I went in to work for a half day before going home to get ready for the evening’s event – “a celebration of the 239th Anniversary of our Independnce Day in honor of America’s National Parks” at the US Embassy in Beijing.
A few of us met downstairs for pictures (by this beautiful pagoda behind our hotel)
then hopped in taxis to go to the embassy. Well, at least that’s how it was supposed to go. In reality, I spent an hour hailing three taxis. This was using a combination of three apps, plus all 20 arms available to us. I got the first one almost immediately using 快的, a taxi-hailing app, which lulled me into a false sense of securing. My next 20 requests on the app, including ones for the more expensive 专车, were ignored, and we couldn’t get Uber China to accept any form of payment we had available to us. We came upon a driver taking a water break next to his taxi and convinced him to take another group of passengers. Finally, one of the guys hailed a taxi across the intersection . . . just as my last request on 快的 was accepted, with a driver on his way to get us. Ugh.
It worked out, because our contact who gave us the details for the embassy party was wrong on over half of the information. Yes, we had to bring our passports and dress nicely (common sense also suggested as much), but there was no need to leave electronics at home (you could easily check them at the door), or print off the invitation (not surprisingly, a printed version of a poorly-scanned invitation without a name on it does not suffice to get you in the door of the US embassy), or arrive 45 minutes early.
I’d been to the embassy twice before, but today was different. We were greeted by a good number of American flags, a miniature Lincoln Memorial, and patriotic music playing as we waited in the reception line. We shook hands with Admiral Adrian Jansen, the defense attaché; Ambassador Max Baucus and his wife Melodee Hanes; and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, and were graciously welcomed by them to “America”.
And goodness, did it feel like America. We were blessed with another (!) gorgeous day – warm bordering on hot, but with perfectly blue skies above. The grounds were clean and well-kept, there were myriad buffet lines that included things I hadn’t eaten in a month like cheese and salad, there was a live bluegrass band inside – and in the bathroom, the toilet bowls had so much water in them and there was toilet paper on the stall wall. I know, right?!
The theme of this year’s party was America’s National Parks. It was a pretty fun theme. There were giant painted fabric images from some of our most famous parks, including a giant Mt. Ranier. Some of the food – a make-your-own trail mix stand and a s’more tent! – were also outdoor- and camping-themed.
I went in every buffet line. No regrets. Those key lime pies, man! It gave me something to do while we were waiting to take a picture with the ambassador. (No electronics were allowed inside, at least not for lowly students like us, so I’ll have to post the picture when I get a copy.)
After the welcoming address by the ambassador (in which we learned the real reason for this party being on the 2nd – it’s their anniversary!), I went to explore the grounds a bit. I ended up at the Hawaiian luau, sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, who recently opened a direct flight from Honolulu to Beijing. I sat next to a sweet woman from the airline, who showed me how to make a crown of flowers as we listened to a Hawaiian band and watched the dancers. They had all been in Hawaii that morning – including the flowes! – and it seemed so incredible that they were here in Beijing tonight. It’s funny, I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’m sure it’s a bit different from the parts of the US that I’m used to – but when you’re far from home, anything that is closer to home starts to feel more like home. And so I loved my time in Hawaii.
Then I went next door, to a big room with a band playing – the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, and they were great. Before too long, people were swing dancing. None of the guys I was there with would dance with me :( so I grabbed the two other Beijing girls and made them follow. I also asked one guy to dance, but most of the guys seemed more focused on their beer than dancing. (The beer was good, brewed locally by a bunch of expats.) Other Maria got to dance with the Ambassador for a few minutes!
As the party would down (around 9pm; early, but later than the official time of 7:30 at least!), I ended up talking a man from Denmark. He was the head of their diplomatic envoy tonight, as the ambassador was out of town – I found this out because I was amazed that he was able to keep his cell phone. We talked about the Little Mermaid, New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, the EAPSI program, and the other places I’ve lived in China.
