Welcome to China

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It's late April, and Beijing is certainly not the most popular vacation destination for Americans. The American and Chinese governments are still bickering over the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet, and yet here I am, arriving in Beijing for an eight day vacation. I had planned the trip months earlier. My friends Peace and Brian are studying here for the year, and I didn't want to miss this chance to see Beijing. Little did I know that I would be visiting during a major diplomatic crisis. Needless to say, my mother is not thrilled. 
And yet, when I arrive, all this seems strangely irrelevant. Sure, people stare at me (there are, after all, few redheads in China), but nobody is really bothered by my presence. I am braced for a search of all my possessions when I arrive at the airport, but the customs officer simply waves me through. In short, nobody seems to care that I'm American.

According to Peace, my taxi ride from the airport is an especially fitting introduction to China. Not only does the driver almost get us killed, but he also tries to overcharge us by about ten dollars. Ripping off foreigners is something of a hobby for taxi drivers here, but my friends are not about to take this. As I stand on the sidelines with my suitcase, they argue voraciously with the cabbie. I don't understand Chinese, but it doesn't matter. This is still a great show. Voices are raised. Fists are slammed onto the car. Fingers are pointed. And a crowd gathers.

At one point, Peace, who -- despite her name -- is anything but peaceful, yells "Fangpi!" and the cabbie takes great offense that a woman would utter such a word to him. It means "bullshit," and it's the first Chinese word that I will learn, shortly before "hello" and "thank you." Eventually, the driver gives up and leaves without the extra ten dollars. Score one for the foreigners, although I'm willing to bet that in this battle the cabbies are far ahead.

"Welcome to China," Peace says with a laugh as the cabbie drives away.

Peace and Brian live in a dormitory at the Chinese university where they study. For the wonderfully affordable price of $9 a night, I'm staying in a room just upstairs from them. While the room is cheap and convenient, unfortunately it's also a pit.

Nothing in the room is very clean. "If it touches the floor, forget about it!" Peace tells me, and I see her point when she explains that the staff cleans the entire dormitory with just one mop. She hands me a pile of disinfectant wipes, and I douse my room with them as if surgery will be performed on every surface.

And then there's the bathroom. It's just one small, rusty room. From left to right, there is a sink, shower, and toilet -- with no separation at all. The toilet is mere inches to the right of the shower. Brian gives me some of the best advice I have ever received in my life when he tells me: "Er, you might want to do your business before showering. Otherwise, you'll get wet ass."

The next morning, we start the sightseeing at the most logical spot -- Tiananmen Square. I'm not sure if anything new can be said about the square. It's just so very big and so very ... concrete. To western eyes, it seems jarring to see such a large public place with so little grass. Occasionally, there will be some grass near monuments, but that's all. I can't quite call it pretty, but it is impressive.

We walk to the top of Qianmen Gate on the south side of the square and look out over the city.  In one direction, I can see McDonald's and an Internet café. In the other direction sits the building in which Mao Zedong's dead body is preserved. On one side is capitalism; on the other, communism. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Mao spinning in his grave.

Inside Qianmen, we encounter a strange little museum. On the first two floors, there are maps and photos of old Beijing, while the children's section on the third floor is dominated by large framed posters of cartoons. We think nothing of the children's section, but then we take a closer look at the cartoons and discover that subtlety is not a specialty of the Chinese government.

In one cartoon, the first frame shows a boy playing a video game. In the second frame, he sticks a knife into a woman. Peace translates, and we learn that this woman is the boy's mother. In the third frame, the boy stands over the body of his dead mother. Finally, in the last frame, he looks very sad, as he is led away in handcuffs by the police. I'm not sure, but I think the government might be trying to make a point about video games.

In another cartoon, a boy is seen talking with his friends. In the next frame, we see him standing at the back of a theater. On the stage, a woman is undressing. There's also a couple in the audience making out beneath an ominous cloud of smoke, while the boy looks on. In the third frame, the boy and his friends are attacking a woman. In the final frame, we see only his sad face locked behind a jail cell. Again, the authorities seem to be making some sort of point here.

There are dozens more of these cartoons, but after a few Peace and I tire of all the ghastly scenarios. "Hey, kids, here's another way you might screw up!" they all seem to scream. We yearn for a simple Pokemon cartoon, but it's all little boys and little girls destroying their lives.

And we both decide that, after looking at all this misery, we could really use a drink.

Next week: The Forbidden City.
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