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January 23, 2023

The Twinning 4

By Barbara Rendall

Chapter Four: The City Tour

But with one thing and another -- like unpacking her humid clothes, and washing her hair, and puzzling over Chinese television with Betty as they shared their clandestine snack -- Trish didn't get very far with her column that night. But, she rationalized, how could she write something informative about Yutian when she'd only gone from the airport to the hotel, and eaten a meal which she probably shouldn't describe? She would give herself one more day. There would be lots more material after the city tour and the visit to the "model village," whatever that turned out to be.

When Trish and Betty entered the breakfast room the next morning, their fellow delegates were hovering over the buffet table, engrossed once more in trying to separate edible from inedible. As far as they were able to determine, the items on offer were a soup made of rice and hot water, a large mound of cooked broccoli, noodles swimming in a spicy red sauce with diced green onion on top, large round lumps of steamed bread that felt like foam rubber, and a kettle of hot milk. There was no coffee in sight, and strangely, no tea either.

"No tea?" Betty protested. "But I was counting on that -- this is China! And we were served that wonderful tea last night after dinner. Why can't we have that again?"

"The Chinese don't drink tea first thing in the morning," Sheldon informed her. "Forget it, Betty, it's a lost cause. The milk is your breakfast beverage -- or the rice gruel." He lifted his bowl to her. "Gan bei!"

"Gruel?" asked Doug. "What is this, the poor house?"

Jack entered the room just then, gingerly stroking his stomach. He gave the buffet a wary look, and then addressed the group.

"Did anyone else throw up last night?"

The Shoe King looked dapper and well-barbered as usual, but he was also a bit pale.

Betty shot him a disapproving look. "Jack, for heaven's sake, we're eating. Sylvia said I should keep you in line. So, please!"

"Just wondering." He lifted a lid and considered the noodles. "I think I had too many of those roasted bamboo shoots; I felt like I'd eaten a bale of hay. And then, after that Chinese liquor soaked in -- "

"Jack -- " Betty warned him.

"But once I got rid of it all -- "

"Enough," Betty declared. "That was a meal we'd all rather forget. Except, isn't it strange, I can't stop thinking about that incredible fruit dragon they made for us at the end. I wish I'd had my camera. I'll never be able to describe it properly."

Trish was trying to decide how the garlicky-smelling broccoli would sit in her stomach at eight-thirty in the morning when Mike entered the room looking uncharacteristically cheerful. He held up both hands triumphantly. There was a small cylindrical container in each one.

"Hey, everyone, look what I have -- real coffee!"

"What?"

"How?"

"Where did you get that?"

"We found a sort of convenience store last night. This stuff's not bad, though it's a little sweet and you drink it through a straw. There's not a word of English on it, so who knows what it's actually made of, but what the hey." He stripped off a straw and poked it through the top of one of the containers.

"Where's the store? Is it like a Seven-Eleven?" asked Rudy eagerly.

"Well," replied Mike, between sips, "I might tell you, and I might not. I sure won't tell the person who ate all those duck pancakes last night." He eyed the clergyman suspiciously.

"It's just down the block," said Sheldon. As a teacher, his first instinct was always to maintain calm. "Next to that karaoke club that looks like the New York Stock Exchange. Which was another experience, if anyone's interested. Mike does a wicked Johnny Cash."

"Yeah, we had some fun," Mike agreed, picking up a lump of steamed bread, hefting it, and then putting it back. "No Gu girls there, though. Anyway, this one coffee is for my breakfast, but the other one's up for grabs. Who's going to make nice with Mike now? Trish?" He gave her a wink. "I don't think you ate my pancakes."

She suppressed her alarm. "No, thanks. I think I'll give my system a rest until later." She leaned nearer Betty and whispered, "God, we have gone back to high school. Where's Henry, anyway? Don't we have to be someplace? I need something besides food to write about."

