Dave Barry: Bye-bye, Beijing

Miami HeraldAugust 16, 2008 

BEIJING — I'm going to miss this crazy town.

I have to go back to Miami, because my daughter starts school Monday. (Miami-Dade public schools start in mid-August, which seems insanely early, but it's the only way to guarantee that the school year will be disrupted by hurricanes.)

I really don't want to leave. Partly this is because I haven't finished working out the leg cramps from the flight over. But mostly it's because I really like China.

Oh, I have a few quibbles. The Chinese language, for example. I'm beginning to suspect that even the Chinese don't really understand it, especially the writing. Time after time I sat in an idling taxi, helpless, while the driver conferred with an impromptu roadside committee of Chinese people trying to puzzle out the meaning of card with an address consisting of maybe eight Chinese characters.

My question is: What can possibly be so mysterious about an address? I mean, you have a number and a street, like "216 Broadway," right? But I've concluded that the Chinese address format is more along the lines of: "Drive to the Temple of Divine Heavenly Holiness. Look for a rock shaped like a squatting dog. Then drive 478 paces north. There you will find an old man in a green hat. Tell this man, 'The weasel burps at dawn.' Then ..."

Whatever the Chinese address system is, you don't always reach your intended destination. One night we set out with a card with (we thought) the address of a restaurant that featured the style of Chinese cuisine preferred by westerners, technically known as "not too scary." Instead, after much driving around and several roadside committee meetings, we ended up at a completely different restaurant, where the first item on the menu, featured in a full-page display with a vivid color photograph, was a dish for which the English translation was, quote, "Gastronomy Frog."

We quickly turned the page, looking at the other selections (which included "Soup Eel Soup") but it soon became clear that Gastronomy Frog was one of the least-weird items. Gastronomy Frog, in this restaurant, was the equivalent of French fries. The only entree we found that looked even remotely edible was called "Chicken Gristle," which we assumed was a mistranslation, but which turned out to be, in fact, chicken gristle, which basically tastes like you're chewing deep-fried gravel.

So one suggestion I have for the Chinese is that they should consider switching to a more efficient system of communication, by which I mean English. (I think Miami should also consider this.)

My other quibble with China is that it's Big-Brother-y. You get the feeling that you're being watched, because you probably are. One day I went with my daughter to the Pearl Market, where I bought her a pair of cheap walkie-talkies. (The vendor asked $23 for them, but I was able, through shrewd bargaining, to get them for $23.)

When we got back to the hotel, we went out to the sidewalk to try out the walkie-talkies. As soon as we turned them on, we heard Chinese voices talking on them. Literally seconds later, two men materialized in front of us wearing badges that said "SECURITY PERSONNEL." The men were frowning and pointing at the walkie-talkies and saying something to me, but I didn't understand, since they were speaking Chinese (see Quibble One, above). They made it clear, however, that they did not want us to leave.

More men came, and in a minute my daughter and I were surrounded by frowning security personnel. I kept saying, "Toys! Ha ha!" in a tone of voice intended to convey that my daughter and I did not intend to use the walkie-talkies to overthrow the Chinese government. This did not impress the personnel. Finally, after several long minutes, a man in a dark suit arrived. He looked at the walkie-talkies, then said something to the other men, probably, "This is the same moron who ordered chicken gristle." Then they let us go. Whew.

But enough with the quibbles. I loved my time here. Beijing is an amazing city, mind-bogglingly big and busy. But except for the walkie-talkie incident, I never felt intimidated, because the regular civilian people I met here were so unfailingly gracious. Many, many times people came up to my family - somehow, they figured out that we were from out of town - and said, "Welcome to Beijing!" They're very proud to be hosting the Olympics, and they should be. They've done a terrific job.

I wish I could stay, but as I say, I have to get my daughter back to Miami in time for the arrival of what is currently Tropical Storm Fay. I'll miss Beijing, and its wonderful people. When I get home, I will remember them fondly.

I will use my daughter's walkie-talkies to overthrow their government.

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