My next stop was Tianjin. My dad had a business acquaintance down there and his sister had taken a liking to me. I had called her when I was planning my trip. She told me I was welcome to come to Tianjin and stay at her house. She was very wealthy and owned several apartments. When I called her with my finalized plans, she scolded me for having bought a train ticket back from Beijing, as Tianjin was closer. She told me to return it and she would take care of the ticket from Tianjin to Shanghai. I pretty much was in the habit of just going with the flow, so I did what she said.
Getting to Tianjin was easy. I bought a ticket and was on the train in half an hour. There are tons of trains that go there as it is only a couple hours from Beijing and one of the biggest cities in the country. The last time I had met this woman was in California. She intimidated me. I’m not easily intimidated, but there was something sharp about her like a finely honed knife. She was friendly and gregarious, but there was no warmth behind her eyes, so I was a bit trepidatious about what I was doing. I suppose you might ask why I was even going, but as I said I was looking for adventure and very much into just going with the flow. She’d said to look her up if I was in the area, I was, so I did.
Anyway, it turned out to be fine. She didn’t know how to be warm, but she was a kind, generous person after all. We took taxis everywhere, ate expensive food and explored the Old Street in Tianjin. Almost every large city has an Old Street, a place where the buildings have been preserved, but packed tight with shops selling Chinese specialty goods to tourists. I was amazed by how much cheaper things were there than in Shanghai. I didn’t see any everyday clothes I wanted, but I did get a qipao for formal occasions. The slinky 1930’s style Chinese dress was one of those things I felt I couldn’t leave China without. Bargaining was hard, because I wasn’t sure if she should be doing it, as the host, or I, as the buyer, but I muddled through it. After our brief shopping stint we went to lunch. We had Beijing duck.
“How is the duck?” she asked me.
I made a moue of disgust and embarrassment. “Actually, I don’t think it’s very good.”
She nodded. “Yes, I didn’t think it would be. You can’t get good duck outside of Beijing.”
“So why did you let me order it?” I asked perplexed.
Apparently this was a funny question, for she giggled and repeated it to several people afterwards. At the time I was unsure what made it amusing, but now I suspect that the rule of the host is that you always order what the guest wants whether it is good or not. The idea that I would expect my host to refuse a dish on grounds that it wasn’t any good seemed absurd to them.
She had put me up in the apartment she was finishing. It was a new acquisition in a new complex and had come without even a light fixture in place. The flat was huge. It had a kitchen, a cavernous living room, a den, dinning room, guest bedroom and master suite. I slept in the suite. It wasn’t fully furnished yet and I swallowed by the huge empty place.
I stayed one night and left the next day. Before she took me the train station I waited downstairs in her sister’s place with her sister’s kids. They were watching Naruto in Chinese. It was a homey atmosphere and I wished I had spent the night there among all the warmth and activity.
My Tianjin host was single. She was good looking and in her thirties, successful and smart, which was perhaps the problem. She owned a musical instrument factory and put career before love. Once you hit 30 in China you are an old maid and thus she had never married. I think that’s why she spent so much time at her sister’s place and bought these gigantic apartments.
My host refused to let me pay for the train ticket back to Shanghai. I wanted to object, but she was very stubborn on the subject. I was Guest after all. She’d sent me first class, Soft Bed. I didn’t like it as much as Hard Bed. There were only four people to a space and the little cabin actually closed. Lace adorned every surface and each compartment came with its own TV. These were luxuries I didn’t need and the other passengers made me feel nervous. They were all men. After my recent experiences I didn’t feel so safe, but none of them bothered me, or even talked to me for that matter, so I suppose my anxieties were unfounded and my agitated sleep unwarranted.