Mike tossed his extra container of coffee towards the other table, Tony reached for it, and just then Henry appeared at the door. Shying away from the flying coffee, which Tony managed to snag, he bustled into the room importantly, juggling his briefcase, a shopping bag, and a bottle of water.

"Excellent, everyone is assembled. Hahaha. Please finish eating quickly. The bus is waiting to take us to City Hall, they are expecting us."

He led them out through the lobby and herded them onto the mid-sized bus that sat out front, its air-conditioning already blasting. Then they were off to discover Wheat City's Chinese twin.

Gift bags from the Yutian government were waiting for them on their seats, and the delegates inspected them happily.

"A map, a pen, a hat, postcards, water, snacks -- how nice," exclaimed Betty. "And, oh, a little embroidered silk chicken -- I wonder why?"

The bus turned a corner, and suddenly they were paralleling a wide river. They hadn't seen it yesterday, though they'd certainly felt its presence in the humid air. It was a major tributary of the Yangtze, Henry told them now, and it ran right through the middle of the city. It was sandy-colored but fast-flowing as it rolled on between the medium-tall concrete buildings that made up the city center. Along the space between the road and the river, there was an attempt at a "green" area with patchy grass, some flowerbeds, and a sidewalk, punctuated by sapling trees. In twenty years, it would be pretty.

"This river comes all the way from the Tibetan Plateau," Jerome reported after studying the map. He sounded impressed.

Trish felt a strange thrill at the thought that Yutian was connected to the Himalayas. That this very water had come from the highest place on earth amazed her, and for the first time since arriving in China, she realized just how far they had come. Place names like "Shanghai," "Tibet," and "the Himalayas" made her think of National Geographic expeditions. Like those formidable travelers, she too had actually reached the other side of the world.

Their bus turned again and sped across a wide cement bridge toward a complicated-looking compound on the opposite side of the river. It looked like something from another sort of National Geographic feature -- maybe "Weird Architecture of the World". It appeared, somehow, both ancient and new.

"Here is City Hall," Henry announced. "It is built to look like the entrance to the Imperial Palace in Beijing, but with a glass high-rise on top, hahaha. Very New China. And up on that hill behind is Great Wisdom Temple -- can you see the rooftops? -- and beyond it, on the hillside, the Golden Phoenix Pagoda. Very beautiful. And just down that road -- he pointed across the river -- "is Jade Fields Fragrant Bean Curd Factory Number One. Very important to the local economy. Many soybeans are grown to be processed there. Perhaps if we are lucky, we will be invited to have a tour."

The delegates' heads turned this way and that as they tried to catch the sights Henry was pointing out, and suddenly Trish was reminded of a toy Vanessa once had: a little Fisher-Price bus with tiny people whose round heads turned around and bobbed up and down as you rolled the bus along the floor. They were all sorts of little people and their heads moved in different directions, but you could tell that they were all connected somewhere by a hidden mechanism. It was funny how that should come back to her just now.

As she glanced around the bus, Trish noticed there were some people sitting in the back whom she hadn't seen before. They were Chinese, and they must have been there when the rest of them boarded the bus at the hotel. There was an old man in a clean white t-shirt, rolled-up pants, and cloth slippers; an old woman in a printed rayon Chinese-style top, wide matching pants, and sneakers; and, sitting between them, a youngish man in a neatly pressed shirt, cotton pants and plastic sandals, who could have been anywhere between fourteen and forty and who looked extremely happy to be there. All three of them had gift bags like the ones given to the delegates, and the young man had already clipped the bright green souvenir pen to his shirt pocket. The woman was examining the postcards as if she were memorizing them, and the old man was trying on the khaki sun hat that Trish predicted would not be worn by anyone in the Canadian delegation. It looked awfully small.

