The first time I saw Tiananmen Square, it was teeming with humanity, a giant tapestry of color in shimmering waves of motion. Small patches of gray floor were visible in areas, but the brightly-hued jackets of tourists fidgeting with cameras and umbrellas dominated the landscape. From the distance, it was postcard pretty. The bright blue high-noon sky framed the two-tiered roof whose corners winged upwards symmetrically, and Mao’s picture hung beneath, exactly at center.
I stood there awhile holding the picture in my mind and then walked away from the throng of noise and endless jostling. Moving sideways, crab-like, I made slow progress, inching my way back to bustling Wangfujing Street and onward to Goldfish Lane. I had just enough time before my work schedule began at the Peninsula’s Palace Hotel Beijing.
My first impression of Beijing was of thick, endless masses of people.
Every place I went there were the ever-present noise, smells, colors, and jostling. It was not unpleasant exactly but the simultaneous sensory stimulation exhausted me.
My friends, also hoteliers, did not object to foregoing the sites and to meeting up in hotels instead. Beijing did not lack such options. A vital consideration was that the taxi driver knew how to get there. Once, a colleague and I found ourselves geographically disoriented and conversationally lost with an irate taxi driver. He hotly insisted that the dark, run-down, four-story building he drove us to was the Sheraton. The hairy situation cost us additional Yuan, frayed nerves, and not a small measure of fear. It was apparently normal for a mistaken taxi driver to scream Chinese expletives at cowering foreign women. My other impression of Beijing was that courtesy (the way I was used to at least) was extremely rare.
In a city rich with history, culture, and art, I became a very reluctant tourist.
Immersed at Work
The job was my handy but real excuse to stay within familiar surroundings. I was there to work, not to go sightseeing, I rationalized. The truth is that hotel work is very engaging and extremely demanding. It is a microcosm of life at a much accelerated pace.
By necessity, hoteliers are continually planning processes to be executed with meticulous precision within an absolute time frame against a reality that anything can happen. We are prepared with a plan B and a plan C. And when things go very wrong, we must rapidly come up with a plan D, all the while smiling serenely as we reassure impatient guests and direct our flustered teams.
Delegation visits, conferences, events, and food and beverage festivals mark the passing of time. The changing seasons enter our self-contained world only when heralded by hotel promotions – Chinese New Year, Easter, summer holidays, Chinese National Day, Halloween, Mid-Autumn Festival, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
When the rest of the world enjoys relaxing vacations, we need to be present in full force and working double time.
Walk on the White Side
At the end of an especially long, exhausting day in late autumn, a friend working in the same hotel invited me for a walk. I accepted immediately, eager for the chance to get away. The blast of cold air that greeted me as I stepped out from the hotel entrance was invigorating. My friend was there, continuously feet-stomping to keep warm. It had been snowing lightly. We walked without speaking, too tired from the series of long work days. Our boots made loud crunching sounds in the late night silence, and our breath produced white vapors in the dark. Crunch, crunch, crunch went our boots; puff, puff, puff showed our breath. Farther and farther away we went from the hotel and its work concerns. It felt peaceful and free. Soon we were off the street and along a walkway lined by rows of weeping willow trees with gently swaying branches. Crunch, crunch, crunch, I watched our boots on the snow. Then, my friend stopped walking.
I looked up and stood transfixed. Distant stars glistened against a dark blue sky over a silent and deserted Tiananmen Square. It was blanketed in fresh snow.
Taking in the sacred silence, I scanned the panorama of endless space, sucked in cool air, and exhaled ever so slowly. My friend was watching my face. His green eyes twinkled in amusement and his lopsided smile conveyed smug satisfaction at my obvious awe. Coming from a country of snow-capped mountains, he was eager to share the magic of snow. Magical and mystical! That’s how the snow looked to me, born and raised in the sunny, humid tropics.
Gingerly at first and then with gleeful abandon, we made skipping footprints on the unmarked snow as we crossed the square, stopping shortly to stare at the huge picture of Mao. We talked about the square’s history, about living in China, about places we have been to, hotels we have worked at, growing up anecdotes – things trivial yet meaningful flowing naturally in the unfolding of a mysteriously deep affinity.
That was not the last time I saw Tiananmen Square. I would walk there again and again with friends and with family, amid the usual noisy throng and jostling. Through the years, I would see it on other people’s holiday photos, the smiles and the inevitable crowds. I would hear about it in the news: official ceremonies, pockets of protest, knife attacks, a jeep deliberately ploughed into a group of tourists. I see many scenes of this famous square. But if I keep still and close my eyes, I am back in that magical moment – distant stars glistening against a dark blue sky over a silent, white blanket of fresh snow … and a man’s smiling green eyes as he shared the magic with me.