Making My Way to Beijing

I opened my eyes with effort, reaching mechanically for my phone to check the time. I knew it wasn’t yet 5 but I couldn’t close my eyes again until I was sure that the two alarms I’d set hadn’t failed. 4:19. I closed my eyes again in a futile gesture of desire to return to sleep. My mind was already awake, making mental lists of things not to forget though I’d checked and double checked the night before. I was full of an excited anxiousness as my mind invented contingencies to worry about. (What if the cab driver doesn’t come!? What if my flight is cancelled? …after this they became progressively more irrational.)

Finally, the wail of the alarm. I rose and readied- expert after years of practice with my Dad who my grandparents jokingly called “the Road Nazi.” Ahmet said goodbye with a kiss as he handed me into the cab. “How silly,” I thought, “that I should be teary-eyed over a 9-day separation. The cab driver watched our Hollywood farewell from his rear view mirror. I sat on my knees in the backseat, waving until Ahmet, looking handsomely disheveled in his black knee-length pea coat and hair mussed with sleep, was out of sight.

In a Chinese/mime language the driver asked if I was leaving forever. I shook my head. “Jiû days,” was my hybrid reply. The corners of his mouth twitched forming the hint of a knowing smile. He tapped his wrist and made an upward motion with his hand. “Oh uh…ba si shi,” I blurted, trying to remember the tones. I only realized later how impressive my non-verbal communication had gotten. Words are superfluous, especially when all people ask you is what time your flight leaves and, now and then, where you are from. (Though I guess the answer to the latter would be harder to mime.)

The ride to the airport lasted around 40 very silent minutes. I looked out the window as we passed some things I recognized and many more I didn’t. I checked my flight itinerary for a 5th time to satisfy myself that I could stroll with confidence into the airport after a warm goodbye from my over-eager cab driver. How fitting, then, that I walked purposefully to the wrong line and stood in it for 20 fruitless minutes, my anxiety rising all the time.

Finally safe at the gate, I opened “The Way West” and forgot the tribulations of modern air travel in favor of some pioneers from Missouri. When we boarded I chose a window seat, knowing that my ticket was for the aisle. I’ve noticed over the past months that this type of behavior is very Chinese. Follow the rules until no one is watching you and then do whatever you want. If caught, feign ignorance. I’ve noticed I have particular success with this because no one ever suspects me of being willfully defiant. At worst, I’m just a stupid foreigner. Bad behavior or adaptation?

The 2 hours and 20 minutes passed uneventfully and I enjoyed my window seat. I passed in and out of sleep, finally jarred completely awake when a flight attendant’s unsure voice announced our eminent landing in Beijing en Anglais. (I feel fairly confident I was the only one on the plane who spoke English so she needn’t have felt self-conscious.)

I looked out the window. At first glance, the semi-opaque haze looked like clouds stretched too thin across the sky. But the color was wrong. The seemingly familiar in-flight view took on a dinginess that I’d always imagined as being characteristic of Dickensian London. It was dirty but in a permanent, pervasive way like a t-shirt yellowed with sweat and too many wears. I looked at the double pain of plastic on the window, framed with tiny snow flakes and imagined I could feel the gritty air between my teeth though I knew it wasn’t possible. It was mildly comical that the only thing visible in the haze of pollution was a plume of steam from a coal factory.

I landed in Beijing with renewed confidence probably attributable to the 7+ hours I had to figure out where my parents would arrive. I claimed my luggage and rode the airport shuttle (really far!) to Terminal 3, wandering until I found a Starbucks- the first in 5 months! It’s oddly comforting to see more and more signs of my American life after so long.

image

And so here I sit. And wait. And read.

Christmas in China: Unregulated Healthcare

“I’m tired of fighting you and my sickness AND THE WORLD.”
– My Dad

I woke up Christmas morning without any of the usual happy anticipation of good food, family, and a morning spent in my pajamas giving gifts. What I did have was an overabundance of phlegm and a throat so swollen I could barely swallow my own spit. Merry Christmas to me. Whether it was weariness with my two week stretch of sickness-induced whining or my pitiful appearance that drove Ahmet to take me to the hospital, I will never know, but I am eternally grateful, even if it does rank among the most bizarre experiences of my life.

