Day 9: Wangfujing, Peking Opera, and my beloved rickshaw
This day in China I woke up feeling as though every muscle in my body was calling in sick and my brain was the only one left in the office. But since it’s not every day that I find myself waking up in Beijing, China, I went through the routine. Eat breakfast. Shower. Make my hair look like something that doesn’t resemble a lint bunny. The usual. Mari had a meeting with some sort of professional woman in order to straighten out the details of her internship for the summer. (She is currently assistant stage manager for a major musical in Beijing–she’s working with the musical director for Grease and the choreographer for the Broadway version of Lion King. She is amazing.) The meeting took us back to the tourist haven of Wangfujing, which you will recognize from my earlier exploration.
We agreed to meet at the chic, two level McDonald’s in a little over an hour. I was given her cell phone and my allowance of RMB and told to explore on my own. This was mostly exhilarating. I say “mostly” because I began to realize the precariousness of my complete and total lack of the language. I can say “hello”, “thank you”, and “McDonald’s” in very poor Mandarin. I wandered sheepishly amid the glittering shops and attempted to walk into a mall, got incredibly lost in a maze of jewelry shelves, and ran back out.
However, I found a little gelato shop in the center of the Wangfujing pedestrian highway and experienced the frequent delight I had in China of finding flavors I am unaccustomed to in my motherland. The young Chinese man waited patiently, guessing correctly by my body language that I was trying to decide, until I pointed and said “papaya” in English, to which he pointed and said “papaya” in Chinese, after which I nodded. He made the sign for 10 RMB in Chinese, which is making an X with your first two fingers on both hands and I paid him in kind.
The gelato was not that great but it was exotic and I found so many times in China that my tongue is adventurous and seems to prefer a new taste to dance with rather than have a tried and true partner. I sat on a bench and oogled some more since I was, after all, in Tourist Land. then I moseyed over to McDonald’s where I reunited with a pleased, professional looking Mari.
However, as we determined to make our way to the Summer Palace, I found my feet struggling to stand. We sat in a mall, ate those dumplings in the food court I told you about again, and I decided I couldn’t make it. I have no reason other than my feet mutinied against me, but I was so weak I surrendered. I believe Mari’s feet had joined the revolution as well, for she seemed relieved at a bit of a break.
We made our way to the house, did who knows what for a few hours, and then once we had regained health points, we set out for the Peking Opera. This was the latest we had been out just the two of us and I felt my earlier fear of the day creep back in, but I slammed it’s fingers in the door and focused on finding the tea house where the opera was. It was a little known spot, but it seemed as though only the tourists went there for when we walked in, I saw only people who looked similar to me except for one table where a Chinese man would sing along to the Monkey King’s role. I wonder if he too, is a performer.
It was a breathtaking place to be in, everything neat and ornate. We were given sugary nuts, a strange candy, watermelon, and tea and all but the latter I sampled. I have always been an avid believer in complimentary food samples. The lights dimmed and a woman in traditional garb came teetering out, gave an announcement in what I discovered halfway through was intended to be English, then repeated it in her comfortable Chinese. I can’t blame her. I’m not sure she would have known I was saying “Ni Hao” if I said hello to her.
The opera began, and I was thoroughly engrossed. I don’t know how many Americans are familiar with this art form, but it was far different from anything I have ever seen in person. Due to my theatre background, I had become acquainted with some Japanese art forms called Noh, Kabuki and the more recent Suzuki and it was similar to this in the rigidity of the performance. There was a screen that shaped the lilting notes of the performers into English, sacrificing poetry in the process.
I am not sure even now if I particularly enjoyed the notes of the music and the harsh clanging of instruments, but I was enraptured by the preciseness and beauty of the performance. Every body movement from their feet to the placement of their fingertips had a purpose. I so desperately wanted to unlock the code of the performance and understand the emotion being conveyed when their fingers twirled the air or their foot suspended in the air. The characters themselves are stock characters, so a more educated audience member than myself can identify guaranteed characteristics of a persona on stage. My favorite was the Monkey King, a mischievous acrobat who taunts and teases to get his way. I encountered the story of a princess, trying to please her mother in law by catching fish, dancing with the pole throughout the story. I watched as a man told the story about guarding the wall, but failed due to the antics of the Monkey King. And my favorite story was the last, where the Monkey King battles the Princess only to escape her clutches and have her determine to find him in the end. The battle was stunning in its precision and choreography.
We left the tea house, babbling the sort of theatre babble that artists so frequently employ, and decided that we were tired of walking and we were going to mutiny against our feet. We found a corner full of smoking men waiting on their rickshaws and Mari drew a hard bargain to get us to the subway station. The nearby men laughed at her knowledge of how to manipulate down to the real price. That’s the thing in China: there is the initial price, the real price, and the price for foreigners. You can guess which one is the highest. I don’t speak Chinese, but I heard the word “li hi” which means “legit” or “hardcore” in English. It’s basically a compliment that the other men were giving to Mari telling her that she is acting like a real Chinese person.
We hopped onto the man’s rickshaw and he went pedaling through the night and it was magical. I could not stop giggling! I didn’t want it to end as we zipped and zoomed in between buses, cars, other rickshaws, pedestrians, any sort of moving object, our chain smoker found a way through. The night air was rich and smelled like Beijing–a conglomerate of too many people, cigarettes, and good food.
I ended the day believing there should be rickshaws everywhere.