We went to the Beijing zoo on Saturday. We had a nice time but it was pretty odd in a few ways. First, it was probably the most “Chinese” thing we’ve done here, with almost no tourists or other Westerners in sight. It was really crowded and just getting tickets and getting in was sort of a trip, with tons of people in your face hawking stuff on the street outside. They hold their goods out and try to thrust it in your hands and Eli kept thinking people were giving him things so he took the Power Rangers balloon, he took the bottle of water, he took the long ladybug whistle with the blowout thingies… and we had to take each of them out of his hand and give them back. The hawkers get pretty relentless, especially upon seeing fresh white meat like us, so you have to step up your own aggression, saying “Boo Yah!” which more or less means, “No way, get away” and cracks me up every time I say it.
But as soon as you walk in the gates of the zoo, it is very peaceful and park-like, amazing off t=of this busy, nasty road. And the people who worked at the zoo were really nice. We bought a ticket for Eli because we had no idea what 150 cm is (under that is free). We stoppe din a tourist office inside to try to get a map – noone there spoke English — and in there took out a tape measure and checked E out – he’s only 112 – and ran back to the box office to get us a refund. I don’t think it would happen here.
The zoo is pretty archaic and the animals look quite sad. Sort of ike zoos were at home when I was a kid, only worse. Tigers and lions looking forlorn in little cages. Monkeys in fetid little cages. That type of thing. They do have four Pandas who live in relative luxury in something approximating wide open, modern American zoos,.But even these national treasures are not in really modern facilities. Of course, the kids noticed none of this and were happy to see even the pathetic polar bears in the sweltering heat, sitting on cement and looking for some peanuts – which people toss like mad, along with whatever other food stuff they have in their hands.
But the really wild part of the zoo is that our kids were as much of an attraction as the pandas or any other animal. People told us this would happen but it really hadn’t yet. Maybe because we have mostly done stuff in Eastern Beijing, where there are more foreigners. Maybe because we hadn’t really been in a Chinese crowd quite this big yet, because it was really big and swarming with people. I could see people staring at us from the start and noticed several folks pointing at Anna, talkig to each other and smiling. At a few exhibitions, people reached out to touch Eli on the hand and once on the face, which he oddly didn’t even seem to notice. A couple of people wanted to touch Jacob’s curly hair. Pretty much all of this was accompanied by smiles so it wasn’t scary.
Then we stopped for ice cream. We were sitting on this low wall eating, with a fence behind us and a family came by and the father was totally taken by Anna. He stopped and was calling over his family and friends to see her. Laughing and smiling. He asked if he could take a picture of his daughter with Anna, by wildly gesticulating with his hand, cigarette clutched between his fore- and middle fingers, speaking loud and fast Chinese.. Sure. They took it and thanked us and walked away. Then two other ladies came up and asked the same. They spoke some English and were very nice and excited. We did two pictures with them. All of that was enough for a crowd to gather around to see what was happening. We were what was happening, suddenly surrounded by a growing ring of people, all of them pointing, looking, smiling, talking to each other about us. Eli thought it was funny. Anna was a little sheepish but didn’t really care. Jacob was starting to freak out, not unreasonably. He came up close to me and said, “Let’s get out of here.” So we stood up and waved and smiled and nodded and walked away, with everyone watching us the whole time.
Later, as we were trying to find the aquarium, we stopped at a big map and were trying to figure it out. They don’t have big red X “you are here” markings. An older guy in an army jacket tried to help, though he really wasn’t or couldn’t. I guess my fish pantomime wasn’t up to snuff. He looked over at the kids and counted on his fingers, 1-2-3, then gave me a big smile and thumbs up and shook my hand warmly and vigorously. I guess having three kids is a big an attraction as the blond, curly hair and blue eyes. I was trying to explain that to the kids.
As soon as I said, “In China, people are only allowed to have one kid,” Eli’s eyes got really big and fearful and I immediately realized he was worried that we were going to have get rid of him and Anna so I said, “That’s only for Chinese people, not people visiting from other countries.” He was reassured but Jacob looked a little puzzled. I wasn’t sure why but a few minutes later he asked, “where is andrew’s family from?” A perfectly good question since his friend Andrew, Kathy Chen’s son, is the eldest of three Chinese Americans. They are all fluent in mandarin so Jacob regards them as Chinese.
to be continued tomorrow… I have to run home from B’s office now…