Monday, June 6, 2011

June 7 8:30 am

For me, and I suspect for some others, the highlight of our time in Beijing came on our last day when we met with a group of people in a hutong (a very old area of the city, a narrow alleyway lined by old residences, some of which consist of a series of small structures surrounding a small, covered courtyard). Most of Beijing was once covered with such places but now the majority have been removed to make way for new buildings. Beijing has come upon the idea of preserving this part of the past just a little late, though perhaps not too late.

Most though not all of the people we met at this "special cultural activity" were elderly, though some were probably in their fifties and one man was much younger. Through the many friends and connections of our dedicated and hard-working Confucius Institute director, Dr. Weihua Niu, we've met so many interesting people and this group was the most diverse in terms age, interests and experience.

Our conversation with them was facilitated by Weihua and her college friend Linda, who is now a travel agent. Most the people were old enough to have lived through the destructive and terrifying Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. They spoke about their experiences of the changes China has been through in the last several decades. One man said boldly that the Cultural Revolution had destroyed everything that was good about the old China. Many of their concerns were the same as people of their age in the US and elsewhere--taking care of older or ill family members who don't live nearby, children and grandchildren who have moved away, having enough money to be self-supporting, the availability of health care (I believe we were all convinced that we have it GOOD in the US, no matter how broken we think our system is).

The most touching part of the meeting was the singing performances. First, the group sang for us in Chinese and then we all sang "Auld Lang Syne" together lustily. Then one woman sang a lovely rendition of "Memories" from Cats and the most elderly gentleman sang a beautiful, beautiful "God Bless America." There was a lot of sincere emotion packed into this song by the singer, a former editor/publisher, and we responded in kind. I believe everyone, both Chinese and American, was moved.

We learned to make zongzi, sticky rice (and sometimes beans) wrapped in a lotus leaf and bound with lemongrass. This is a traditional Dragon Boat Festival activity. The packets are then thrown in a river, though we skipped that part. Deborah gamely tried her hand at the preparation but shouldn't quit her day job.

We drew numbers to exchange gifts--we received some lovely, meaningful ones--and then we all walked into another room and found ourselves in 44 Restaurant, where we ate course after course of creatively presented and prepared Hunan (southwestern China) cuisine. Rabbit (I wish I could post a picture of how this dish was presented--on a bed of lettuce, thin strips of rabbit topped with a light, dry chutney-like mixture of scallion, cilantro, and chilies, around this mound, a little L-shaped stockade fence and alongside the mound two small rabbits carved out of tiny tomatoes), catfish stew, pickled lotus root with blueberry, spicy pickled vegetables, beef with spicy chutney, rice wine soup--if you're ever in Beijing, go to 44 Restaurant!