Our sleeper train arrived at the Beijing train station in the middle of the morning rush hour. The capital city of China appeared as a jumble of medium-to-high rise buildings built with no apparent master plan, the ubiquitous polluting power plants spewing pollution into dingy air. At a taxi stand hidden in the bowels of the station, we gave our driver the name of our hotel but no light of comprehension dawned in his dark eyes. It was only after a benevolent stranger used her cell phone to call a colleague who spoke English that we got underway, joining the traffic crawling along under a low, steely sky.
“Next year, can we go someplace where they speak English?” asked Ado as he watched bicyclists compete with mopeds and cars for right of way, lowly pedestrians nimbly avoiding death. “Like Mammoth?”
It wasn’t that the boys didn’t like China. Cherry and willow trees bloomed right out of a story book. But the language barrier in this country is a figurative Great Wall. Words like hotel, bathroom, or restaurant are met with confusion and I wished we’d been smart enough to download a translation app (the Chinese government blocks Google) before take off. English, Spanish, or German has always gotten me through no matter how far afield I’ve traveled, but in China, communication screeched to a halt like a bullet train with an electrical short.
Take Zhang Mama, for example, a Sichuan restaurant where the staff acted as if Westerners were a rarer sight than giant pandas. With no English or pictures on the menu, we simply pointed to a dish filled with emerald and ruby colored peppers on another family’s table and took our chances. When my tongue began tingling and turned numb, I thought I was having an allergic reaction and my heart revved as I imagined just how hard it might be to find a hospital. Turned out it was just the Sichuan peppercorns hidden in the food and cold beer was a perfect antidote. “Embrace the burn,” advised Ethan, his face sheened with sweat. The smiling older woman running the show (possibly Mama Zhang herself?) watched with delight as the laowai (foreigners) finished the food and ordered more. Total cost for a delicious pig out? Under $20!
We controlled our destiny a little better at the South Beauty Restaurant, located in a shopping mall so massive we would have never found it if Ethan hadn’t had the receptionist at our hotel write out the name in Chinese characters. Evocative English descriptions peppered the menu: Ox balls in spicy sauce, pepper salted hairy crab in wooden bucket, stir fried bullfrog, chicken feet, stewed fish lips, boiled blood curd with tripe in hot chili sauce, quick fried duck tongue with walnuts. “This is a bad place to be a duck,” I said, before settling on the safer option of delectable pork dumplings and wonton soup.
Being a duck in China is like being a pig in Spain–it’s only a matter of time before you end up on a platter. Whole, slow-roasted Beijing duck is a point of pride here and restaurants fight for the title. We chose the Liqun Restaurant tucked into a back alley of one of Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods. Marked by red neon signs, the dark, cramped space screamed opium den or brothel much more than eatery. A white-coated chef with an armful of wood pushed past us, stoking the fire that was pumping heat toward a dozen carcasses turning on a spit. One by one, he grabbed the ducks, seared them over the open flames, and then, with a practiced ease, impaled them on metal hooks hanging by a wire. My appetite fled.
We were seated at Communal Table #8, where three Chinese women ooh’d and ahh’d over the boys’ hair as we nodded and smiled. Our whole duck came, cut tableside into crispy pieces of meat which we wrapped in delicate pancakes along with hoisin sauce, scallions, and cucumbers. When we were done, one of the ladies passed Griffin a plate of bones, organs, and a charred little head; I think she was honoring him with duck delicacies and he gamely took a leg and gnawed just enough to save face. Then, apropos of nothing, the woman passed me a cell phone in a rhinestone encrusted case. On the screen was a message she’d run through a translator app.
“This lady is a very famous professor,” it began. Oh yeah? She pointed at the oldest woman at the table, her face all angles and hooded eyes. “She is an expert in aging and can fix it just by using her hands.” Cool! “The professor has noticed some signs of aging on your face,” the text continued. Huh? Not cool! “She would like to offer to fix it.” Fix my face? Now? At the duck crematorium? The cellphone made a pass around the table and when it came back to me, I read the game plan. “Come to her office tomorrow to receive a treatment.” I looked at Ethan, whose eyes had gone all skeptical. “This normally costs 50,000 yuan.” $8,000! “But she wants to be your friend so for you, it’s free.” Cha-ching!
Now, I am sufficiently old and sufficiently vain to really, really want to believe this pearly skinned professor held the key to some Ancient Chinese Secret: She could use her hands to reverse the hands of time! The fact that we were in a foreign country known for tourist scams (Lonely Planet warned of rip-off rickshaw drivers and aggressive hookers) and where I might accidentally order sheep’s balls for lunch didn’t immediately enter my mind. “What’s there to lose?” I asked Ethan, whose mouth tightened at the question’s sheer stupidity.
It was the kids who snapped me back to reality. “Why does she want to save your face?” wondered Ado, mixing up the concepts of face saving and face aging. “Don’t go, Mommy!” pleaded Griffin, grabbing my hand. “You’re beautiful enough.”
In the end, I declined and as we ducked out of the duck restaurant, the lines on my aging face softened in the crimson glow of the neon signs. Still, I wanted badly to turn around and follow the fantastical thread the Chinese women had offered to see where it led. “It would have led right to your wallet!” Ethan insisted. So instead, the four of us walked through Beijing’s chilly, crowded streets to the famous outdoor Night Market to peruse the very real wonders offered there: fried spiders, centipedes, cicadas, beetles, seahorses, and starfish. But what really made me want to toss my Beijing duck was the live scorpions, impaled on skewers. “How many yuan do you think those cost?” I wondered to Ethan. “Who cares?” he replied. “I wouldn’t eat it if it was free!” We stood there watching the scorpions wave their little claws in despair as the smells and the language and the crowds flowed around us like a wild river. “Unless I was on Survivor.”