We took the number 206 bus out of the North Gate (北部门) of my school, tossing to and fro at the whim of the bus driver.  The 206 route takes you down one of the most stereotypical looking Chinese streets you can imagine- pothole laden, dirty, crowded, lined with shops of all kinds and plagued by the smell that is China. It’s a smell I’ve spent quite a long time trying to put my finger on. I think it consists of sewer, spicy noodles, fruits (some rotten), and the ever-pleasant musk created by a populace without the blessed invention of deodorant. True, it was stifled by my obstructed nasal passageways but a smell like that just refuses to stay out.  It was the perfect opportunity to teach Ahmet the word “grumpy.”

I was the human version of grumpy cat.

I was the human version of grumpy cat.

We walked only a few blocks until we met Ahmet’s friend Johnny outside of a sort of dingy looking building covered in square tiles that were once green but now looked more grey. It was a single-story building that looked like it had been built in the mid-1970s but then, everything in China looks at least 10 years older than it is. I once described it to my mother in this fashion:
The exterior of most buildings in China look vaguely like public restrooms in the United States.
Take what you will from that, but it’s true.

The steps were covered in a thin muddy film and a grimy plastic display case held faded pictures of people in white coats. That’s when I realized this dirty place was a hospital. Probably, if I could read Chinese, there would have been other clues, but I can’t.

I walked “inside” which, in Southern China, is not actually inside. Most hallways are open air and every room has a direct exterior access into a central courtyard so that one can still lock a front door with the same affect. I walked up to a counter and was promptly shuffled aside so my two interpreters could explain why we were there. We paid the equivalent of 35 cents and joined the cue to see the doctor. I sat in a dirty plastic chair out of the wind and looked around- a mistake if I’ve ever made one (which we all know I have.) I noticed the smut covering the windows and the splintering wooden doors. I observed a little boy with an IV doing math homework with his father as the bag of antibiotics hung from a nearby tree. In short, it was like no hospital I’ve ever seen the other side of the Pacific.

I was finally ushered inside a small and similarly dirty room where a doctor looked expectantly at me to describe my symptoms. Ahmet and Johnny may have completed a single sentence between them when the doctor shoved an unsterilized thermometer at me from a small tin tray that may once have been the lid of a pencil box. Luckily, he wanted me to stick it under my arm and not in my mouth. After we had established that I didn’t have a fever (which I knew I did not), he took a nanosecond peek down my throat with two long q-tips and then tossed them in the general direction of the trashcan. With a mis-spelled first name (Deven), he wrote me a prescription for 8 different medications. When I looked up I noticed 3 waiting patients standing in the doorway unabashedly staring at me. In my extreme grumpiness I felt like shouting at them, “YES! WHITE PEOPLE GET SICK TOO!” but I was led away to the “pharmacy.”

The pharmacy looked kind of like a walk-up Western Union. There was a thick panel of class and a counter separating the man in the white coat from my escort and I. We handed him the prescription, paid about $20 USD and were given a tray of various pills and viles in small plastic bin.  Next we walked into a room that was exclusively for people receiving IVs. We gave the bin of medicines to a nurse in a white uniform and waited. And waited. And waited some more. She returned with 3 bags of clear fluids (presumably containing some kind of medication?).

Drug Cocktail

 

She unceremoniously grabbed my arm and plopped in onto a table covered with a towel that may have been several days old. That’s an optimistic estimate. She inserted the needle into my hand and transferred me and my many medicines to one of the chairs in the front of the room.

At my finest

At my finest

It was a several hour long process but I had a wonderful support in Ahmet. We had great fun trying to guess what they were talking about on the television. And in the end, I did feel better. Given the experience, I count it a Christmas miracle.

Mayo Pizza: Thanksgiving in China

“I never thought two words could ruin my life.”
– Caleb Schmotter 

没有披萨

Thanksgiving was a particularly hard holiday for me for a few reasons. It was the first major holiday away from home. I started to realize just how long I would be in China. Probably most disappointingly, it underscored my growing distaste for Chinese food. You at home might be shaking your head wondering how anyone could hate the delightful flavors of Panda Express. Well, that is not real Chinese food. Most people would say that with distaste as if Panda Express is disgusting. I emphatically disagree and wish that they would open a Panda Express in Guilin.

In lieu of Panda Express, our crew opted for Pizza Hut instead. It’s not exactly your average Thanksgiving fare but at least it’s American. For a number of our companions (we numbered 13) it was the first Thanksgiving. We delighted in trying to remember back to the first grade when they taught us the G-rated version of events that lead to Thanksgiving. My favorite explanation went something like “Some pilgrims and Indians ate together. And cornucopias. Turkeys. That’s Thanksgiving.”

