Joyce and Xiao Q
April 6, 2009

"You know what's really nice about Beijing that's different from when I saw you two here a year ago?", I asked. I was strolling near Tuan Jie Park with Tiffany and Lisa. "All the Fuwa are gone."

"You're right! I hadn't noticed. Yeah... it is nice," Tiffany agreed.

The Fuwa were the five cartoon mascots designed for the 2008 Summer Olympics. To me, they most resembled poor imitations of Hello Kitty. Rather than cats, they substituted five other animals, each representing a different corner of China. There was a Tibetan antelope, a panda, some sort of a fish thing, and a couple others I could never figure out. From the first time I saw them, back when I was staying here for a couple months in early 2004, they creeped me out. Then, seeing them everywhere everyday in the hype leading up to the Olympics over the next four years... I grew to hate the Fuwa.

In addition to the pleasant lack of Fuwa imagery and opening-day countdown clocks which used to dominate every public place, I've noticed a lot of other changes around Beijing since I was last here. There are remnants of increased security at the entrances to the subway lines: I don't recall ever having to run my bags through any X-ray scanner when taking the train around town before. That inconvenience is more than made up for by all the new lines that have opened. I came into town on the new Airport Express train which feeds right into the subway system. In the past, I usually took the airport bus which was cheap--but inconvenient. The bus often got stuck in traffic. When catching a flight, the leg to the airport didn't usually begin until after stopping at several other stops around the neighborhood. That bus is still around, and at 16 RMB costs two-thirds the fare on the Airport Express train. But even I, in all my cheapness, am willing to spring an extra 9 RMB for the bump in speed and comfort.

David, Tiffany, Lisa,
Xiao Q, and Joyce
I'm taking just a couple days here. As in Urumqi, I'm spending too short of a time catching up with too many friends. Fortunately, some of the connections are shared so I haven't had to spread myself too thin. My first day in town Tiffany, Lisa, and I made the long trek out to the northern suburbs to call on Joyce. Joyce has gone domestic: in the time since all of us last met she's both gotten married and become a mother.

Today was spent picnicking with Tiffany and Lisa in Tuan Jie Park. We picked steamed buns up from a stall which Tiffany says always has an enormous crowd out front. (The concept of lining up in an orderly manner still seems the exception across China, even here in Beijing.) There was a large menu board next to the counter window; I could recognize characters for most of the fillers: seafood, pork, egg, but got stuck on one. It was a moment familiar to anybody who has studied Chinese--getting stuck on a character that I had learnt the very week before:

Last week, back in Kunming, Logan and I walked past a restaurant. The signboard outside read, "茴茴香". The first character was unfamiliar to me so I turned to Logan:

"Is that a real character? I've never seen hui with the caozi tou radical atop it."

"I don't know... I've never seen that one either."

Later that night we looked it up at home. I don't know about Logan, but I promptly forgot the meaning of "hui" until standing next to the menu board. I stared for a couple minutes but just couldn't recall. Fortunately, Tiffany was standing a few steps away. "Oh, they have fennel filling for their buns here." Tiffany never forgets.

Lisa and David Eat Fennel Buns
While sitting in the park snacking on fennel and seafood buns, it came out that Lisa is seriously contemplating filming a documentary on Tajikistan. She traveled around that country for a time last year and was enchanted. I told her that Tajikistan was where I had just decided to spend my birthday this year: could she schedule her trip sometime in July? I tried to convince Tiffany to make it three. Tiffany has interest in the area, she studied Kazak back when we both lived in Urumqi--why not have some sort of rendezvous in Central Asia?

Whether or not a 'Stan rendezvous comes together this summer, I'll be seeing both of them again in a couple months. I'm at Capital Airport, about to depart on a non-stop flight to Seattle on a new route operated by Hainan Airlines. I have a temporary job lined up back there for a couple months; it will be good to have something going on and to be close to family. After that, my return leg is booked for late June. I'll first take one full week back here in Beijing to call on friends... then head back off to Central Asia.