Beijing – Yonghe Lama Temple
(To see previous post, click here)
Beijing was not the place I remembered (click here to see beginning of series). I left this place as a child, returned to it as a married adult having grown up in the “Land of the Free and the Home of The Brave.” (And the “True North Strong And Free.”)
It was surreal to see its development into a world class city, and different than what I have heard on the news – its a place even with religious freedom (sort of…)
My grandmother’s generation are the last of the true Chinese communists – feminist, atheist and full of ideological fervor for Marx and Mao. But even those in her age were visiting temples, mosques and churches as their ideology gave way to materialism, western fashion and prayers of the faithful.
It is rare, and almost a joke for the people here to dress in Mao paraphernalia in today’s Beijing. No one, not even communist party members here take that era with much seriousness. Yonghe temple, despite officially being a protected building and a museum was filled with worshippers lighting incense and prostrating.
Once again, it is this paradox that simultaneously gave me much cause for humour and remind me that despite my face I was still an “other;”
– Sitting in the shade with my wife, here she had her first unsolicited photograph taken of me and her for the first time since landing, by none other than a group of three Tibetan monks. In contravention to western sentimentalities of “personal space,” one of the monk sat close to her as another stands in front of her within a distance that does not invite comfort to my sweet sweet wifey; whom despite what I could see as obvious discomfort kept her cool and smiled.
As I subtly sat closer to her to provide support and comfort as one of the monk asked in Chinese with a Tibetan accent that further constrained my already limited understanding of the language; they asked the proverbial 21 questions of “where are you from?” and “where do you live” while they seemed simultaneously skeptical and fascinated with the idea of someone who looked Chinese but didn’t understand Chinese well. With my wife’s soft hand in my palm I calmly answered their questions (or what I thought was their questions? Who knows…). A gentle grandmotherly lady sat next to my right as if to guard my flank in the middle of the interrogation. The monks then thanked us, offered to sell us some prayer beads for which I declined, then proceeded to take another unsolicited photo and left. The sweet ol’ lady asked me if they were bothering us and I replied that I didn’t know as I honestly wasn’t sure if we were overreacting as people with western sensibilities or we actually got harassed. The lady, with a grandmotherly smile asked where we’re from and seemed genuinely happy when I introduced my wife and she then happily left knowing I told her we were fine.
This place, both old and new; with communist party members proudly opening capitalist shops offering western luxuries which its patrons partake with gluttonous excess; with people whose culture seemed simultaneously inexcusably rude yet unbelievably kind… this paradox is the place where I was born; where my mother lights up and became a person I barely recognize when she spoke her mother tongue; where she proclaimed with the pride akin to New Yorkers when speaking about their city; where she insisted that this city is my home while I could barely utter a sentence that didn’t make the locals shake their head in confusion or share a laugh reserved for those western visitors trying to speak Chinese.
Or perhaps this is a place exactly describe the predicament of many Asian Americans – where it is irrelevant where we were born – Beijing or Houston, people will ask “where are you really from?” Where our faces determine expectations no matter which side of the globe we’re standing on; as white Americans expect I should somehow intimately understand Chinese culture while deep inside I too am confused by the perceived strangeness of this place and all within it; while the Chinese expect me to be one of them and certainly confused when I asked questions only outsiders would inquire.
In those trips where many of us 1.5 or 2nd generations partake to connect with our roots, we are often reminded that we are both Americans, Canadians, Australians or any other nationals, and we are also Chinese, Koreans, Japanese … While also reminding us we are neither, we are not white despite “acting white” to our ethnic kin, we are strangers whose identity constantly questioned by our fellow Americans despite being veterans, natural born lifelong residents, neighbors and friends.
Beijing as a city, with its modern skyline and ancient temples describe the life I lived, and the lives of many others.
Well, enough thoughts… we’re hungry. Beijing has many Muslim restaurants offering Halal foods that for us Kosher-style diners offer a great relief in a cuisine famously for using pork as its default meat of choice.