.
I was pointing the camera at a large building, which the app told me was the Beijing Opera, when someone behind me said, “Hello!”
I turned around to see who was speaking English. Before me, there was a short Chinese man in a hoodie and a leather jacket. He was waving at me.
The small man introduced himself to me. I’m not going to share his name for reasons that will become obvious later.
I told him, “I’m Nicholas.”
He looked surprised.
He said, “There is a very famous Nicholas, no?”
I laughed. I figured he meant Saint Nicholas. It turns out that Christmas is a big gift-giving holiday in China, and even though it was only the middle of November there were already Christmas decorations all over Beijing.
But he didn’t mean Santa Claus.
He wanted me to help him remember the famous Nicholas. He said, in that way you do when something is on the tip of your tongue, “An actor.”
I guessed: “Nicholas Cage?”
He said, “Yes!”
Then, after a pause, he said, “and you are not him?”
He asked this as though he was pretty sure I was not Nicholas Cage, but he wasn’t totally sure, and he didn’t want to offend me in case I was.
I said no, I am not Nicholas Cage.
He asked me how I liked China and Beijing. I said it liked it very much so far, especially the food. He asked me if I knew what building I had been looking at.
Because of the augmented reality app, I responded confidentially that I did — it was was the Beijing Opera house.
He laughed at me. He said, no, it was not. It was Mao’s mausoleum. He asked me if I knew who Mao was. I said I did.
Then my new friend began pointing out the other buildings around the Square and told me about them. There’s a parliament building, a museum, and a monument to the people.
He asked me, “Shall we walk while we talk?”
I said OK. I was pretty happy to have found someone to show me around. More than to see old buildings, this is why I had flown around the world.
We walked around the monument, which is a large rectangle in the middle of the Square.
My new friend told me about how ancient the Square was, except for the paving stones beneath our feet.
He said those were replaced after “many thousands” of students were massacred in the square in 1989. He said we should walk to the spot where that one student stood in front of a tank column in that famous old photo.
I found myself being guarded in my response to him bringing up anything political. Because I’m a journalist, it had been hard to get a visa to get into China. Also, I’d applied for a tourist visa, not a working visa. A paranoid thought crossed my mind that my new friend might actually be some kind of undercover handler charged with keeping tabs on me. I dismissed the idea as silly, but decided to stay cautious.
As we walked on, my new friend began to ask me some pretty personal questions: Was I married? Was I happy about being married? Why didn’t I have kids yet?
In a book I had read during my flight over, I learned that this kind of interrogation was normal in China. So I opened up, and so did my new friend.
He said he worked at a bank in China, and that his job was to approve loans to small businesses. He said he loved his job because it was mostly done over expensive dinners and karaoke outings he could charge to the company.
He told me he’d gotten married when he was in his early twenties because his mother had told him it was time to settle down.
It was around this point in the conversation that we arrived at the other end of the Tiananmen Square.
My new friend pointed at a large structure, and said it was the gate through which emperors used to enter the Forbidden City. He said that women had not been allowed into this area unless they were concubines. He said men who wanted to enter would have to “cut off their penis or maybe their balls.”
We walked through an underground passageway leaving Tiananmen Square and came out on a crowded road that was full of tourists. This was West Changan Street.
I suddenly remembered I hadn’t had lunch yet. I was enjoying my new friend and asked him if he wanted to get a couple beers and eat with me.
He said sure. First, he wanted to show me around West Changan Street, and a smaller street off of it, called Emperor’s Avenue.
We walked past what he said was the world’s first massage parlor. Then he pointed at a building that he said was the world’s first pharmacy. He said there were some strange things inside that I should see. There were. Among them: dried deer penises and a 65-year-old wild ginseng root that cost 3.6 million RMD, or $US600,000 USD.
I asked him if the store owners would mind if I took photos. He said probably they would, but that I should anyway. He said in China, people do things until someone tells them not to. So I took photos — until someone told me not to.
We left, and walked down an alleyway called a Hu Tong. My new friend said the government keeps getting rid of them in favour of wide, car-friendly roads and that people are angry about it and keep protesting. We went into a store on the Hu Tong and he bought some cigarettes. He smoked a ton of them, he said. About two packs per day.
