Fifty six hectares of concrete and old imperial buildings make up the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing. An incredibly large enclave of tremendous historic significance, and a lonely and sad place filled with tales of concubines, eunuchs and fears of assassination and fire. The Emperors of China lived here and it seemed their main pursuits were the display of wealth and sexual hedonism. One royal wife was allowed, who entered in by the main gates. Through the back gates and hidden in three enormous buildings, the destination chosen based on their popularity and favor, three thousand concubines spent their lifetimes away from their families, most never meeting the Emperor more than once. You better believe Naomi and I took some “girl power” pictures in that place!
To me, living people are always of more interest than old buildings, and I enjoyed another morning of incredible people watching. We were one of only a few noticeably foreign visitors among the thousands of tourists at the Forbidden City. And just outside the gates, as we waited for our tickets, we were a tourist attraction ourselves. Older men lining up to gaze at Quinn from a friendly distance of about ten feet. As in Africa, Quinn is more charismatic to the Chinese than any of us, by far. He has such extraordinary favor among internationals, who seems to recognize in him a particular authority and wisdom, and who seem almost enchanted by his smile.
Local “squatty potties” outside the gates were immaculately clean, a modern marvel, I thought. Yet no place to wash your hands at all! When I pantomimed hand washing to a few people nearby they waved me off carelessly, as if that was simply unnecessary. A little girl of three or so, dispensed with the potties altogether, taking a break for number 2 in one of the garden beds within the Forbidden City while her family relaxed on a bench nearby. So I guess she had her own way of expressing how she felt about the oppression of women!
Lunch was held at a local silk factory where we had a tour of the process of silk production, something I have been fascinated by since second grade. I took a moment just to marvel that that little seven year old girl who learned in wonder about silk moths, is here in China today, seeing them. Wow. As we sat down with two other Holt (adoption agency) families for lunch, we were handed our “Red Book”, a red silk book with additional information about our children. Only a few paragraphs were brand new but we read them with such excitement!! We’ve been clutching that book ever since!
Now on to Tianenmen Square, luckily just reopened in the last hour, after the Two Meetings period which had closed it to all but politicians and soldiers. This is the site of the famous student protests for democracy, quickly suppressed by an army of Chinese military. We had shown our children the iconic pictures of “tank man” (google it!) and they were wide eyed as they stepped into the square. I expected it to be a sad place, but instead it was majestic. Gleaming white stone everywhere. The square was absolutely huge and the scale was echoed in the rows of beautiful pure red flags topped with a golden star. Two 100 yard screens displayed Chinese images. Mao’s face beamed at us across the square, hugely mounted on the walls of the “Heavenly Gate.” This place is called the “Avenue of Heaven” and you know what? I felt Jesus there, so strongly. Those red flags had no stars – and they did not really symbolize the communist party. No, they stood for the blood of Jesus, poured out for this nation. Surrounded on one side by Mao’s mausoleum, on the other by his portrait, and on another by the Chinese People’s Congress buildings, and Jesus was there. . . . . Splendor was what I felt. China has us beat all hollow when it comes to a national monument, because somehow that place has become a holding ground, where heaven has stationed angels, awaiting deployment into the rest of the nation.
In Beijing you rarely notice that the government is heavy handed. The joy of the people is apparent, and their oppression largely ignored. Much like the beauty of the square, the beauty of the people is more evident than anything else. But if you look closely you will see cameras mounted on every available surface. The “electronic eye” is everywhere, as people say here. Hidden beneath ornate lantern lights are spotlights and more cameras. And police are all present, especially after the terrorist attacks in southern China last week, just before the Two Meetings.
We wander the Square, taking in each marvelous detail. At the far end is a Chinese flag on a pole, surrounded by four soldiers and numerous fire extinguishers all around . . . . we wonder why. But no time to wonder, we are being grabbed by shouting Chinese who wish to take their picture, with us! Chinese women wedge in between me and David and we smile our way into immortality in an unknown tourists camera phone, again, and again. One women thrusts her blue-bundled baby into my arms for a picture with the foreigner and he turns to me quizzically, grunting in Chinese baby talk before turning back to the camera.
It’s been a long day and we wander out for dinner together, already tired by 5. Naomi’s jetlag is the worst. I watch Quinn wait in the Chinese “line”for food – a mass of bodies pushing forward with no line to it at all. He stands there, confidently, taking in all the voices and body language around him. And when he reaches the front he takes it in stride that no English is spoken and points to what he wants. Paying in his bundle of Yuan, he returns with food. He has loved having a wad of 100 Yuan in his pocket since we arrived, buying his own bottled water and candy and sometimes, food.
We feel strangely at home in China. And Naomi mentions that this could be a good place to go to high school, better than Africa. I am proud of my children, their resilience and strength as Third Culture Kids takes them on adventures most would never imagine. We LOVE to travel – and getting to bring home our third child from Asia is a dream come true in so many ways. I never really even imagined this part of it. Getting to live in her world for days, weeks. And loving every minute of it.