Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Spring in Beijing
Warmth has settled once again over the Emperor’s City. This is my first spring in Beijing, the Northern Capital in which the heartbeat of the Middle Kingdom exerts the destiny of a great nation. In Beihai park, the trees are in bloom, the pink and white flowers dancing above the yellow forsythia. The lake glimmers. The wind has already taken the brief bloom of the magnolia blossoms. The tender lilacs droop seductively. The magpies have returned to their nests. The willow tufts waft in the air like cotton. One day they looked just like huge round fluffy snowflakes blowing upwards past the balcony window. I’d never seen anything like it and the exotica of China, especially in Beijing, persists unexpectedly through the urban drabness, and awakens my imagination like a sweet kiss. Every day there is something new, something amazing. Spring in Beijing, so precious after a cold bare winter that flexed its own stark splendor, the clarity of nights, the dustings of snow, the students snuggled in colorful warm outerwear, the busy people bundling through the streets on their errands.
It was still wintry when my friend Lisa visited in March and we sat on the low wall outside of the university gate after a day of long walks through chilly hutongs, making our plans for the evening. She talked about the boogie of pedestrian, bicycle and automobile traffic through the wide streets as a throng of urban cyclists snaked past us. She lifted her camera as an old, old man on a tricycle loaded high with boxes passed us. He noticed her, slowed his trusty vehicle and gave her a crinkly smile, radiant and genuine. Instantly our feet stopped hurting, the day was new again and another China moment had found its enduring mark.
I taught my class the expression ‘spring fever’ and suddenly understood those skeptical half-smiles I've seen before, realizing how violent some American idioms seem to them. Before I explained it, they thought it was a disease!
An email from a student, the message titled, “to dear ellen sander,” confided his sudden and overwhelming love for his new girlfriend and insisted I keep his secret.
“What’s the notion of felicity in your mind? May be you can produce thousands of activities that you pursuit the happiness, for example, you and your lover dining out in the most expensive and most luxurious restaurant in Beijing to enjoy the food which I firmly believed that its price does not meet its quality, or you are traveling all around the world by your private jet, or you find a bags of dollars in the street, so you don’t have to work any more. But those are not my meanings to the happiness.
Ah, the rites of spring.
Yesterday, my husband and I went to Silk Alley to buy wedding gifts for our sons, who are both getting married this spring, back home in the states. It was balmy and the scent of jasmine enveloped us as we left the campus of China Foreign Affairs University where we’ve both been teaching since September. Surrounded by the Chaoyang Central Business District, Silk Alley flows out of a teeming major artery into a compact busy world of its own. The color and hubbub was intoxicating and by now I’m so accustomed to aggressive vendors that I laughed when some ladies actually grabbed my arm, urging me to “have a look.” We bargained so skillfully for our purchases that some of the vendors complimented Joseph on his cleverness. We left with armloads of beautiful silkware (some of it “possibly” silk but more likely rayon). Red silk drawstring pants for me, kimonos for both of us, silk tablecloths, pillow covers and placemats for the soon to be newlyweds back home, some classy shoes and new shades for Joseph and I got a wicked dark red slip scallop-edged with floral trim. The pearl colored white loose-knit sweater probably isn’t the DKNY it is labeled as, but do I care?
We took the immaculate Beijing metro home, it hummed along in its proud modernity and then I marveled at the contradictory enormous line of rush hour ticket buyers lined up for archaic paper tickets as we left the station.
For dinner, at a buffet between the subway stop and the campus, I tried lotus seed sydney soup, a silky sweet broth with those lacy white mushrooms floating above the delicate white lotus peas. I went back for two more small bowls full of the delightful brew. A sign amid the deserts displayed proclaimed “The Flavor is Most Beautiful.” We walked home in the cooling evening among the other pedestrians, our rare day of diversion almost over. I unbagged all our treasures as night settled over the campus and put away our personal purchases. I set aside the wedding gifts anticipating the extended conversations and mass of forms that shipping them overseas would require the next day. My clumsy Chinese would intersect with the impossibly friendly and patient Chinese workers who’d assemble all the packaging and details through the baffling language barrier. All to share our love and the beauty of spring in Beijing with our kids thousands of miles away as their paths enter a momentous transformation--which these gracious Chinese workers would miraculously come to understand.
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.
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