The trio, along with the delegates, looked up with interest as the bus pulled up to a small footbridge that crossed a narrow moat and led toward the red-walled palace cum city hall. Henry shepherded the Wheat City delegation off the bus, and he indicated to the three Chinese that they were welcome to wait for them at a sidewalk snack stand that overlooked the moat. Then he led the others over the bridge and through a deep archway to a modern lobby, all polished granite and deep air-conditioning.

In the refrigerated reception room, they had another tea session with the Chinese officials they'd met the previous night, or people who looked just like them, featuring more barking speeches and hasty translations. Then came the introduction of their local guide, a slim, serious, very attractive young woman named May Lee, although when they later saw her name tag, they learned she was really "Mei Li." Which name was her first and which was her last remained a puzzle, and Henry always referred to her by both. He informed them that she had just earned her PhD in economics from "prestigious Peking University in Beijing," and that she was the best speaker of English in Yutian. She was home for the summer to visit her family before leaving for postgraduate studies at "prestigious Columbia University in New York City with a Nobel Prize-winning professor." An over-achiever, without a doubt, thought Trish.

Mei Li responded modestly but confidently, saying she was honored to be assisting them. She spoke beautiful English with a slightly stilted British accent, though when Mayor Drucker asked her how much time she had spent in Britain, she said she had never been out of China.

"Sweetie, you've got to be kidding!" insisted Mike, who had obviously taken an instant liking to her. He was divorced and always ready to flirt. "You sound like you're straight off the BBC!"

Mei Li blinked as he shouted at her, apparently never having experienced such contradiction during her years at prestigious Peking University.

"I listen to many tapes," she said carefully.

"Aaah," Mike replied with a grin.

Mei Li seemed uncertain of how to take that. However, she was obviously no stranger to being in charge. She addressed the delegation from the center of the reception room floor, standing very straight and poised in her serious economist's crisp white blouse, narrow black slacks, and black heels. Her thick dark hair was coiled in a complicated knot at the back of her head.

"Before we take our tour of the city," she announced, "there is one thing I must warn you about, very firmly." Her delicate eyebrows knitted into a pretty frown.

"Ah ha," muttered Mike. "Here it comes -- the rules, the restrictions, no awkward questions, take photos only when told. I bet she's a Grade A Party member, a propaganda queen. I should corner her on a few human rights issues."

But with only a glance in the direction of Mike's mumblings, Mei Li continued.

"I must ask you, when you cross the streets, to not only obey the traffic lights but also to please look carefully for turning vehicles, including motorbikes and even bicycles. Traffic is very unpredictable in China, and even more so in small cities. Sometimes we even have horse carts from the countryside, and they have no brakes at all."

Everyone chuckled at that, but Mei Li maintained her frown. Trish wondered if Yutian had once witnessed some terrible fatality involving foreigners. Or maybe it was just that Mei Li knew that her entire future depended on the success of the Wheat City twinning visit.

"Please remember what I have told you," she concluded gravely. "Now we will begin our tour."

Back in the bus, the three unexplained Chinese people were waiting obediently in their seats at the rear, and Henry joined them as Mei Li took his place behind the driver. It occurred to Trish that there was a good chance the Chinese people were related to Henry in some way.

Mei Li gave some rapid-fire instructions to the bus driver, and they were off on a tightly-scheduled morning of sightseeing. The route took them along a more developed downtown section of the river, where the road was lined with plastic palm trees in different gaudy colors. (Later, they would find that the coconuts lit up at night.) Trish began to notice that more than half of Yutian's traffic consisted of many people hauling large amounts of practically everything -- watermelons, garbage, furniture, cases of empty beer bottles, boxes of computers -- by means of seriously undersized and usually human-propelled vehicles.

The bus turned and then began a long grind up a low hill to the green tiled roofs of Great Wisdom Temple. They got out at the impressive front gate, as instructed, and Mei Li began leading them, at a rapid clip, through the various courtyards and halls of worship that ascended the hillside like stair-steps, giving background information and answering questions as they went.