Finally it was time for lunch. Ever since I landed in Beijing, people kept telling me I needed to try some Peking duck. I asked my friend if he agreed.
He said he did, but that we should avoid the more touristy places because they would be unnecessarily expensive.
We walked into a shop. It appeared to be selling perfumes and jewelry and plateware. It did not seem like it was was a restaurant. But my friend walked down a hallway and opened a door into a private room. There was a table, set like a table at a restaurant. We sat down, and a waitress came in and gave us menus.
This was when I made my big mistake. I didn’t look at the menu. I just asked my new friend to order for us: some duck and vegetables. He said we should order a half duck because he wasn’t that hungry. But after a short conversation in Mandarin, he said the waiter told him the place only sold full ducks. I said that’d be fine, I was hungry.
The drinks came first. We ordered beers and, on the side, glasses of Chinese sake. I didn’t know there was such a thing as Chinese sake. But there is, and it’s strong.
Over the first drink, my new friend told me more about his job and his views of China.
“China makes me happy. I am very proud to live in China,” he said. Then he leaned to the side in his chair, put a finger in the air, and squinted his eye to look at it. He said, “There is only one thing that does not make me happy. There is too much corruption.”
He said that in his industry corruption was just part of the job. He said that if a client wants a loan, they have to bribe him. He said that if he doesn’t accept the bribe, he’ll get in trouble with his boss. That’s because 10% of the bribe goes to him and 90% goes to his boss.
The duck came out on two oval, porcelain plates. It was sliced in the same way a fancy New York steakhouse will slice a porterhouse for two. My friend showed me how to eat it. You take a round “pancake” put a piece or two of duck on it, throw on some vegetables, drip on some sauce, and wrap the whole thing up. Then you hold it with your fingers (not chopsticks) and dig in. It was a lot like fajitas.
After a beer and a sake, my new friend started talking about his marriage. He said his wife was very beautiful, but that she wasn’t enough for him. He said he had two girlfriends in other parts of the country.
I asked him if they knew about each other. He said his girlfriends knew about his wife, but his wife didn’t know about his girlfriends.
He said he once had a Swiss girlfriend. He’d even flown there to meet her family. It hadn’t worked out. He blamed her snooty parents.
He asked me if my wife got along well with my mother. I said they do now. He told me his wife and mother are always fighting. He explained that he and his wife live with his parents. That’s normal in China, he said.
We finished our first glass of sake, and he ordered another of a different kind. When it came out, I saw that it was yellow, not clear like the first glass. My friend said that’s because this sake had been infused with live, poisonous snake. It tasted good — crisp and lightly sweet. It didn’t taste that different from the clear sake.
We sat and talked for maybe an hour or two.
Finally, the bill came.
Because I’d suggested lunch, I offered to pay. I thought maybe the bill would come to $US100 or $US150. We’d only had the drinks, the duck, and a side of vegetables.
The bill was 2,400 RMB, or $US400 USD.
On the inside, I screamed. On the outside, I remained calm. I probably could have negotiated with the waitress. I could have asked my new friend if we could split. I didn’t, feeling too embarrassed.
I just handed the waitress my credit card and swallowed hard.
My new friend told me he felt deeply indebted to me, and that he wouldn’t feel right unless he could repay me with a gift.
So he left the table and left the private room where we were eating. He asked me if I liked tea. I told him I drank it sometimes. I said I liked jasmine tea. He made a face and said jasmine tea is for women. I said I didn’t know that.
When the waitress came back to the table with the check, she also dropped off a wooden box.
My friend said to open it. Inside, there was a set of tea cups and a teapot. Each had a picture of Confucius printed on the side.
As we got ready to go, I asked my new friend if I could take his photo.
He said, “Why not?”
And so I have a great photo of my new friend. I can’t show it to you for the same reason I can’t tell you his name. He was very candid with me, and I don’t want him to get in trouble with his employer, his country, or his wife.
But I can tell you what the photo looks like.
He’s got a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a big empty beer glass in front of him. He’s wearing sunglasses. He’s got a leather jacket on over a hoodie and a grey t-shirt. Like many Chinese do when posing for pictures, he’s holding two fingers up in a peace gesture.
Stretched out before him is a great half-eaten feast of a lunch that cost me $US400.
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