Monday, June 19, 2006

A LITTLE GIRL NAMED MEGAN

Megan Eloise Chua, 10 years old. Her Chinese name, Chai Mei Yen is simply a translation of her English name in Mandarin, which in Fookien is pronounced as Bee Gan, meaning beautiful cheek/face. Indeed, Megan does have a pretty face. Not only that, couple that with her slim 5’3” physique plus that innocent charming sweet smile, it is no wonder that Megan is into modeling at such a young tender age. So far, she had already modeled for a shampoo and a detergent commercial with both harping on a family theme. Not bad for a 10 year old, for she is already earning money while most people at her age haven’t even had a clue as to how. At any rate, she is not just a pretty face or worse, a pretty bimbo. She displayed keen intelligence with sharp perception rare in her young age. It is too bad that most people who knew her predicted and even wanted her to be a successful ramp model someday but I find that to be a waste of her talent and abilities for she possesses mental qualities that would make her a great lawyer or doctor someday. In fact, she showed a huge interest in biology, able to name the world’s smallest creatures and their place of origins, short of telling me the scientific names of those animals (I doubted if she knew those scientific names at all). Perhaps, she could become a great doctor someday and humanity would be so lucky to have somebody like her. But that’s not all. Megan also played the piano and showed interest in classical music, specifically, Chopin’s music. She studies ballet, plays soccer, and practices golf. She would be an incredible lady when she grows up. However, I remember Megan not only for her pretty face and her intelligence but most importantly, the time we spent together during our vacation trip to China. I remember her to be that cute, innocent sweet young girl who constantly beat me in charade games. How could I forget her “impatience”, when it took me too long to guess the answers? When she got impatient waiting for our guesses, she would pretend to be sleeping, resting on her shoulders, snoring out loud but not after exclaiming that it takes me centuries to make a guess. Hahahaha. Or how could I forget the time when we’re climbing the Great Wall together, somewhere in the middle of the climb, she repeatedly asked the question (just like in the movie, Shrek), “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” She was so cute when she did that that I forgot about my tiredness and was energized to keep on moving just to get “there” and say to her, “yes, we’re here!” Oh! She makes our climb so much easier. Or how could I forget her ecstatic looks when we saw the pandas? She hovers around looking at those furry creatures like a butterfly over a rose. I remember telling her a joke right then and there and she laughed heartily at it. Or how could I forget how she looks when she was singing a song to entertain the tour group while we were traveling to our next destination? I had to get up twice from my seat to “wipe” the beads of sweat (if there were any at all since the weather was cold) from her forehead with my handkerchief. Hahahahaha. Ah, memories, so hard to forget, produces that longing….. I surely missed her even though we had a reunion sometime a month ago at Tagaytay Highlands. It is as if I wanted her to be with me all the time so that I could watch her grow, watch her blossom, and be proud of her. She was like a daughter to me. Strange, for how human bonds develop in so short a time. From perfect strangers, to somebody I wished I had…… I envied her parents, for they have a perfect daughter. Some guys do have all the luck, indeed. If I had a kid someday, I wanted him to be a boy but if by chance, I had a girl or a daughter, I wanted her to be just like Megan.