The temple faced south and the graveled courtyards soaked up the heat of the sun as it rose higher in the sky. It didn't help that many vat-like bronze incense burners, bristling with lighted incense sticks that put out clouds of sweet smoke, were going full blast.

"Do you think we could go a little more slowly, and see more?" Jerome asked their guide, slightly short of breath, obviously wanting to experience this introduction to Buddhism at a more meditative pace.

"Yes, please," agreed some of the others who weren't that interested in Buddhism but who were hot and perspiring and needed to sit down. Trish felt sweat trickling down behind her ears and dripping onto her shoulders like light rain.

Mei Li, who only looked a little flushed, glanced at her watch. "It is not convenient to slow down just now," she replied crisply. "I'm sorry, we must keep to our schedule. Perhaps you can come back later on your own."

She continued to lead them uphill, very quickly and nimbly for someone wearing heels, Trish thought. Finally they reached the uppermost temple where a statue of a many-armed goddess was enshrined. Each hand held a different sort of object or utensil. Trish had the distinct feeling that she'd seen the image before -- on the cover of some book about feminism, perhaps? She asked Mei Li for more information. Indeed, their guide told her, the goddess's name was Guan Yin and she was the favorite deity of women who had various requests -- she indicated several women kneeling on cushions and offering prayers at the foot of the statue. She also told them, to everyone's relief, that this temple was their ultimate destination on the hill. Mei Li let her charges rest in the shade for a few minutes, and then she led them back down the hot stone steps that they had just so laboriously climbed.

On the descent, the sun seemed even hotter since they were now facing into it. Tony stopped to take a folding umbrella from his backpack. As he opened its wide plaidness above his bulky frame, Mike chuckled meanly.

"Hey, it's Mary Poppins on steroids. Cute."

"I don't give a rat's ass, Shasko. It's ten degrees cooler under here," Tony replied.

Mike looked suddenly thoughtful, and a little envious.

Back in the main courtyard of the temple, the delegates were able to catch their breath again because they had to wait for Henry's elderly female relative, or whoever she was. She had entered the temple while they'd been having their forced-march tour, and now she was bowing up and down before a statue of a big smiling Buddha, holding burning sticks of incense in her joined hands. Henry motioned elaborately for them all to be quiet and wait. Mei Li tapped her foot.

On the way back to the bus after the woman had finished her prayers, Henry explained to them, "She is very devout."

"Uh, by the way, who are they?" Sheldon finally asked.

"Ah," replied Henry with a wide yet enigmatic smile reminiscent of the Buddha's. "They are old, old friends."

Their driver roused himself from his nap and gunned the motor, and the bus strained farther on around the hill, giving them an overall view of the city as it spread out modestly below. Seen from this angle, Yutian was mainly a labyrinth of uniformly low, gray buildings and a few medium-tall glass high-rises, with the river cutting through diagonally, and the green fields of its name stretching out to the north and east.

"It does look a little like home," mused Jack Goldstein wistfully. He sounded as if a touch of homesickness might have hit him along with his stomach trouble.

"Yes," Betty agreed. "Like back around nineteen-seventy, don't you think? You remember those days, Jack. That was when Phil and I first opened the store. When Wheat City's tallest building was the Wheat Pool Building, twelve stories high. Here it's like that all over again. They're just starting out." She sounded wistful, too.

"But Wheat City doesn't have hills," pointed out Doug the agriculture representative, who always saw the land before anything else.

"Too bad," observed Jerome thoughtfully. "It would have made a difference."

None of the others asked what difference he had in mind. A hill on the prairies? What did Jerome know? He was always speculating strangely, but of course he had some kind of degree in philosophy, and he was from New York. The rest of them were ordinary prairie people and they knew what the prairies were: they were flat as a board, they had to be. A hill, even a small one, would have canceled out the purity of that fact.

