Got my passport back yesterday, just in time for my trip, with my Russian Visa. $250! My China visa in 2007 was only $75. Which reminds me, I haven’t spoken yet of that intriguing visit to Beijing with my older brother Steve and his wife Fawn. As I will be hearing Steve speak in Helsinki at the 4th Nordic Enterprise Architecture Conference, and traveling with him to Thailand (a first for both of us), and on to Paris for a weekend (to reminisce about the late 80s when we both lived there, me working for Schlumberger Oil Services and he as a military attache with the US embassy), as I prepare for this trip I am reminded of the second time I heard Steve, a PhD, speak in public.
The first time I heard my brother give a presentation was at his high school graduation. He was valedictorian, and gave a very intelligent speech. The second (and third time) I saw him present in public was in 2007, in Beijing!
I flew American to Tokyo (14 hours), then Nippon Airlines to Beijing (4 hours). Steve had told me a driver would meet me after baggage claim. I scanned the crowd of welcomers and saw a large printed “RAY” with a small handwritten “Else” after it. Steve told me later that the driver had wanted to print “RAY Brother of Steve”, but Steve talked him into “RAY Else” instead, to avoid the oft chance that another “RAY Brother of Steve” might be arriving at the airport at the same time.
Suffering from jet lag, and a tooth ache, Steve got up in front of about 60 girls at the City College of Management, and gave a rousing speech on The Importance of Communication in Business and Personal Life. The irony being the girls spoke very little English, and so understood very little of his excellent speech. And Steve, after the speech, remembered not a word of it.
After none of the audience asked any questions, but all politely clapped, we scooted across town to the prestigious Peking University School of Medicine, a kind of Harvard University of China, where Steve gave the same speech, The Importance of Communication, only this time to a mixed audience of bright-eyed students who thrived on every word.
The audience gave him a standing ovation, then mobbed him with questions, all wanting to know how to become a successful genius like Steve. I went up to the circle around him, and listened to the questions. Steve tried his best to answer. Then a plain looking girl in her early twenties asked Steve something totally unexpected, and it was for me a wonderful moment. Hesitantly, she asked Steve, “Tell me, please, how can I make a friend?”
Yes of all the questions asked that night by some of the most brilliant university students in China, this was by far the most real, the most critical, question. “How can I make a friend?”
Taken off base, jet lagged, tooth hurting, Steve answered as best as could be expected under the circumstances. I have puzzled over that same question myself, since then. Having a few close friends, yet strangely, ones who typically live thousands of miles away, mostly in other countries, how did I get these friends and why haven’t I gotten many new ones? I guess there are certain times in your life when you open up, and share with others, and friends made during those times stick.
Anyway, in China we met some old friends of Steve’s wife, Fawn. You see Fawn worked for 6 years at The Crown Plaza Hotel in front of the Forbidden City before she came to the US, and there she made good friends, friends who since then have gone on to start careers in the booming Beijing economy.
One friend is a diamond sales rep. Another started his own luxury magazine and advertising business. Another has a tour company. Others went on to become University professors. I think Fawn regrets sometimes migrating to the US just in time to miss the economic boom in China. I have to admit I never saw so many brand new sky scrapers as I saw in Beijing, all packed with businesses.
Unfortunately much of the “old China” is no longer visible in Beijing, a lot of the old neighborhoods razed for the Olympics, and for new condominiums. There are many more cars now in Beijing than parking places, so at night you see cars parked practically on top of each other.
While in China we visited the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, The Silk Street Market, a Circus and the Hutongs (a tourist area where some of the old alleyways of Beijing, with little markets and restaurants, have been preserved).
What I found out about the Forbidden City, and what is apparently somewhat true today still in China, is that in old times only the Emperor and his family and servants were allowed in the inner sanctum walls, and high officials in the walls around that, and lower officials in the walls around that. How this relates today is that I was told, people living in the countryside cannot just move to any city like Beijing – they have to be worthy of a permit.
When walking around not far from the Forbidden City, I found some alleyways, where people lived in small shacks in the city, people who squatted in front of their homes, some selling vegetables. I noticed too a man standing next to a bike with a huge flat fruitcake strapped on the back. I bought a piece, and it was wonderfully fruity and nutty and fresh.
Continuing on my hike around the Forbidden City, a young Chinese man came up to me and asked where I was from. When I told him, he asked me, “What is the difference between intricate and complex?”
I did a doubletake, not realizing that coming to China meant you had to be ready any minute for a pop quiz in English. He wrote the two words, somewhat smeared, in blue ink on the palm of his hand.
“Intricate has more to do with finesse,” I told him, but of course he did not understand that word. I took out a paper and drew three lines close together and wrote the word Small. “Intricate,” I said. Then I drew a jumble of lines and wrote the word Big. “Complex,” I said. “Like the world.”
The Great Wall proved to be a wonderful place to have a workout, given all the hills it ran over and all the steps to climb. Coming back from our tour of the Great Wall, we stopped in a tourist trap restaurant where I was served chicken soup with black broth and two chicken feet sticking out. I crossed myself and took a sip. Was as horrible as it looked.
In the Silk Street Market, in one of thousands of booths, I found a Spyder ski jacket. I asked the young clerk, “How much?” She took out a calculator and typed “250.” “Dollars?” I asked. She said “Yes. $250.” Realizing that she was asking way too much, that the coat in the US might cost that much, so why would I buy it here in China, I started to leave. She grabbed me back. “240” she typed on the calculator. “Let me get my Chinese friend,” I told her. “No! No Chinese friend. $225” she told me. She pleaded with me not to get my Chinese friend. But I wasn’t about to pay her asking price. I went off and found Fawn and she came with me to the booth. The girl and Fawn argued for about 5 minutes. Finally Fawn turned and told me. “You have it if you want it. For $25.” “Wow!” I said, “Yes I want it.” I handed the clerk the equivalent in Chinese money.
The poor girl broke into tears as she handed me the coat. “Not fair!” she told me. “Not fair to bring Chinese friend!”
I would have paid her $100 for the coat. I didn’t mean to make her cry.
I wore that coat recently, when I went skiing in Steamboat Springs with my oldest daughter and her family, and saw another fellow with a similar Spyder coat. I doubted he got his for $25 in China, and made the young clerk cry.