Family in Beijing Countdown: T-minus 2 days
It may be odd to have the countdown, because my family is actually in Beijing now - I've actually spent the last 24 hours with them, and this post is about our adventures Sunday. The countdown is until their tour concludes and the come to stay with me on Tuesday. But first, for family and friends: My wife, parents and sister are having a wonderful time and are safe and healthy.
The tour has been even better then expected - for the most part, they ARE the tour. The four of them have been met at the airports with a private van, had their own personal English speaking guide, which allows them to go where they want when they want, had all meals taken care of, and are staying in fabulous 5-star hotels.
So they're on the Beijing leg of the tour, and last night I stayed at their hotel and - since it's just them - it was easy to pay a little to let me join them for their Sunday activities.
Oddly, though, the first thing on the itinerary was NOT part of the package they signed. We were going to church, the guide told us.
Is it a historic or significant church? they asked. (Beijing is actually home to some spectacular Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches built earlier in the century.)
The guide didn't think so. It was in an office building, she said.
Well, that didn't make sense. Was it Catholic? Was there some special ceremony?
She didn't know, she didn't know, she didn't know. All she knew was the tour company INSISTED this was part of our tour. No exceptions. We shrugged and got in the van.
I'll be darned if we didn't pull up at a nondescript office tower. No signage. Nothing to mark a church. We went to the fourth floor, and after wandering found a large room set up with probably 100 chairs (perhaps a dozen occupied by Americans) and some women singing at the front. Must be it. We filed into the third row.
Still, there was a little bit of a weird vibe, and one of the singing ladies was looking at me with an obvious question mark on her face. Our guide went up and talked to a woman playing on a keyboard.
I couldn't hear wheat was said, but I caught three little letters.
I looked around. No alter, no crucifix, no cross - no iconography at all.
The people there were all in suits and ties and full length dresses (sharp contrast to our t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, fanny packs and backpacks.)
I leaned over.
"Shannon, I think we're at a Mormon service."
"What?" she asked.
"I heard 'LDS.' Latter Day Saints. I think--"
It was like a jump cut in a movie. One moment I'm talking to her face, the next her head is between her knees, her shoulders shaking with uncontrollable laughter. My sister asked and I told her. She started laughing. We asked the guide what she had been told. "I don't know," she said. "I think it's Catholic..."
Just then a man in a suit came up.
"Hi, I'm Brother Tom," he said, extending his hand.
We were introduced, he asked where we were from, and then my wife took the plunge and asked the denomination of the service.
Tom looked surprised. "It's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," he said. "The Mormons." He asked about us.
He looked confused when we said Catholic and Lutheran. "And... how did you come to be here?"
Simultaneously, five heads swivel to our guide, who looks back at us with a facial expression that can only be described as a bewildered "Wha?"
Tom continued. "Well, so you know, the service may be a little different than what you're used to. The first hour will be testimonials, where people stand and affirm what they believe--"
I heard a snort to my right. I looked over. My wife was hunched over, mid-cough, hand to her mouth - but was that a hint of a smile?
"Excuse me," she said, patting her chest.
Tom continued to describe the second hour, and then the third hour, where the men and women were separated--
Another snort/cough, this one with a distinct undertone of giggle.
"Oh, exCUSE me!" my wife (who it should be known is a wonderful, sensitive, considerate person who would never laugh to someone's face, especially not while they were describing the core tenets of their faith) apologized sincerely, when the "coughing fit" had died down. "I think I need to go to the bathroom."
"I think you should," my sister offered.
Do you remember the Six Million Dollar Man? Where he would jump vertically from a standstill, and there would be that cheesy stop-frame effect, and that sound - BADADADAdadadada! - and then you see him land effortlessly a great distance away? That was my wife. She rose four feet into the air, cleared my sister and the guide to her right, and landed, legs already spinning for the exit, in the aisle.
So it was left to me to continue the conversation with Tom. To be honest, I don't even remember what we talked about. All I know is I had to bite very hard on the inside of my cheeks and occasionally break eye contact, but somehow I did it until Tom lost interest and wandered away.
Now, keep in mind, this is NO comment on Mormonism. I believe everyone can worship or not worship as he or she sees fit, and I've had Mormon friends, all of whom have been fine people. So no beef there.
But the absurdity of the situation was too much for our juvenile selves. Here we were, a group of people who were almost certainly never going to be Mormons, sitting in an office building, about to witness a three hour ceremony that meant nothing to us, after traveling 10,000 miles to the other side of the world.
"I have to go to the bathroom," my dad said, and made for the aisle.
"Me too." My mother followed.
Freed of Tom's attention, my sister and I giggled in a very inappropriate manner. We told our guide that it was, indeed a Mormon ceremony.
"Is there a big difference?" she said. Fair question. She couldn't be expected to know the difference between two churches any more than most people in America could tell the difference between Sikhs and Zoroastrians.
After a moment or two more of the giggles, my sister looked around.
"Maybe we should... uh... pow-wow by the bathrooms."
"Hmmm," I replied, gathering my dad's hat and my wife's hastily forgotten bag.
Then it was a casual stand and stretch. Drift into the aisle. Casual stroll - but not TOO casual - to the door. And then meet the rest of our party and run for the elevator.
We were laughing like idiots as we piled back into the van. A phone call later, and our guide had arranged a delightful morning touring the Hou Hai hutong, driven around in pairs in what most Americans would call a bicycle rickshaw (it has another name here, but I'm too lazy to look it up), including a visit with a Beijing family that has lived in a 200+ year old courtyard house for their entire lives to get a view of the old Beijing that is getting lost, a historical tour of the house of Soong Ching Ling, a woman who was key in the formation of the People's Republic, another amazing garden, good lunch and a thorough trip through the art collections of the Forbidden City.
It was a great day, brilliantly sunny and hot, and only at dinner did it fall into place. A group of Americans came in whom my family recognized. They had seen them in Shanghai, on the boat, at Xi'an and now in Beijing. It was like they had the same itinerary...
Our guide and their guide met, and she reported back. This group was indeed on the same package, and were all part of a Mormon church group from Utah. Apparently this group had bought most of the berths on the tour, with my family getting the other four, and while they were here, they had arranged to keep their own worship schedule.
Someone had the foresight to siphon my family off and supply them with an amazing level of personal attention, including separate transport and guides, rather than mix them in with the church group. But somewhere the wires got crossed and my family's itinerary had been changed to match theirs.
Clearly Tom had been as baffled by us as we were by him, and I hope he and some of his friends had a good laugh about us later in the morning. But it was almost sad to find there was such a logical explanation for such a beautifully absurd morning.
COMING TOMORROW: I'll post pictures and more about our Hou Hai tour. Just couldn't wait to post our religious experience.