Their next stop was just around the bend: the Golden Phoenix Pagoda. As the bus drew up, the delegates were surprised to discover that the entire nine-story structure was clad in lustrous blue, green, and gold glazed tiles. From the city, in the hazy heat, it hadn't looked like it had any color at all. Even more surprising, on top of the granite knob at its peak was what looked like a very primitive golden chicken.

"What's with the chicken?" Tony asked.

"It is a form of phoenix -- very auspicious," Henry explained.

Tony declined the opportunity to ask why a chicken would be considered lucky. It was a foreign country, that was why. That was also why, Tony knew, he was feeling faint with hunger at eleven o'clock in the morning. He'd been forced to have broccoli and foam rubber for breakfast.

But Betty recognized that chicken. "It's the same as the one in our gift bags -- the pretty little red silk one hanging on a cord."

"Yes," Mei Li replied, delighted that someone had noticed. She smiled at Betty, and the smile made her look entirely different. "It is the symbol of Yutian," she said proudly.

"A chicken," laughed Mayor Drucker.

"Yes." Mei Li turned to him. "And what is the auspicious animal symbol of Wheat City?" she asked.

"Symbol? Er, well, there's the, ah, sheaf of wheat, the prairie lily -- but animal? I don't think -- " He looked at the others, embarrassed, as a mayor, to be caught out on such a question.

Sheldon laughed. "I guess you'd have to say it's Bison Bart's buffalo," he said. "Face it, Howard. During Pemmican Days, Bart and that buffalo are plastered all over the city." Sheldon turned to Mei Li. "Pemmican is dried buffalo meat, a sort of prairie survival food from the old days. And our auspicious animal, during a special summer festival we have, is a cartoon buffalo with a little buffalo hunter riding on his back, waving a gun. It's sort of hard to explain. You have to be in Wheat City in July."

Mei Li looked confused, and a little horrified. "Isn't the buffalo an endangered animal? And your cartoon character hunts it? That would be considered very unlucky in China." But, she was probably reminding herself, Canada is a young country, and probably somewhat backward in its remoter areas.

Their driver pulled on the parking brake and opened the door, and the delegates climbed out of the bus to pose for pictures in front of the pagoda. Henry once again took the opportunity to point out, in the distance, the city hall, their hotel, and the many buildings of the fermented bean curd factory complex, just visible beyond a bend in the river if they looked carefully.

The delegates looked and nodded, but they also began to glance at their watches. The sun was high, the day was growing still hotter, and more than a few of them began to mutter about lunch.

Henry told them reassuringly, "We have one more stop of civic interest, and at that stop also, our lunch will be served."

Mike didn't like the sound of that. "Actually, a McDonalds would be ok, Henry," he told him. "Or hasn't that come to Yutian yet either?"

"I'm not sure," Henry said, shrugging. "Things change so fast these days in China. There's Kentucky chicken, I know. But please, there is no need to worry. A fine lunch has already been arranged for us at a charming venue. I promise you." He smiled his Buddha-like smile again.

The charming venue turned out to be called, appropriately for a Canadian delegation, Vancouver Villas, and it was a huge real estate project on the edge of the city. Their visit was billed as "an introduction to a typical Yutian civic undertaking." But the delegates sensed something more as the old Chinese couple, who mysteriously continued to accompany them, ran up to the slick-looking young representative who was waiting at the entrance and wrung his hands as if he were a long-lost son.

"Everyone seems to know everyone else in this city," Betty observed to Trish.

"It's a big small town, I guess," Trish replied. "Just like Wheat City." But she also had the suspicion that a large segment of the population was related to Henry, and that many of his relatives might have interestingly close connections to "civic undertakings."

