Kindness from strangers in a dumpling lunch
06.05.2007 - 08.05.2007 27 °C
On our way to the Temple of Heaven mid-morning yesterday, we were wandering along the narrow back alleyways of a centuries-old hutong when a cheerful woman stopped us.
She spoke broken English, which was more than that of most Chinese we've met in Beijing, so we felt compelled to soak up whatever interaction we could with a local.
Hutongs are the Chinese version of the labrynth of narrow alleys -- much like mideval towns in Europe or Arabia -- that make up the old parts of town. Pleasant because of the intimacy of space of life within, they afford a glimpse at an older, more established Beijing away from the polluted roar of traffic outside.
After a few questions, the woman invited us into her home, only a few steps away through a narrow doorway. We had been wondering what life is like hidden behind the hutong walls and she was offering us a chance to see.
Inside, she made no apologies for her cramped and shabby quarters: one room and an outside, covered kitchen. Her husband was at the stove, and she urged us to sit on the edge of their double bed while she immediately commenced making us lunch to the tune of an opera performance on the television.
"America goorrd," she crooned, explaining that she sells tourist souveniers at a nearby hotel.
She took out a ball of dough from a covered bowl and with a rolling pin began skillfully rolling perfectly round pieces, which she then filled with some sort of minced green vegetable, folded, and pinched at the top to make dumplings. Two whole trays of them, it turned out.
We talked of many things: how Bejing's rapidly-changing landscape and culture are good changes, but the poor farmers coming into the city are bad. How life is expensive in the city, but we paid too much for our hotel. She was bright-eyed and warm, repeatedly impressed by our prospective careers and pointing to her head to show her husband that we had "knowledge."
We began to wonder two things. Would we get sick off lunch? And were we being set up for some scam that would be presented after we were well-fed and appreciative.
The scam didn't happen, though we did walk away with two "Beijing 2008" t-shirts for a commendable price of $3 a piece. Tony was the lone casualty on the first front (which is why no photos have been uploaded -- still! -- to this blog).
A warning not to take up a lunch offer again? Hardly. The experience was by the best yet in the first few days of our three month trip across Eurasia.
Beijing is massive, sprawling city. Though it has some pleasant corners, in ticketed parks, it is quickly-modernizing metropolis of scary highways and soaring skyscrapers and dusty sidewalks teeming with people.
The Beijing subway (indeed "convenient" as the intercom says) has three lines: Line 1, Line 2, and Line 13. The 10 in-between lines have not been built yet, but are in the city's ambitious plans.
The youth have, it seems, abandoned any pretense of communist ideals in favor of blatant, apolitical materialism. They are matching the latest New York fads in dress and style, with heavy bangs and shag, permed haircuts (because if you have straight hair, clearly wavy is better).
One clear distinction between West and East is the presence of skin-whitening cream here. As Americans head into sunbathing weather to achieve that healthy glow, Chinese women are carrying umbrellas and covering their faces with whitening masks in order to become perfectly pale.
The hutongs are a remaining vestage of the old days, exploited as a tourist attraction even as they are quickly becoming rubble to make room for the new Beijing. Our tour guidebooks are nearly useless on the subject of hutongs, since they are being razed faster than the books are updated.
Before we left, the woman gifted us these red paper cut-outs for our windows. "Good luck," she explained. Indeed, we felt lucky, from her gesture of friendship and in the reminder that there are good, caring people everywhere.
Please see photo gallery for more pictures. Click on Author "ahawkes" in the right column.