Before The Disaster

Before The Disaster

Since there were 13 of us, it took the waitstaff some time to find us a place to sit. By the time they did, we were ravenous and flipping through the menu pointing at all of the things we wanted to try, share, and devour solo. Finally we had it all picked out and spent 15 minutes trying to flag our waiter down. Caleb took a deep breath, preparing to order as he insists on speaking in English while he points to the foods he wants even though the Chinese can’t understand him. As his finger landed on the pizza he selected, the waiter shook his head abruptly. “Mei you pisa.” Essentially “don’t have pizza.” Caleb’s face fell and every head at the table snapped to the waiter. He explained to Stan (the only Chinese speaker at our table) that they were out of pizza and so we had to begin the process of trying to select what we would eat all over again.

The Europeans got the last pizzas!

The Europeans got the last pizzas!

As our waiter departed (much to our dismay as it took us so long to capture his attention the first time) Caleb threw himself dramatically onto the booth and said “I never knew two words could ruin my life!” Technically, it’s 4 words, but we all shared his sentiment.

A few more rounds through the menu and we chose a new variety of things to try. The only actual Thanksgiving food I think I ended up eating was mashed potatoes but they were adulterated with ham and cheese.

But the most important part of Thanksgiving remained intact. As we waited for our food to come, we went around the table and shared the things we were thankful for. It was a really wonderful opportunity to  verbalize all of the great things that have happened over the past year and to formally acknowledge the new friendships I’ve been able to forge here in China. For our non-American friends it was a chance to experience more of the substance of Thanksgiving.

Something I'm Thankful For

Something I’m Thankful For

Famous but Not Rich- The Opposite of the Caleb Schmotter Paradox

“That equals to being a fool, having fame and no fortune.”
– Mike Tyson 

My partner in Chinese shenanigans, Caleb, often starts expansive lists of things he would do with lots of money with the phrase “When I’m rich but not famous…” It seems that he and Mike Tyson agree that I’ve gone about this the wrong way but, nonetheless, being a foreigner in China is a lot like being Kim Kardashian,  or Paris Hilton 5 years ago. I use these two women specifically because they are famous for basically no reason. Born rich, became famous, and getting more of both for NO REASON. But that is a rant for another day…

Fame in China means being stopped on the street to take photos with random tourists. People ask me to hold their babies and often I’ll look up from a meal to a gaggle of Chinese tourists with backpacks and cameras pressed against the window trying to get a better angle on the white girl using chopsticks. People take iPhone videos of me walking down the street and groups of giggling teenagers spend entire bus rides whispering about me in the corner until the bravest of the group says “You are very beautiful” before hurling herself off of the bus at the next stop having never even made eye contact.

Failed Attempt at Capturing a Typical Scene in China

Failed Attempt at Capturing a Typical Scene in China

But none of this daily hoopla compares to the fever pitch reached at a Chinese nightclub. We tend to favor Joy’s in downtown Guilin, but, from what I’ve gathered, most of them are about the same. Like American and European nightclubs, Chinese discotheques are dark, loud, and crowded.

The similarities end there.

Where an American club would have a dance floor, the Chinese have dozens of tiny hightop tables surrounding a stage. To obtain one of these coveted positions you have to fork over the equivalent of $100 (¥600). (Or you can pretend that you don’t understand.) The drinks are pricey too (for Chinese standards) and, if you order enough alcohol, the wait staff brings elaborate fruit arrangements. The tables are ornamented with tiny battery powered lanterns that illuminate the only activity Chinese people can reasonably do in a loud and crowded club with no dance floor: dice.

KingsClub

Some of the drinking games in China are just variations of some childhood favorites of mine like rock, paper, scissors. (Only this version involves a man, a woman, a police officer, and some inappropriate gestures.) Others are really complicated numbers games involving probabilities and hand gestures. Sometimes, from the stage, a Chinese nightclub actually looks like a lot of people trying to land planes.

