Last night I had a chance to meet up with some family friends I haven't seen in over 15 years.
After us kids graduated from high school, we each went our separate universities and from there our respective careers.
But before then our two families took a trip to China in 1985 -- the first for the younger generation.
We didn't quite know what to expect then, but saw Beijing, Guangzhou, Guilin and Shanghai.
The sea of black heads in Shanghai was overwhelming, the food somewhat dodgy, and the sites not as commercial as they are today.
I still remember we had to use a special currency for foreigners and not renminbi -- limiting us in where we could shop, eat and stay.
Our tour guide escorted us all the time and I remember her English being quite good, very proper textbook English.
And it was when we went on the Great Wall at Badaling did it hit me how impressive China was.
The trip intrigued me enough to major in Asian Studies and from there go to Hong Kong... and now Beijing.
My friends haven't changed much and they are again overwhelmed by how far China has progressed on this trip.
One observed that while he has read so much about China, coming here and seeing it for himself still didn't prepare him for the sight of construction sites everywhere, the numbers of cars, the shiny slick buildings and the people everywhere.
We quickly ate dinner and then headed to Tiandi Theater, just north of Poly Theater in Dongsishitiao.
It hosts acrobatic shows nightly at 7:15pm for about an hour and 15 minutes.
My friends' tour guide got there earlier to pick up the reserved tickets, but when we arrived a bit later, apparently our seats were already taken! We asked the attendant and they said first come first seated. But that's why we reserved our seats in the first place!
In the end we were separated, spread out at the bottom half of the seating area. And next to me was a Chinese couple, middle-aged who were talking throughout the entire show, and his cellphone even went off despite repeated warnings to turn cellphones off...
The show itself? The acrobatics show has definitely moved on from the rigid programs they had years ago. They are trying very hard to emulate Cirque du Soleil, but is no where near there in terms of costumes and choreography. Nevertheless, the standard is quite high and impressive to watch.
There was a young man in a quasi bullfighting outfit who juggled a number of balls while tap dancing at the same time. And a man balancing on a slack wire that was amazing to watch. He would swing himself on the wire and at one point hung himself from a short ladder, practically defying gravity.
The contortionists made my friends squirm in their seats, but their act was quite routine. However, there was a trio of very young boys who were fantastic doing amazing one-handed handstands and using "crutches" to do these handstands too, bopping around on the small round stage.
You could tell that Cirque had borrowed Chinese elements, like the pole climbing routine and Chinese yo-yos. The acts here were technically brilliant, for the most part lacked sophisticated choreography, as the music didn't quite fit the routine, or they did extra poses that were not necessary.
What was also sad were the costumes. While they got rid of the traditional Chinese outfits, some of the male performers had strangely designed clothes that were supposed to be cool but were weird. Were they functional? Were the fabrics breathable? Nevertheless they didn't seem quite practical for the things they were doing.
The finale was the bicycle routine where a number of young girls climb on a bike ridden on stage. They updated it a bit with girls wearing red dresses with fringes so it looked like they were wearing red rugs with go-go boots.
My friends' mom was impressed with the show, saying it's updated and better than before.
Last night's show was a reflection of China trying to do a lot all at once, but the results were only slightly better.
If they have more exposure to outside acts, hopefully these young acrobats will see they're almost there... and improving on those costumes would help alot.