It was such a great party – the setting, the food, the people, the activities, the dancing. I complimented the ambassador’s wife and she said, “Of course! We’re Americans, we throw the best parties.” Pretty much.
As we left, a Chinese man was coming in, carrying a bucket and a broom made out of straw tied together. It was a reminder that we were leaving America and going back to China . . .
Outside, a friendly Australian soldier gave us a bar recommendation in Sanlitun, a nearby part of the city, and we got cabs to head over. One guy took a cab home, and I thought about going with him – go home, write about the night, and get to bed at a decent hour for work tomorrow. But no, I thought, I didn’t come here just to write about China, but to live it. We’re all dressed up, no one’s working late tonight, and we’re already out in Beijing – let’s see where the night goes! Yeah, that ended up being a terrible decision, as the night went straight downhill from basically that point. Oh, hindsight . . .
We ended up at Fez, a rooftop bar in Sanlitun. The sky was perfectly clear and the moon was absolutely brilliant, so the atmosphere got top marks. Unfortunately, a few of the EAPSI guys took advantage of the setting to smoke. Seriously, we finally get some nice fresh air and your first instinct is to light up a cigarette?? I’ve never really understood smoking, but I do get why people smoke when they drink – a lot people do stupid shit when they’re drunk.
And then it got worse. We ordered a giant bowl (5L) of sangria for the 10 of us. It was 700元, so around $12 each. A bunch of people chipped in 100元 bills, and the waiter walked away. A few minutes later, he came back – two of them were fake, he said. He produced two bills, which were indeed fake, and asked for real bills. I wasn’t witness to this exchange, unfortunately, but the guys at the other end of the table gave him two new 100元 bills.
Ugh. This is just the worst. Our money was good; we were all given stacks of hundreds when we arrived, courtesy of the Chinese government, so where would we have gotten fakes from? But of course you can’t argue after they’ve made the switch – the bills they presented us with were undeniably fake and we couldn’t prove that the ones we had given them weren’t.
We were warned about fake bills during orientation, and in the context of a scam where taxi drivers will take your hundred and return a fake one to you, demanding that you pay with good money. Then the first week, we had it happen to us in a restaurant. We paid again, but later some Chinese friends told us that you should always follow the waitresses to the cash register to make sure they don’t pull a fast one on you. I should have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t.
I usually get mad at myself when I make decisions that cost me money, but what was my mistake here? Being insufficiently paranoid? Not assuming that everyone is out to get me? So I’m just angry at the bar. I also just can’t believe that they had the audacity to claim that we had given them, not one, but TWO fake bills.
The night had lost its charm for me, so once the sangria was done, a few of us left to get a taxi back home. Sanlitun is a bar area, so there were lots of taxis around – but it’s also an area that’s very popular with foreigners and expats, so most of them were trying to take advantage of the drunk and/or ignorant. We walked up to one taxi that was parked in the intersection, and I asked him to take us to CUMTB, where we’re staying. He looked me up and down and said, 150元. I actually laughed in his face – I couldn’t help it, the fare would be about 60元 on the meter and we all knew it.
Walking on, we started getting targeted by black taxis. These are illegitimate taxis, just guys with cars who buy red lights to put in the front window to signal that they’re available. We had also been warned about these during orientation – “never get in a taxi if the driver speaks English”. They really obviously target foreigners; I hadn’t seen a single one until we found ourselves in Sanlitun at midnight trying to hail a cab. One thing I will say, they were all on the same page when it came to the bogus fare they wanted to charge – everyone quoted me 150元.
It took us about an hour before we finally got a cab. He used a meter, and the fare was 60元. We got home a little before 1.
What a day. Thinking of the party at the embassy just puts a smile on my face, but the rest of the evening was a rude reintroduction to China. Thinking about it now, I realize that we saw just about every scam that we were warned about during orientation. I guess I should be glad that no one tried the tea ceremony scam on us; two out of three was bad enough. Never again, Sanlitun.