Most of the time, the drinking games can’t distract us crazy westerners from the reason we came: dancing! Since there is no dance floor, we usually use the stage, and become even more of a spectacle than we were before. Elevated above the crowd, fist pumping and singing along to Katy Perry, I’m deified so intensely that the crowd is following along. After a song or two, the Chinese spectators are emboldened and the once empty stage becomes crowded with a variety of different types of Chinese people “dancing.” They usually include:
- The really drunk guy who almost falls of the stage several times.
- The really drunk girl clinging to her boyfriend for support, so far gone it almost looks like he’s dancing with a corpse. (I almost wrote “blow up doll” but, beyond the offensive sexual innuendo, Mathilda* has informed me that blow up dolls are “kind of stiff.”)
- The girl and guy who look as if they are at a middle school dance, moving far too slowly for the music, and standing far enough apart to “leave room for Jesus.”
- The group of girls who stand in a circle, hold hands, and hop from foot to foot. Don’t get too close, or they will try to hold your hands too.
- One or two confident Chinese women with real style having fun!
- The really embarrassed guy being forced onto the stage with his more curious girlfriend.
- The really embarrassed girl being forced onto the stage with her more curious boyfriend.
- The guy trying to impress his friends.

It’s both flattering and uncomfortable to be the center of so much attention. It’s a definite ego boost. I’m sure I will have trouble adjusting to life back in the United States where I’m just normal. But it can also be mind-blowingly stressful. People document every moment of your experience and, if you do anything even remotely out of the Eastern norm, you might become a celebrity on Chinese Twitter.

Every hour or so, we get a built in break from being the centers of attention when a performer takes the stage and does one or two songs, often with a choreographed dance number.

Stage at Joy's

Stage at Joy’s

Some of the repeats include Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” as seen in 10 Things I Hate About You and “Starships” by Nicki Minaj. It’s a nice built-in break and it clears the stage so that, when the performers finish, we can have another glorious 10 minutes solo on the stage, leading the crowd in a Jersey fist-pump, and pretending we are more important than we are.

 

And if you’re really lucky, you might even meet a great guy.

Having fun with my Honey!

Having fun with my Honey!

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

 

Accidentally Climbing a Mountain

“Accidents are not accidents but precise arrivals at the wrong time.” – Dejan Stojanovic 

I know what you’re thinking. How do you accidentally climb a mountain? You can accidentally do a lot of things that, at first glance, seem totally purposeful. For example, you could accidentally kiss someone. How? Trip and fall on his lips. Some accidents are just happy coincidences of time and place like the time I hit the annoying kid in my World Politics class with the door really hard in the face. What about all those notable historical accidents?: Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate, Norma Jean Mortenson’s rise to fame (you may know her as Marilyn Monroe), or even the discovery of America! Certain accidents lead to great things: Penicillin has saved hundreds of millions of lives. But, some are just an excuse to dangle over a cliff on a banana tree, and I think you’ll find my experience was more of this second type.

The accidental climbing of a mountain is something that people who know me find hard to believe. My type-A control-freakness is usually so prominent that no one can imagine a world in which I don’t have the answers. This story will require you to suspend your disbelief.

We rose before the sun on the morning of “the tour” to meet our friends at the South Gate of our campus. We packed plenty of food, bottles of water, and the few other things we anticipated we might need. It wasn’t an extensive list because in my imagined vast experience of Chinese tourism, people don’t go places they can’t walk in heels. The mountains here have stairs for goodness sakes. We took city bus 32 to the ends of the Earth until told by our Chinese friend to disembark and then walked across a crowded street to a hotel proclaiming that their restaurant had famous Peking duck. (They obviously missed the memo that their restaurant is 1,217 miles too far South for that to be true.) We waited around in the parking lot, dodging cars, until we were shown to a bus that passed its prime sometime in the mid 90s. Even the REALLY LOUD variety show playing on the television in the front wasn’t enough to keep my compatriots awake.

Jessica asleep

Jessica Asleep

Though Caleb gave it a valiant effort.

Near Sleep

Near Sleep

We rode the bus out of the city in an indeterminate direction, passing small villages, fruit stands, and miles of wide open space I didn’t know existed in China.

En route to the mountain

En route to the Mountain

Questions about our destination and the nature of the experience started to flow again and I was able to put no one’s mind at ease as we barreled down country roads even John Denver wouldn’t see fit to sing about.

Q: Where are we going?
A: I don’t know.

Q: What is it going to be like?
A: I don’t know.

Q: How far is it?
A: I don’t know.

Q:How long are we staying there?
A: I don’t know.

You would think after awhile people would start to sense a pattern but I think my companions were just unable to accept that no one really knew what the hell was going on and, also, that I would go anywhere outside Guilin without maps, a satellite phone, and waterproof matches. (I don’t actually own any of these things, but I think the point is pretty clear.) We pulled over on the side of the road at some random stop and everyone started to get excited but it turned out a little boy just had to pee. Someone closer to the front of the bus begin to throw up and apprehension about this whole unplanned thing started to rise.

