One very good piece of advice for travelers – and really for just about anyone, a person walking in the park, hikers, someone carrying a ladder – is to be aware of your surroundings. One shouldn’t travel in fear, but being wise to the potential of a pickpocket, a drive-by motorbike bag snatcher, or a few too many birds sitting overhead, can keep you from having to deal with sh… uh, shenanigans on your trip.
Last week in Beijing, being aware of my surroundings came in a different form. I wasn’t in a dangerous place. I was in the middle of Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian avenue among shopping malls and shops. A sunny day, a leisurely crowd, not even the usual riff raff of hawkers. I was meeting a friend and when I arrived I texted him “McDonald’s” as a point of reference. Is there anything easier to spot a couple blocks off than those dang golden arches?
I popped inside for fries. The place was packed and I made my way around someone with a video camera. What idiot tourist wants to record his time in a fast-food restaurant for his vacation video? “And now this is the Great Wall… Now here’s us at the Forbidden City. Bit of a bore, really. OH! And this is where we had a fascinating Irish meal. I had a hamburger called a Large Mac or something. Mac. Weird. Do you think Apple sponsors it?”
I stepped back outside to wait. This particular Mickie D’s is up a short flight of stairs to a sort of concrete terrace, offering a great vantage point of the street. Right in front was a random construction site right in the pedestrian mall, with tin sheets blocking the goings-on inside from view. But for the steps it would have hidden me. I pulled out my phone and started texting to say I had arrived. A couple smokers stood downwind of me and a police officer stood to my left.
The officer stepped over to me and asked me if I had a problem. The words had that sort of What are you looking at? bar-room challenge to them, but he was just asking, apropos to nothing. “Um, no. I’m fine.” He drifted a step and I asked, “Why do you ask?” He replied, “Are you waiting for someone?” “Yes, I am waiting for my friend.” This seemed to satisfy him and he stepped off, but glanced at me a couple more times. I looked around and started seeing everything differently. There were a LOT of police officers, even for China. And looking right at me – and videotaping – was the “tourist” from inside McDonald’s. The tourist with the earphone in one ear.
The officer came right back and confronted me. “Excuse me, sir, but you cannot wait here outside.” Incredulous, I said, “What? I can’t wait outside?”
“It is forbidden.”
“Forbidden? To be outside in Beijing is forbidden?” I looked around at the crowds of people passing. The two smokers to my right… wait. Were they just smokers? They wore all black. But then so does 99% of China actually. But they were obviously loitering as well.
“Sir, it is forbidden. Thank you for understanding,” he said, prematurely in fact. I didn’t understand at all. “You can wait inside.”
I stepped back inside just a full step behind where I had been standing, my face up to the glass to watch for my friend.
Things started to connect in my head. The abundance of soldiers quartered at my hotel just a long block from Wangfujing. The red armband folks sitting in chairs at street corners in the neighborhood like crossing guards with walkie talkies but doing nothing at all. The parking lots with light barricades around them at the Beijing Raffles Hotel and a few others along the nearby main street Dongchang’an Jie. And I remembered that among all the news reports of Cairo, Libya, Bahrain and even Madison, there was some mention of a revolutionary or protest movement going on in China… a flower if I recall… Jasmine. My friend had warned me not to be mistaken for a professional photographer. Some might say I could merely show my work to dispel that idea, but I was glad to have my camera packed into its bag at that moment anyway. The week before, journalists were being harassed and even rounded up and taken in for questioning.
Carlo arrived and I stepped out to meet him with all eyes following me. He gestured to the construction. “That wasn’t there a week ago. They put that in after the protests.” Yes, the protests that took place right in front of the McDonald’s on Wangfujing Street. And I was standing right where the rabble-rousers were standing on that raised concrete terrace, just texting away to inform my posse when to start trouble. I think of that Japanese tourist in the red shirt that was beaten by troops last year when he stepped unwittingly into the color-coded political strife in Bangkok. Minding your own business isn’t enough. Be sure to mind the business of the country you are visiting! This isn’t the stuff you can get from a guidebook written and researched two years ago or even two months ago.
Fashion news in China: Black and dark blue are the new… um, black and dark blue. Again.