Friday, April 10, 2009

Buy her a pearl metaphor

The man we call Tank Man is invisible here, according to our tour guide. But you have to wonder how many Erics there are here among the millions of people that form the People’s Republic.

Eric was to become a teacher but he has put his plans on hold for a while until his brother graduates from engineering school.
“Then,” he said, “It will be my turn.”

He wants to become a teacher at a public school. It’s a good job and it pays well. Oh, and there are summers off, too. Some things, I guess, are universal.
“But what would happen if you taught about Tiananmen?” I asked.
He laughed, shaking his head.
“That would not be good for my career.”

The government has the Tienanmen covered. The story goes that 14 government solders were killed by terrorists. This justifies the nightly closing of the Tienanmen Square area after the flag lowering ceremony in the evening. Tracey and I were told “no” rather firmly by an impossibly young soldier in a uniform that was two sizes too big when we attempted to swim counter to the stream of people and re-enter the Square on our first night. Even though the words came from an impossibly young policeman in a uniform so big it recalled a Halloween costume, we felt the gravity of the order and rejoined the flow of the crowd without a complaint.

According to Eric, the security at Tienanmen Square correlates closely with the protests of 1989.

You get the impression that Eric does what he has to and that this is the attitude of many Chinese. Educated, hard-working and smart, they play by the rules, such as they are, to get a piece of the pie. Eric avoids risk and dutifully takes us to the lunch spot, and the pearl market, and the jade shop. This is what he has to do. I understand. His youthful enthusiasm more than makes up for it. While I wish he would take us to the maze of alleys and gardens in the Hutong west of Tienanmen.
“No,” he said. “I will not take you there.”
“Someone see me with you,” he said when we were away from the driver, “They might tell someone.”

It’s a funny union between business and government. Official government store? I am not sure what that means. The pearl joint with rooms full of rows and rows of immaculate glass cases glowing under the halogen beams from above definitely seemed official.

But the jade place, while it did begin with an explanation of the different types of jade and how a so-called “happiness” ball is made, lacked that official feel.

What’s a happiness ball? You mean you don’t know? I’d never seen one either but I guess they must be very popular with tourists. It’s a kind of stone ball with twelve holes, one for each month, drilled into its sides. This allows the carver to carve another ball inside the first, and another inside the second, and a third and, well, you get the idea. The biggest balls…can I say that again? The biggest balls have the most balls…inside…
It’s supposed to represent generations of family unity. An ancestor thing.

A Chinese thing.

I asked Eric if he had one. That was the first and only time I saw him laugh. Truly laugh.

But, make no mistake, they were expecting us. That jade store knew we were coming. Perhaps it was the call Eric made in the car but when our car pulled up, all that was missing was Ricardo Montalban.

No, sorry again, my love, I did not buy you a jade bracelet.
But you WANTED a happiness ball? Sorry again. No dice. And that goes for the enormous model junk as tall as Yao Ming and the life-sized ancient Chinese soldier. Nope.

But someone is always watching. And maybe I can shed a little light on the good side of that little coin. If someone is always watching you might behave a little better.

Tracey and I ignored our aching feet and headed off to the Pearl Market. No, not the first one. This Pearl Market is kind of like a department store had a wreck and collided with a flea market.

Floor one; rugs, bikes and undies. Loads of undies. They actually were selling them in bales. Go up a flight and its gadgets, more gadgets, more gadgets and, amid the silicon wonders of capitalism run amok, Mao stuff. Mao playing cards, watches, handkerchiefs, undies (of course) and Little Red Books of various sizes and translations.

Go up another flight and you hit jewelery. Hundreds of booths all selling pretty much the same thing; pearls, jade, and coral. Earrings short and dangly, necklaces of every description, pearls on strings, ropes of pearls, black pearls, white pearls, and, of course, fake pearls.

And did I mention the chorus of young women and men pleading for you to “have a look?” Lot’s of that. You respond at first, then you smile and by the time you are done with a floor, you barely nod your head.

I bargained. I probably got ripped off. Hard to say. What is the going price of a reproduction Cultural Revolution poster in Yuan? You tell me that.

Anyway, up another flight and more of the same but, perhaps, a higher quality.
Top floor is quiet. Big shops up there with price tags, BIG price tags and binocular microscopes at the counter and a white-gloved silent staff that wait for you to enter before addressing you in perfect English.

I stuck to the second and third floor.

But then it was closing time and we were hungry so we hoofed it home. And then it hit me. I had not even thought of safety. I get the impression that the people in Beijing do not count on being held up at gunpoint as part and parcel of city life.

Maybe it is because someone is watching.

Interesting note. I always have to check how I spell Tienanmen. So I Googled it. The first hit, and this is in the People’s Republic, now, was the Tienanmen Square protests and several pictures of “Tank Man” appeared.

I felt as if I should exit the page. Like porn had jumped on my screen.

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