At an equally non-descript spot on the side of the road, the bus pulled over again and we filed off the bus in between the Chinese with cameras around their necks. We dirt-surfed down the steep drop off and then followed a narrow “trail” littered with garbage of visitors past. A pair of discarded Adidas pants sat squarely in front of me. I spent more time than was probably necessary thinking about the circumstances under which someone would discard their pants in the middle of a trail and then we were there:

The main attraction

The Main Attraction

The tourists all jockeyed for position to take the best photos and some of the Chinese performed feats of superhuman balance by climbing up to the first plateau. Those of us with keener powers of observations found some stairs.

Stairway to Heaven?

Stairway to Heaven?

But, as it turns out, they don’t really go anywhere.

Caleb and Jessica

Caleb and Jessica

After ample time for photos (of which we took MANY), the tour guides started to blow an obnoxious rape-type whistle, and so we clambered down the stairs and onto a hidden pathway, back towards the road. At first the pathway consisted of stairs, but it quickly became slippery rock and mud. Starting out we joked and laughed, steadily losing our ability to walk and talk as we concentrated harder on not falling.

Photo Credit: Jessica Bonfield

Photo Credit: Jessica Bonfield

The trail took a winding path up into the hills in what felt like a scene from The Amazing Panda Adventure, a film I watched an unreasonable number of times when my cousin Molly was obsessed with it. (Also, there were no pandas, so maybe not really like that.) The first few times the trail crossed the river I tried to jump from rock to rock, often helped by kind Chinese people who had worn rubber shoes made for water. (Clearly, SOMEONE knew what they were signing up for, just not us.) Eventually, I quit trying to balance on moss covered rocks and began to slush my way through the water in a more direct bid to finish the hike. This was far more difficult than anything any of us had anticipated. People were slipping and falling left and right, soaked from head to toe from unplanned plunges into the cold mountain water.

Out of exhaustion or maybe a sense of boredom that spurred my hidden adrenaline junkie forward, I slipped in a particularly muddy spot, grabbed onto a banana tree for balance, and swung wildly over a drop-off, my arms and legs wrapped completely around the banana tree as the old and semi-rotten tree began to uproot itself. Though it was clearly very dangerous and a kind of unfortunate situation, Caleb and I couldn’t stop laughing. When my feet were firmly planted back on the ground, Caleb called behind him for people not to use the tree for balance, and we continued on, as if I had not just been dangling over a cliff on a banana tree. It’s fine.

The Life-Saving Banana Tree

The Life-Saving Banana Tree

After a particularly steep grade, we came to a clearing where the Chinese members of our group were spreading out blankets and getting out camp stoves. We looked around the area, hoping for a place to sit or a continuation of the trail so we could find somewhere less crowded to have lunch. We all hoped aloud that the trail was a big circle because it “would be really difficult to go down the way we came.” Additionally, this clearing was a really anti-climactic end to a harrowing hike.

Anna said something to one of the guides in Chinese and then turned and began to lead us back the way we came.

I guess I had my answer. In some ways, I felt accomplished, but mostly i just felt unfulfilled. “Ugh. You mean I don’t even get to climb to the top of something?”

We clambered down, unencumbered by the desire for dry feet. That dream was already dead. We took a break here and there, pausing for pictures we had been to pre-occupied to take on the way up and eating the fruit we had brought with us. When we finally arrived at the bottom, we sat around, mostly unspeaking, waiting for the Chinese tourists to finish their rest in the letdown clearing and come back to the bus.

When we had all piled back on the bus, the variety show resumed its screaming at us, but we were too tired to care. Our second stop at a lake was hardly worth mentioning as we all silently willed time to move more quickly so we could come back to the apartments. We took the best showers of our lives, leaving our soggy socks behind and washing the mud from our legs and arms where we’d fallen repeatedly. Most people would probably choose to go to sleep at this point. Instead we went to Korean BBQ and sang karaoke until 1 o’clock in the morning.

Korean BBQ

Korean BBQ

Posing

Totally worth it.

At (Someone Else’s) Home in Shijiazhuang

“When a friend comes from afar, is that not delightful?” – Confucius 

   有    朋    自   远  方    来, 不 亦 乐 乎?

