Saturday, October 18, 2008

By Seema Mustafa

China is justifiably proud of its Olympics. Souvenirs are still available at select shops. T-shirts with the logo can be bought in plenty. Flower decorations dotting the capital at traffic junctions remain, a fading testimony to the success. The mascots can still be seen at Tianeman square, and literature of the Games is freely available. And what is of course, a major achievement more people are speaking English, at the airport and the shops than before the games. The Chinese government had launched a major “teach English” offensive before the games that has clearly paid dividends, and although the numbers are still few, it is a major improvement. In fact, even sign posts can be found in English. But perhaps the most interesting was when we struggled to order a chicken dish at a tiny restaurant in the suburbs of Beijing, and even drew a rooster with an egg (!) in our desperation. The waitress who could not understand the spoken word suddenly brightened up and wrote down “chicken” although she could not pronounce the word. Rather happy a colleague drew the picture of a pig and although it looked more like a rat with a round nose she understood again and wrote “pork” with new found confidence.

The Chinese are friendly, and extremely foreigner friendly. There is not a single glance, or an odd look, and attempts at communication---like asking for directions or something---is usually answered with a big smile and a gesture indicating “I don’t know English.” Interestingly, Chinese tourism is big and at the Forbidden City, for instance, one can only see hordes of local people with very few foreigners. It reminds one of the Bengalis here, who do not hesitate to get into buses and travel to any part of India that strikes their fancy, regardless of the distance, the language or for that matter the cuisine. A young guide has a novel approach. Smilingly she introduces herself to us as a “student of art.” We stop to talk. She then says that her school has put up an art exhibition at one of the stalls outside the Forbidden City, where we happened to be standing, and she has a work in it. And what have you painted? She goes into some details, and its only then one realizes that she is a guide and not a student. But by then we are inside the exhibition room, and she probably has pocketed her commission for bringing in visitors.

Shopping in Beijing is a dream for those who can rarely venture into designer stores in other parts of the world, including at home. Name the brand it is yours for the asking, and at a price that will make the Versace’s and the Armani’s of the world cringe. Pretty little women with calculators held firmly in hand surround you the moment you are brave enough to enter their space at a typical Chinese mall. A Burberry jacked? Of course and they type anything from 4000 RBM upwards on their calculator. Forewarned, you punch 50. They look at each other, chatter ferociously, look at you, gesture wildly and then say “okay last price” (that is a standard statement they all know) and type 3500. The negotiation is intense and prolonged, as they do not let you leave the shop until the bargaining is complete. There is no way you can get out, as they even hold you physically if the need so arises. Finally, the bargain is struck. The jacket priced at 4500 is now yours for 250 RBM---that is from 670 odd US dollars it is now 35 odd US dollars!

The Chinese government is not particularly friendly, when it comes to hosting left wing activists in the city. APEF, a conglomeration of intellectuals and activists from Europe and Asia decided to hold their annual conference at Beijing which is hosting ASEM (Asia Europe meeting). Expecting a warm welcome, they found that this was not so, and that the Chinese government was not particularly happy to have them in the city lest they make matters difficult at ASEM. So the local Chinese NGOs who were part of the Organising Committee fixed up the accommodation a good hour away from main Beijing; they re-organised the schedule without consulting the others; and what made the participants furious put them through stringent security checks. “Never again” was the consensus with China actually throwing away a great opportunity to win over the support of major peoples organizations across the world.

The Indian delegation was surprised to find two odd invitees from New Delhi in their midst---from the BJP and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Both were like a duck out of water but did attend some of the sessions and make suggestions that did not merge with the tone and tenor of the discussions. The BJP member of course, did not hesitate to use one session to remind all present of his nationalist and patriotic credentials. Unfortunately he did so in the usual manner, by accusing another participant of not being patriotic enough until he was asked by the moderator to take his seat. After that he was rarely seen at the sessions, only at meals, as he had fulfilled his part of the agenda. Both had been invited by the NGOs linked to the Chinese government that is clear that it will not constrict its relations, in India or the world, to just the Left movements.

One had to travel all the way to Beijing to hear the ultimate conspiracy theory currently circulating in Pakistan. This is how it goes: McCain wins the US Presidential elections. He dies soon after, Sarah Palin becomes the US President. She marries Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (remember his “you are beautiful” words). She dies in mysterious circumstances. Bilawal, Zardari’s son, changes his name to Bilawal Zardari Bhutto Palin. Zardari becomes the President of the US.

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