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A Study in Contrasts

“To improve the golden moment of opportunity and catch the good that is within our reach is the great art of life.”  Samuel Johnson

Today is my first day to venture out on my own and use the Beijing Subway system.  As I walk down the stairs to the underground, the environment is changing.   I am leaving behind the clutter and smells associated with the street vendors, the chaotic traffic where one has to dodge bicycle riders, taxis, buses, cars, motorbikes, and a creative variety of hand-pulled carts plus the blustering winds.  I feel as though I have entered a spaceship.  It is bright, shiny, warm and clean. Neon lights direct my every move.  The National Library station is my destination as I depart from the East Peking University Gate.  I have my 2-Yuan, equivalent to 30 cents, ready in my hand to purchase my ticket.  I wait patiently in line.  It is my turn.  As I reach my arm forward to pay, another arm coming from the right, pushes mine out of the way.  I am speechless.  Why isn’t someone behind me yelling out?  I hear nothing.  I, also, say nothing!

I receive my ticket and proceed to the waiting area for the next train on Line 4.
The sign above says, “2 minutes.”  I am first in line.  As the train approaches and slows down, I spy through the glass several empty seats.  The tram stops, doors open, and a “sea of black” surrounds me.  My feet try to keep pace as I am shoved to the right and then the left.  I hear a bell ringing – signaling the doors are closing.  I look down and hurriedly step across the opening onto the train and grab a rail.  We are off.  As I gain my composure, I see that all the seats are taken. I stand the entire way to my destination.  I believe I have just had a lesson in:  He Who Hesitates…

Riding the escalator out of the underground, the shining sun and the diminished winds are a welcoming sight. The National Library stands in front of me.  It is an old stone building with four large bright red lanterns hanging from its portico.  There are a gaggle of steps to climb to the front door.  I am excited. Then a man in a gray military-looking suit stops me.  He is the “Library Guard.”  He keeps shaking his head, “No.”

I say my usual, “Only English.”  He continues to wave his arms in agreement with his head.  No Entry for me is a clear message.  Then, my rescuer comes on the scene.  He is a nice looking Chinese student.  He is smiling as he glances over and says, “No backpacks are permitted in the library. Let me show you the lockers down below.”  I tell him, “I am really interested in the Bamboo Park and the Art Museum.”  He replies, “I can take you.”  We slip-slide down an embankment, cross a frozen stream, crawl up the opposing bank, and end up in Bamboo Park.  We have been laughing all the way.  The lake is surrounded with multi-colored flags. Chinese music is broadcast over a PA system built into the tall trees.  People of all ages are skating; some on foot, some on chair-skates, and some on bikes. I say, “If we go no further, it has all been worth it for me.”

Kevin says, “On to the Art Museum.”  We compare our similarities and our differences, our philosophies and our goals and dreams.  We marvel at how a chance meeting like this can turn strangers into friends in an afternoon…

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