We met in the small air-conditioned lobby of the hotel that afternoon. You could see the look of surprise on his face as he stepped forward to awkwardly shake my hand as we posed for the obligatory photo. He didn’t smile. He struck me as a shy boy, someone who probably spoke very little in normal circumstances. The fact that I was a girl just made the silence all the more complete. I was ushered to the red family Nisan and ceremoniously placed in the back seat, my belongings carried for me and placed gingerly in the trunk. His mother (I called her A-yi) slid into the front seat and pulled into traffic in what seemed like a single motion. Already exhausted from the display in the lobby and the morning’s full day of Chinese lessons, I was glad to have the backseat to myself. I stared out the window as we weaved in and out of traffic, dodging bicyclists and the crazy Chinese on motorcycles. (This may imply that she was a poor driver but I am more referring to the flow of Chinese big city traffic. Stop lights are only a suggestion and apparently they don’t apply to everyone.) Like this:

There were occasional bursts of unintelligible chatter from the front seat as the boy and his mother exchanged words. In hindsight I think that A-yi was encouraging the boy to talk to me, but he didn’t yield and finally, in parental exasperation (a special kind, I’m told), she switched on the radio. It was mostly a steady stream of undistinguishable pop songs. A commercial repeated at almost every commercial break gave a phone number and I was proud of myself for finally being able to distinguish words from what before sounded like an old garbled TV set. Líng,  èr, san, ba, qì, liù…. I made the hand motions to myself as the woman shouted at me from the speaker in the door.

We exited the highway and pulled down a small side street, making a left into a gated neighborhood. The paradox of the view with the implied wealth of the gate struck me. The dozens of high rises looked old and dingy. Like many construction projects in China, they seemed half-finished, the bare bones assembled and then abandoned for the next nondescript utilitarian rectangle. I was busy taking in the details as A-yi honked at the mothers with strollers walking down the narrow streets, their toddlers waddling beside them with giant holes in their pants, asses bare. (Instead of using disposable diapers, young children simply wear crotchless pants so that they may defecate anywhere. Apparently this is common practice and, if you ask me, super gross.)

IMG_2216

We parked in an area I was sure we weren’t supposed to next to the building they lived in and walked inside. The motion-censored light on the ground floor was broken and once the heavy metal door slammed shut behind us, the only source of light was a thin rectangular window. The smell of urine was unmistakable as it confronted me when the elevator doors dinged open. We stepped inside; my hand involuntarily covered my mouth as A-yi pressed 25 and all eyes in the elevator turned to look at me. A short, round, bald man in a loose-fitting, stained, sleeveless white shirt took particular interest in me, quizzing A-yi about me. Alternatively he would fire off rapid Chinese, getting steadily louder as each floor dinged past, his tone difficult to read and then become silent. At each break as my A-yi answered, he would turn to look at me and smile, utterly unable to communicate.  It’s an unsettling thing to be the clear topic of conversation in a discussion had right in front of you. Even more strange is the feeling of this man (and many others in China since) that it is perfectly acceptable to hold an open discussion about a person who is present without including them or trying to hide your evaluations. It was utterly mind-blowing to a Westerner.

The door mercifully threw itself open at the 25th floor and I stepped off without exchanging anymore awkward smiles with the passengers onto higher floors. I felt I could breath again, even in the polluted city of Shijiazhuang and inhaled the stale air, trying to replace the stench of a public toilet in my nostrils. I held my breath again as I was steered towards the apartment door, thinking the only comparable thing I’d ever seen to this place in the United States was the projects… and at least that was from far away. Imagine my surprise when the door opened to this:

IMG_2220

I’ve since learned that apartments in China are simply sold as the bare bones and then outfitted by their owners. There are no floors or fixtures to begin with and so everything here was a reflection of this family. Where in the United States common areas are often looked after by a maintenance man or a janitorial staff, the Chinese often choose not to pay for any area outside of their own rectangular slice of space in the sky.

I changed into the plastic flip-flops offered to me (to keep the floors pristine), and was shown to the first room on the left, my host aunt’s room. I put my things down and  took a few photos, resolving to sit awkwardly on the couch though no one spoke to me. At one point A-yi handed me a freshly washed peach, but said nothing to me as she bustled around the apartment doing this or that small thing. I tried a few times to make conversation with the boy as he shuffled past me but he rarely understood, or pretended not to. After a long respite in his own room, he came to retrieve me from the couch and took me into his room. With the help of the Chinese version of Google translate, he asked me, “Can you ride a bicycle?” I told him that I could, but hadn’t in a very long time. All he seemed to hear in my reply was “yes” and so he set about getting out the bicycles. I was nervous but held on to the hope that maybe he only wanted to take me around the gated neighborhood where there were few cars and some pedestrians. We worked in silence, maneuvering the bicycles to the door and into the elevator as A-yi watched and smiled, never saying a word to me.

