April, 1980, Beijing Day 2
The room at the Beijing Hotel is very basic, but comfortable. The only light has a 40-watt bulb. Since I was warned in advance I brought along a 70-watt bulb. Disaster! It blew immediately. No night reading for me.
Looking out late at night it was difficult to realize I am in one of the world’s larger cities. There are very few streetlights, and no signs of activity. There is a little noise from the handful of automobiles. The only entertainment appears to be at the International Club that has a large bar. Anyone coming to China should bring lots of books. The restaurants close very early, and there’s nothing to do except work and read.
In the morning, if the smog is not too heavy, the view from my hotel room is spectacular. I overlook the Forbidden City, only a few blocks away, and in the distance I can see mountains where the Great Wall wends its way for 3,000 miles.
Today’s schedule is heavy. We hope to make our initial contacts with representatives of the government, and that is often difficult to set up. We expect many hours of waiting. But, we finally make our contacts and have a pleasant exchange of views.
“Real” Chinese food is very different from what we eat in Chinese restaurants back home. There are many different cooking styles, including Mandarin, Sichuan and Cantonese. If you are in a group you will be seated at a large round table with a large “Lazy Susan.” It appears that westerners are segregated from the Chinese patrons and our food may be a bit different. We simply don’t know. There are a million courses, starting with cold dishes and progressing to the hot specials, such as chicken with some sauce, pork with some other sauce, beef with yet another sauce, and so on. The dumplings (dim sum) are great.
Everyone in China works an eight-hour, six-day week. There appears to be a staggered work schedule so that not everyone is off on Sunday. Salaries are very low – on average about 60 yuan a month (one yuan equals $0.67). But, the cost of living is also very low. The average rent, including utilities, is only five yuan a month, and food averages about 15 yuan a month. A family of five, including mom, pop, grandma and grandpa, and one kid usually is in a 500-600 square foot apartment. There aren’t any refrigerators, so people shop daily.
There is great interest in consumer goods – appliances, tv sets, cameras, watches and radios. You don’t have to be here long to recognize that even though individual needs (and what we view as rights) are subordinated to the State, the people hunger for the good things of life that appeal to them.
The telephone system in Beijing is awful. It’s not only difficult to complete a local call, but every call seems to be on a party (not political party) line. There’s always a lot of static, and you wind up shouting at each other.
Very few locals speak English so it can be difficult to be understood. On the other hand I met with a minister of one department and used an interpreter with him for almost an hour. However, toward the end of the meeting I asked, through the interpreter, how long he would like to have a certain project completed. Without waiting for the interpreter he immediately answered, in perfect English: “As quickly as possible!”