27 November 2012

Morning lessons from Beijing

The young woman always ironing at the front of the cleaners is my favorite person in the neighborhood, kind and patient as she always is with my broken Mandarin and always ready to return my smiles with polite words I don't understand. To my surprise they've taken excellent care of all of my clothes, despite their seemingly dilapidated facilities. My Benetton down jacket is cleaner than I've ever been able to wash it myself. So there is a great, affordable solution for stained clothes that elude your own washing capabilities--visit China!

On my way home, I see that the cute mini-drugstore cat that Su-Yee and I petted is on a loose leash tied to a stool outside -- China offers me a first in every category, leashed cats included. I discover a coffee place down a narrow hutong alleyway (the alleyways always lie open as if public, but I always presume they are private) that must be a night hangout, since it's closed this morning but large empty bottles of beer sit on the stoop.

As I continue strolling it occurs to me that the reason the name Mei Lanfang was so familiar when I started reading the Peking Opera introductory guide I purchased yesterday is that the memorial at the end of my hutong that I'd planned to check out on a rainy day is the Mei Lanfang Memorial! Patrick put me in the perfect neighborhood for my study of the intersection of Western and Eastern concert hall culture. My hotel is flanked on one side by almost 90 musical instrument shops selling Angry Birds ukeleles and erhus next to each other, and on the other by a museum to the world's greatest Peking opera singer.

Gnawing chocolate cravings as I experienced last night can be slightly appeased with chocolate "French bread" at the Taiwanese 85C bakery chain, although the loaf has nothing to do with French bread; the Chinese use preexisting Western labels to classify baked goods that have no equivalents in English. I think the bemused middle-aged couple in there is speaking French, but they leave before I can listen closer and venture to exercise my long-defunct French language skills.

Note to self: return to second-favorite breakfast place sometime for lunch or dinner since they have photo menus.

As I type this, a hefty but well-kempt pigeon coos outside my window, and I realize from the bands on its feet that it is a pet. It soon returns to the kitty-corner window from mine. Thirty days in China, and it only visits me for the first time today.
The Forbidden City is grander than I ever imagined, although the sights Chinese people clamber to photograph seem to depart sometimes from what interests foreigners. "Another big yellow chair," an Eastern European woman told her friend with an eye-roll tone of voice, and they wandered on, while Chinese tourists impatiently waited their turn to glimpse another Chinese imperial throne. I for one was delighted at the vast expanses of crumbling bricks below the throne rooms and found it easy to photograph desolate landscapes nearly devoid of human figures in an attraction undoubtedly filled with thousands of people.

Tonight I had lotus root with dry red peppers for dinner at the second- or third-to-last restaurant in my hutong that I haven't already tried or ruled out (example of ruled-out restaurant: donkey meat specialist). An occasional hot pepper slice added a surprisingly hearty depth to the rice, but afterward my ear felt like it might burn off.