Once downstairs,  I fumbled through the dark to the door, steering the bicycle outside, recalling my Dad’s voice in my head saying I should really be wearing “more intelligent shoes.” (It was such a common refrain from my high school days it was as if he was there with me.) Once downstairs and in the sunshine, the boy broke out his favorite phrase of my entire stay: “Let’s go!” I followed him for a little while before yelling ahead “Where are we going?” He was able to turn and shout back, “The park!” I asked if it was close or far away, using some version of mime language to get my meaning across. “Far,” he grinned back at me, turning back around to peddle faster. I kept close to him, dodging taxis and gutsy pedestrians. It took all of my concentration, but I started to find a rhythm in the movements and soon the bike ride was actually a lot of fun. On the way he pointed out his school  and, after risking our lives across a few particularly busy intersections, we arrived at the park.

DSC00309

There were hundreds of bikes and scooters across an open square and I wondered what could be so special about this park that everyone wanted to go there. As we began walking around, I understood. It was a kind of open amusement park. First, I went on the roller coaster, enjoying the rush as I flew across the track, trying not to think about how unsafe this probably was. My host brother, after he had already bought my ticket, proclaimed through adamant body language that he wasn’t going with me. He broke out his other favorite phrase of my visit: “I don’t like this.” So I climbed on alone and talked about San Francisco with a young Chinese girl, maybe 14 or 15, who was almost fluent, before we both broke into delighted screams, hanging upside down.

Rollercoaster

When it was over I thanked my host brother and urged him to choose something he wanted to do. He led me purposefully through the park though I often lagged behind and took photos. Random people shouted “Hello!” to me as I passed and I tried to respond to every one. You could tell the really brave ones when they would add “Howareyou?,” proclaimed as a single triumphant word, having one-upped all the other poor fools who could only say “hello” to the foreigner. My host brother settled on a game of pool. I stood there sweating in the heat, trying not to embarrass myself too terribly at a game I can’t even play well at home. He beat me squarely within the space of 30 minutes or so (I made it difficult by taking ample time to set up every shot that I subsequently missed) and we moved on to the bumper cars.

Playing pool at the amusment park.

In America, the bumper cars were never my favorite but in China they have been the best thing I’ve done so far. Nothing was really different about them except that you didn’t need to talk with anyone to make it happen. I got into my own little car and just tried to hit other people. No communication necessary. It was glorious. The shrill laughs of the younger children made me enjoy the experience all the more and I couldn’t help but giggle myself at the sullen looking teenager that drove around a blue bumper car, never making any expression as he collided with the other cars. He barely even managed to look bored, his hair draped neatly over one eye. I guess “emo” came late to China.

Once the magnetic hum of the bumper cars was switched off, my host brother and I made our way to the exit, our hands covered in black dirt. I thanked him and told him I was having fun. He smiled, understanding my meaning if not my exact words, and said again, “Let’s go!” We retrieved our bicycles from the massive square and began to peddle home. I was thinking to myself how lucky it was that he had remembered where we locked up our bikes because the square of bicycles was as intimidating to me as trying to find your car in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Saturday.

After the long ride home, I held out my blackened hands to A-yi. She led me to the bathroom and handed me a small hand towel. The soap smelled like lilac. Now I learned that the boy’s aunt was home and so I used my minuscule amount of spoken Chinese to say a polite hello to her. I wandered to my room to put the towel down. The excited chatter among the my three hosts reached a fever pitch as they gathered in the boy’s bedroom. I sat patiently on the couch until the boy reappeared. “Dinner,” he said. I nodded, smiling. I was starving. His aunt appeared a moment later with a photo of her suggestion. I told them I would try anything. “Spicy! Spicy!” she started to say, pointing at the picture. “Spicy! Spicy!” my host brother echoed. A-yi didn’t try to pronounce the English word but instead fanned her open mouth, just to make sure I got the point. “I like spicy,” I said. In unison, they gave a kind of shout, and we were out the door.

