The holidays brought me to Hawaii, where I’m relearning the little things that set China quite apart from the US.
My lesson started at the airport. I often complain about long lines and grumpy service at Beijing Capital International Airport, but boarding the flight to America was a jarring reminder of how simple it is to travel domestically. Going to the US is always an ordeal and this time was no different. Airport security officers searched my bags and body twice, even frisking the soles of my feet and rifling through my wallet. For what? Radioactive corns? Coin grenades? I know that the Obama’s are going to be in Honolulu, but that hardly justifies treating every passenger like a potential Osama Bin Laden. Sensing my impatience, the officers explained, “It’s just American security procedures. We have to do this for every flight going to the US.”
Once onboard, it was hard to ignore that outstanding characteristic of American life – copious consumption. I’ve shaken my head at the hugely inflated prices at Parkson and Beijingers’ insatiable appetite for shopping, but all that is peanuts compared to how and what Americans can buy. In my front seat pocket I found a 243-page SkyMall catalogue that offered a thousand ways to spend frivolously. For $24.95, I could buy The Marshmallow Shooter, a “clever pump-action device” that shoots “sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30 inches.” If I feel like a splurge, I could go for the $99.95 Telekinetic Obstacle Course, advertised with a picture of a man wearing headgear, staring intently at mini hurdles and monkey bars. “This is the game that uses your focused brain waves to maneuver a ball through an obstacle course.” I read the catalogue cover to cover with curious disbelief.
Mock though I might, there are things I love about America, foremost, its great scandals and subsequent satires. Chinese scandals that make it to the front pages tend to be a boring litany of tax evasion, misappropriation of public funds, and corruption. America is much more creative. Take former Senator Larry Craig (R), caught in an airport bathroom trawling for gay sex. Or ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D), aggressive defender of the law, dethroned for his taste for high class prostitutes.
Big scandals make good fodder for satire. Appropriately, I entertained myself in flight with a Will Ferrell DVD, a spoof on George W. Bush, aptly titled “You’re Welcome, America.” In his performance, Ferrell twice refers to America’s first black president as “that Tiger Woods guy,” reminding me of the best scandal yet of 2009. Ferrell obviously did his comedic routine before “Tigergate” broke.
After a long flight, I finally stepped onto US soil and headed straight for Starbuck’s. Back in Beijing, this was my unofficial office. At the coffee counter, I was treated to another form of amusement – what Americans think of China. I clapped with glee when the cashier ran up $1.47 for a short black coffee, instead of RMB12. I explained to her that I had just come from Beijing and wasn’t used to seeing such small numbers. She, in typically friendly American style replied, “Oh, Beijing! Do they still have the Starbuck’s in that… whadayyacallit…the Forbidden Palace?”
“The Forbidden City? No, I think they shut it down after the big fuss.”
“Yeah, that was the right thing to do, shuttin’ it down. That’s like sacrilege!”
Hmm, perhaps she has mistaken the Forbidden City for some kind of religious landmark, like the Vatican?