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Forbidden City bigger than R.I.?

Posted by Marc J. Spears, Globe Staff  August 13, 2008 05:11 AM

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You don't have to be an athlete or celebrity to get your picture taken in Beijing. Just ask the Globe's Marc Spears. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING -- Since I began covering the Celtics, the organization's ownership has been very welcoming, from Wyc Grousbeck to Stephen Pagliuca to Robert Epstein to Dr. James L. Cash. So it wasn't a total surprise to get an e-mail from Pagliuca, also known as "Pags," after he, his wife, Judy, their four kids, and a family friend arrived in Beijing for the Olympics last week.

The Pags clan has been to two men's and women's basketball games each, tennis, table tennis, synchronized diving (cool sport that I just learned existed yesterday) and beach volleyball (which actually has cheerleaders). Pags is also very good friends with USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and senior managing director Jerry Colangelo. The Pags clan is staying in same hotel with USA’s men’s basketball team. Pags has also seen the likes of music legend Quincy Jones and Rush Hour star Chris Tucker are staying at his hotel, too, but was too shy to say hello. The Chinese definitely aren’t shy. I’ll get back to that soon.

Well, Pags and I have been trying to link up, so this Wednesday morning I was finally able to catch up with him and his family at the historical Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Before I embarked on a 30-minute cab ride to Tiananmen Square, the cabbie decided he wanted his picture taken with me without asking. I'm a 6-foot-6 tall black dude and I guess there aren't many of us hanging around these parts. I'm not sure why he wanted to take the picture, and it was probably better I didn't ask. The cabbie ended up dropping me off, unbeknownst to me, about a half mile away from Tiananmen Square and just pointed in the direction I was supposed to go mumbling something in Mandarin. Thanks for the correct drop off, buddy. Wish I didn't give you a tip.

Anyways, I ended up getting lost. Surprise, right? I found some information booth and started asking the woman for directions. Next thing I know some cop with a gun on his side started asking me questions in Mandarin like I know the language and acting like he wants me to get lost before he saw my Olympic credential. Some young cat all of a sudden shows up and tells the information counter lady that he will show me how to get to Tiananmen Square. I guess I should trust him. He was only about 5-6, had the spirit of an ambassador for the country and looked harmless so I wasn’t worried. The guy was real cool, spoke limited English and showed me the way. Halfway there I gave him by business card so he could understand my name. Some weirdo runs over and tries to read my card after I handed it off. My guide pulls the card away to hide it and gives the dude a get away look. Man, there are some rude people here. They'll just walk up or run up crazy like, get close to you and read your credential or grab your clothes. Back where I come from it could be painful if you try to do that, man. But when in China, you have to adapt to them, not them to you. So after a long walk, we finally get there. It's amazing how huge Tiananmen Square is and it is festive with Olympic decorations all over the place.

I offer the guide some money for showing me the way. He declines and goes on his way. If you're reading, thanks man, that was a real cool gesture. I'd probably be walking to Shanghai if he hadn't shown up. Next thing I know, the stares and the picture-taking start up again. Pags calls and he and his family are about 10 minutes away. After having little choice to take a couple of pictures, I tried to conjure up a distraction. Yes, I got on my cellular phone and called mom to check in. My mom is back in New Orleans and super nervous about me being in China. Hearing about the American being stabbed last week didn't help. So I tell her where I am and she tells me to be careful and watch out, but is also so happy and proud that her son is at the Olympics.

Only one of these men is an NBA superstar. Marc Spears (left) and Shaquille O'Neal.

I can see several novice cameramen staring and waiting for an opportunity to take a pic with Shaquille O'Neal or whoever they thought I was. But me being on the phone keeps them at bay. I also stood near some cops to make myself feel safer with my mom worrying me to death on the phone.

Eventually, the Pags clan shows up. You can tell they've been having a great time. Judy is asking their tour guide and translator a lot of questions. While a little hard to understand, the tour guide is great and explains the history of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which is across the street. We take some pictures with the Forbidden City in the background. Meanwhile, locals at Tiananmen Square start taking pictures of us posing for a picture. Man, these folks need to get out more often, watch BET, American movies or something. But, there really aren't many non-Chinese people walking around, so I guess I can kind of understand the fascination with "Westerners." Not sure why the term Westerners doesn’t seem flattering to me, but that’s what we’re called. Guess it could be worse like the guy at the Williams sisters’ doubles tennis match I went to Tuesday night that yelled out, “United States of (a curse word referring to your backside).”

We end up going across the street to the Forbidden City. The place has to be bigger than Rhode Island. It just keeps going and going and going. It is actually 1 million square meters and the buildings alone account for 170,000 square meters. A million people can fit in there. Wow. You can’t understand how big it is until you’re viewing it in person. Awesome spectacle. After we got about halfway through and we were about to take a tour of the Forbidden City museum, I looked at my watch and realized that it was time for me to go. I had a lot of writing that I needed to get done. I said thanks to Pags, his family and the tour guide for letting me hang out and went on my way. You could literally spend all day checking out that historic place.

Getting a cab back to my hotel wasn't the easiest thing to do. I walked about a half mile and made a left down a two-lane street that the police told me to turn on to get a cab. Suddenly, some real friendly woman just comes up to me speaking English and asking a zillion questions. OK, what do you want? I know a hustler when I see one and she was hustling something. Cab after cab after cab was filled, man. She then tells me she has an art store and I should check it out. I told her I'll go in her art store if she helps me hail a cab. She agrees and I check out the store. I'm actually quietly a huge art fan, so I know I'll enjoy this little detour. I actually spent about two hours checking out art stores during a trip to New Orleans during Fourth of July.

She had some very beautiful art and the air conditioning is wonderful. I overhear some American running his mouth in the store and he asks one of the workers in the store why many Chinese don’t have tattoos. The guy told him that if you have a tattoo, you’re viewed as a "hooligan" and can't get a job as a cop. The art all had a connection with the history or tradition of China. I ended up buying a scroll on which the words say, "Good Luck." Well, that's at least that's what the lady told me. It could say, "Today's Sucker," for all I know. But it looks cool and isn't that all that really matters? She lives up to her bargain and eventually hails me a cab. What a wild afternoon, but it was cool and memorable. And I got to feel like a celebrity and a circus freak all at the same time. How do you say, “Say Cheese,” in Mandarin?

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1 comments so far...
  1. A pic is always worth a thousand words!

    Posted by Natalie O August 16, 08 10:14 PM

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