Monday, June 12, 2006

DAY 5: ONE FINE DAY

April 17, day 5 of my vacation in Beijing. I woke up early as usual, quite eager to explore Beijing after that great climb to the Great Wall the day before. I peered out of my hotel room window trying to memorize the cityscape and lo, what I saw was something quite “picturesque” that day. There seems to be a “fog” covering the horizon and it somehow transform the entire cityscape into a canvas painting with shadows of buildings barely visible on the background and the sun with it’s circular ball clearly visible. If not for the fact that it was daytime, I would have thought that the heavenly object was the moon! The whole scene reminded me of London (had never been there yet) as seen through paintings or comic book caricature. One could felt that superficial calmness in the images that betray the bustling city. The “fog” turned out to be a “sand fall”. Apparently, a day before, there was a sandstorm outside Beijing somewhere in Mongolia and that sand was “carried” the following day to Beijing. According to the news report that night, 16 grams of sand fell on every square meters of the surface. Everywhere I went that morning, a “sea of yellow sand” surrounded me. No buildings, no roofs, no cars, no trees, no handrails were spared from that “yellow” snow (for it was still cool that day with temperatures in the low teens). As I swipe my hands at the rails and feel the sand, they were not coarse at all but quite fine like that of beach sands except that I wasn’t in a beach. I don’t know how Beijing residents felt when they saw the sands but I find it quite novel if not “strangely” beautiful. Anyway, our first trip that day was to visit the local zoo or more specifically, the panda zoo. I saw a lot of pandas in my lifetime but until then, it was all in pictures (moving or still). I used to feel “remove” and impersonal when seeing a panda from a picture but to actually see a real one in person was quite a different experience with the feeling of “remoteness” vanished. It also helps that I had an enthusiastic and over eager 10 year old with me, for little Megan’s zest and curiosity was simply infectious. We ran around the zoo trying to catch a glimpse of the all 3 pandas. I felt this “need” to cross over and hug those lovable furry creatures but then again they are still bears and they are after all “wild” animals and with that, I change my mind and stayed put. We made a tour inside the “cave” to see the “living quarters” of the pandas, which was separated by a thick glass wall. There are quite cozy if I may say for a panda for it was spacious. At the end of the cave tunnel was a souvenir store selling stuffed pandas. I bought a panda pencil holder as a souvenir gift for my kid sister. Our next stop for the day was to visit the Summer Palace, Yi Ho Yuan, the imperial garden complex of the Manchu emperors. Too bad, like the rest of Beijing, it was under extensive renovation but nevertheless there are a few scenes to see. At the entrance of the garden complex was a rock, called the Stone of Longetivity. I don’t know the origin of that rock nor the epistemology of it’s name but I think that the rock was a meteorite or something. Even though the rock was well secured by a cordon, a lot of the locals are crowding it and touching it, probably hoping that some of the “immortality” stuff be rubbed on them. I too can’t resist myself from touch it, hoping that it may rub “a few more years” on me. According to the fact book, the Yi Ho Yuan was twice or thrice (or was it 10 times? Can’t remember) the size of the Imperial palace and it is located at the outskirt of the ancient Beijing (within the confines of the modern city). I can’t really make an accurate comparison of the Yi Ho Yuan with the Yu Garden in Shanghai for the former was under repair and hence, most of it’s features are off limits. The central feature of the Yi Ho Yuan is the great man made lake in the center of the complex. The lake wasn’t really man made for there was indeed a natural body of water at the site except that it was probably small. The imperial architects must have widened and deepened it and embellished with trees and thus creating that beautiful landscape and indeed, the place was beautiful! Another feature of the palace was the long covered walkway or the “Chang Long” near the lakeshore. On one side, one could admire the beauty of the lake while strolling the walkway and on the other side, one could “immersed” in the intricate beauty of the garden inside. Too bad, I didn’t get to enjoy the garden. Anyway, while we were sightseeing, two of our senior tour mates went missing, the geneticist’s parents. Well, it was Kitty’s (our tour guide) fault. She always went ahead of the group, walking straight and mindlessly, having no care what so ever about her charge. The geneticist and me went about frantically searching for her parents and I was telling myself and a few of the members to actually flunk the tour guide in the performance