Vancouver Villas consisted of two tall apartment towers fringed by an arc of splashy three-floor condominiums, not unlike those you might see in, well, Vancouver. Their host, whose name was Winston and who had recently graduated from Simon Fraser University (he told them proudly), walked them through a large raw garden, featuring fake Greek and Roman statues and piles of earth around a hole which would one day be a pond, to a model condo unit stuffed with massive leather furniture three times too big for the rooms. Betty, the furniture expert, shuddered. But the kitchen was worthy of a Better Homes spread, and the bathrooms were luxurious and a sight for sore eyes. (The modern "features" in their bathrooms at the Rits had turned out to have a variety of inconvenient problems, like low flushing power and taps that came off in your hands.) But the Vancouver Villas management, recognizing the possible temptation, had placed a sign in Chinese and English on the bathroom doors advising that these were not working bathrooms.

They moved on to the unit next door, and the delegates were extremely relieved to discover that it was fitted out as a small restaurant. The decorator had apparently run out of western inspiration and the rooms were all done in Chinese style: smooth lines, rich dark wood, and red silk. Tables were set up in a large room that opened onto a deck.

"Wine, anyone?" asked their smiling salesman-host. He opened the French doors to the deck where a girl in a red Chinese dress stood behind a table full of glasses filled with chilled white wine.

It was a silken trap for investors, but the delegates weren't inclined to complain as they nearly fell over each other in relief and made for the liquid refreshment.

"Winston, you're the man," declared Mike, reaching for a beaded glass.

"There is a God in heaven," sighed Betty, dabbing her brow and toasting Trish.

The luncheon fare was simple but definitely to their taste this time -- spicy chicken tossed with green onions and peanuts, fluffy round dumplings filled with meat and garlic, two crispy fried fish, and a cold green bean dish that was almost like salad, something they had been sorely missing in the land of meat and bones. The wine flowed, and their host also offered "KE-LA" from a big two-liter bottle, as if that were an even more sophisticated choice than wine.

Trish suspected the meal was takeout -- in the adjacent kitchen packaging rustled and a microwave whirred -- but who cared? It was highly edible. Winston gave his pitch as they polished off their mango ice cream at the end of the meal, and some of the Wheat City delegates even felt mellow enough to ask questions about the units on sale.

"Very affordable in Canadian dollars," they were assured by Henry's charming young relative, "and guaranteed to double in value in two years." And he ceremoniously presented his card and a brochure to each of them.

Mayor Drucker raised his head, alert. "Double? Really?"

"The real estate market in mainland China is red-hot," Henry assured him.

"But after Red-Hot comes The Bubble," Pastor Riethmeyer cautioned. He was a clergyman, but he hadn't been born yesterday.

"No bubbles in mainland China," Henry declared, waving a hand dismissively. "Hahaha."

As Winston officiously escorted them back to their bus, Tony had a suggestion for him. "If you people are interested in some kind of Canadian investment here, I think I've got just the ticket for you. It came to me on the bus just before, when I was thinking about lunch: Tim Horton's franchises. Not much risk there, not like real estate, and everybody likes donuts. And I know the Chinese are going for coffee in a big way -- there's a Starbucks on every block in Shanghai. But the coffee at Tim's is way cheaper." He thumped the young man's well-tailored shoulder for emphasis.

"Oh yeah," Winston replied. "Timbits. I remember them from Vancouver. They're pretty good."

Encouraged, Tony went on. "My son has a bachelor's in Business Administration that's gotten him dick-all so far. He's an assistant manager at Wal-mart. But he has a buddy who manages a Horton's franchise. When I get back I'm gonna tell the two of them China's where it's at. I'll give them your card. Maybe you can get something going here with them."

"Tell your son to phone me on my mobile!" Winston replied eagerly, sensing a payoff for the lunch. "Anytime!" From the look on his face, he might already have been mentally adding a little strip mall to Vancouver Villas, with space for a donut shop.

Next to them, Mayor Drucker listened approvingly, and Henry Ma beamed.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-23
Image(s) © Tom Rendall. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
Lydia Manx
04/24/2012
08:26:25 AM
The description of the differences between China and Canada remind me very much of my trip to Indonesia. There is something about wandering in a different country that is well-crafted in this piece and brings back some funny memories.
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