evaluation at the end of the trip (however, there wasn’t any performance evaluation, too bad!). We eventually found them at the end of the walkway and it is then that we heave a sigh of relief. There were a lot of people in there and the place was huge (a 100 hectares?). One could easily get lost inside if not for the fact that most of the place were off limits. Anyway, I noticed something else and that is the flooring tile. Actually, Megan “discovered” it. The tiles are placed in such a way that it formed a shape or a drawing. There are animals, mystical creatures, and even airplanes and boats. One could easily overlook the tiles but in this case with all the scenic spots closed, it became one of the things to see. At the end of the Chang Long, was the “imperial stone boat”. It wasn’t really a boat per se but a floating palace shaped like a boat, amazing piece of architecture, I would say. We took a boat ride back to the entrance, crossing the lake and on our way back, we passed by the lonely island in the middle of the lake. That man made island has a palace in the middle and was connected to the shore by a huge arc bridge. The island was relatively isolated forming a beacon of solitude surrounded by paradise. Megan said that the island was a place for hermits for it is “separated” from the world. Indeed, that was the intention. For an emperor who is burdened by the cares of the world, that small isolated island was his only get away from the world. I wished I lived there……… After that tour, we proceeded to have our lunch, the third and last of the great lunches we had during the trip. The place was called Bai jia fu (the home of the Bai family). The place was actually a Ching dynasty nobleman’s mansion complete with a garden. What makes the place unforgettable was the recreation of the “imperial experience”. All the waiters and waitresses are dressed as imperial eunuch or manservant (they are not castrated by the way) and imperial maids (or according to some of the tour members, princesses). On the gate are 12 very, very beautiful (white, young, soft skinned) and tall (they are at least 5’8” and they looked even taller with the ancient high heel sandals) “princesses” waiting for us and greeting us with, “Ni Jie Siang”, meaning Good Luck to You. They lower themselves by bending their knees and raised their right hand to their heads with their handkerchiefs while making the greetings. That greeting was formerly reserved for emperors and the royal family but now, everyone else could receive such honor (of course, if one could afford to pay the price). I could have taken a picture of myself with all those beautiful young women like the rest of the guys in the group did except that I ran out of memory spaces in my digital camera and I was quite reluctant to ask the younger single ladies (the doc and the geneticist) to take a picture of me with the “princesses” using their cameras, lest they say that I’m a “chick boy” (of course, I’m not a boy but a grown man). Dang! Too bad! They’re really, really pretty! We went inside the mansion passing through the courtyard. Every ten steps or so was a manservant waiting for us. Once we reached his station, the young man would bend his back forward and bow his head in submission to greet us, “Ni Jie Siang”. I could have just walked straight with heads high like royalty deserving such courtesy but somehow I couldn’t. I bowed my head slightly every time a manservant does his greeting gesture. Not because I felt that I don’t deserve it rather that I feel that no man should be made subservient to flatter another man’s vanity. Upon reaching the inner gate, we were met by 6 more beautiful princesses. Dang! I do surely regret not buying a memory chip for myself the night before when I accompany the ladies to buy theirs at Carrefour right across our hotel. Anyway, the “princesses” led us inside the main dining hall and boy oh boy! What a sight! The place was decorated ala imperial style. The dining chairs are covered with yellow seat cover embroidered with dragons, the imperial insignia. There is even a replica of the imperial throne in the middle of the hall. Of course, the throne is off limits and we just take pictures of ourselves standing in front of it (now, I could ask the ladies to take a picture of me without fear of being branded as a “chick boy”). The food though not really a “grand banquet” type (i.e., complete with pigeons, crabs, and others) but was nonetheless superb, delicious, and sumptuous. One thing to note, one shouldn’t be fooled by the ancient appearance of the place for it was just a fa├žade. The restaurant is by all accounts high tech. The lighting fixture, the amenities are first class. Even the waitresses or the “princesses” uses a palm top to take orders. The head princess even wore an earpiece connected to a radio just like the ones used by secret service agents. The garden at the back of the main dining hall though small by comparison to the Yi Ho Yuan or the Yu Garden but is nonetheless pleasing to the eye and generally blend in with the atmosphere to recreate that imperial experience. One of the tour member commented about the experience. Anybody could recreate the architecture and the landscape of the place; they may even recreate the ambience by having their waiters and waitresses dressed in imperial robes but they cannot recreate the experience for there is only one Beijing, one imperial center of China. You can’t have that anywhere else in the world. It is in this spirit that Megan exclaimed after that wonderful meal, “that it is good being the emperor (of China)”. My reply to her was, “yes indeed but being emperor is not all the time and sometimes it could be bad.” She asked why and I explained that because being an emperor is that good and everyone wants to be the emperor but there can only be one. Of course, Megan didn’t understand that but she is right. It is good, correction, great to be the emperor even for just one meal! The itinerary that afternoon was the continuation of the day before, shopping, more shopping! The day before, we visited a jade store/factory before the climb to the Great Wall and after that, we visited a Chinese herbal drug store and a Chinese tea store. That day, we were scheduled to shop at a bargain center and later on to Wang Fu Jin shopping district. I could only dread so much so that I actually asked to be left at Beijing University when our coach passed by the campus but to no avail. I could only sit at the cold metallic bench inside the mall while waiting for the rest to do their bargain hunting. The doc’s father actually sat with me during the “ordeal” but in return I had to listen to his non – stop complaint about his wife’s shopping/spending habit! I don’t know what’s worst; to be bored to death inside a shopping mall doing nothing or to endure another man’s whining! I soooooooooooooo hate shopping!!! Thankfully, the old man got up to help out his wife carry her purchases and so that afforded me some “tranquil” moments. I eventually dozed off in the bench not only once but twice (that’s how long the shopping session was). After finishing one shopping session, we hopped off to the next shopping session (I HATE SHOPPING!!!!). I can’t take it anymore and so I went up to Kitty and ask her to drop me off at a bookstore nearby. She thought awhile and told me that there are 2 or 3 bookstores somewhere in Wang Fu Jin. Thank goodness, finally some semblance of sanity to an insane afternoon. As we got there, I immediately looked for the bookstores. The first bookstore was an English bookstores and frankly, the title it carried sucks! Manila bookstores are way too better than this. I went out to look for another store and after like an hour of insanely running around asking for directions (in Chinese by the way), I finally struck gold. The bookstore is located at the end of Wang Fu Jin in a 20 – story building. I don’t know how many floors the store occupies but who cares, I got what I’m looking for. And so, I spend almost two hours of that late afternoon reading and looking for books, Chinese books written using the simplified form. I looked up at the geography, history, military treatise, and philosophy section of the first floor. Time sure fly so fast and before I knew it, I had to go back to the meeting place. Oh, so many books yet so little time. I hurriedly but judiciously picked 4 books and bought them to the counter. These are “The History of Imperial Chinese Administrative System”, “The History of Imperial Chinese Frontier Administrative System”, “The Study of the Political – Administrative System of the 5 Dynasty and 10 Kingdom Period in China”, and “The Imperial Guards, a study of Beijing Constabulary Forces during the Liao, Kin, Yuan, Ming, Ching, and Republican China”. These are scholarly books (1 of them hardbound and all of them uses excellent paper quality) written by experts and professors from noted Chinese university. The price tag? 145 RMB or roughly 800 pesos, which is a great buy since books like that cost somewhere 1000 pesos here in Manila. It was with a heavy heart that I had to leave the place and hurried back to the coach……. We had our dinner afterwards. Truth to tell, the dinner wasn’t that superb although it wasn’t really that bad. It was just that we had such an experience that afternoon that somehow we can’t taste the food in our dinner. I happened also to bring out the group picture we had taken during our visit to the Forbidden City and had every member of the tour group signed their dedication as well as their contact info. Funny, but somehow I felt I’m going to miss this group. It was just only 5 days and yet, I somehow bonded with them. We were set to go back to Manila the next day and which is why I had them sign a dedication. Now, it’s been almost two months since my vacation and still, the memories are still as vivid as ever. It was truly something to cherish for the rest of my life, one of the hundred places to visit before ………