This time the aunt drove, singing along to the pop song’s I’d heard before. A-yi sat in the back with me and I looked out the window at what looked like a new city, lit up in the twilight. We were driving along when suddenly the aunt made a quick left onto the sidewalk, and parked there as if it were completely normal. I will never get used to Chinese driving. We disembarked on an open square where a few dozen short tables were lined up in rows and the smell of spice and cooked meat permeated even the furthest corner. The family ordered everything: a giant bowl of spicy crawfish, peanuts in the shell, cucumbers in some kind of vinegar sauce, bread on a stick, meat on a stick, fish bacon on a stick. I tried it all. When I reached for my first cucumber with the wooden chopsticks, my entire host family stopped to watch and broke into spontaneous applause as I lifted the specimen to my mouth. I almost spit it out I was laughing so hard. Though they showed me how to get the tail of the crawfish, I apparently wasn’t performing the extraction quickly enough because A-yi and my host aunt started pealing them for me and putting the best parts of the meat on my plate. I tried to remember all of my etiquette training as I tried to send a clear message that I was grateful but full. It didn’t work. I think I ate more that night than I did in the first 3 days combined.

DSC00320

Thinking that I couldn’t eat another bite and was ready for bed, my host aunt whipped out her cell phone and began typing furiously. After a moment she help it up to me. The translation read: “Now we will take a shower and see the show.” I nodded, thinking we would go back to the apartment and perhaps see a movie. This was already more than I had anticipated and I felt glad my Mom had helped me pick out so many nice gifts for them in the states. It would have been painfully embarrassing to give them a bad present after this treatment. After a short drive, we pulled into what looked like a very fancy hotel. I was more than a little bit confused, especially since I couldn’t ask anyone anything so I just followed. We checked our shoes at a big marble counter, said goodbye to the boy as he walked another direction, and descended an escalator to God-only-knew-where.

The more I thought about it on the seemingly endless ride downward, it didn’t really make sense to get a hotel room just to take a shower. We stepped off the escalator and turned right, walking under a giant archway that opened into a large locker room. Rows of wooden lockers lined the left wall while vanities with swiveling velvet chairs and huge mirrors lined the right. It reminded me of a really fancy gym and so when a short woman in yellow ran up to me, took the key off of my wrist and pulled me towards a particular locker, I just followed, my default by this point in the night. I stood confusedly in front of the locker until A-yi appeared without a stitch on. She made it clear I should be similarly disrobed and then we were off to the showers. I won’t go into too much other detail here except to say that a lot of lines were crossed for me that night. We make fun of it in conversation but the truth is the puritan roots of American history have left their mark on me and I didn’t feel even remotely comfortable walking around naked. In my mind, bathing is an obviously private experience and had I not been plied with alcohol at dinner, I may even have described this event as traumatizing. People stared at me enough when I was clothed. This was almost unbearable.

When we were finished, we put on these kind of silk pajamas and took an elevator upstairs to a kind of ballroom. The outer area was buzzing with activity but we walked right through a set of big double doors into a room that reminded me of what I thought an old-fashioned gentleman’s club should be. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and tables with plush high-backed chairs made odd formations around a short stage. We reunited with my host brother and A-yi dragged us around the room, looking for the best seats that weren’t either reserved or occupied. I was still confused as to what was going on. After being forced to move a few times, A-yi ripped a blue reserved time off of a table and stuffed it under the table, sitting down gracefully as if she hadn’t just done that. The final scenes of Titanic played on the screen behind the stage. Rose and Jack made their way through flooded corridors and I was relieved to have the sound of English in my ears. I asked my host brother if he knew the movie and he shook his head “no.” “Titanic” I said, making a boat mime with my hands. He didn’t recognize but his aunt did, suddenly watching intently. As the lights went down, I still wasn’t sure what to expect.

Suddenly the lights went dim and the night’s MC appeared on stage, saying more things I couldn’t understand. I was pretty much resigned to this reality as I waited for more to happen. First there was a choreographed drumming performance with women in sparkly outfits reminiscent of Vegas. A female singer followed them. Supposedly she sang partially in English but it wasn’t any English I’ve ever heard. Next a man came on stage and did some stunts with strength and electricity. I was starting to think maybe it was a variety show but when the lights dimmed again, A-yi was so excited she tugged on my sleeve, pointing at a picture of a man on her large yellow ticket; The headliner, I guessed.

He was very pleasant to listen to after his amateur opening acts and I have found that I occasionally get this song stuck in my head even though I have no idea what he is saying. During his performance, audience members would rush onto the stage with huge and elaborate bouquets, posing for a picture with the singer while he was still singing. I didn’t get any of those on film, unfortunately, but it was the most bizarre practice I have ever seen. It’s as if buying the flowers was their method of ensuring a photo opportunity. Groups of mostly men in the front row had offered the previous performers beer, which they held through their performances, and chugged afterwards. When a man tried to do the same with the headliner, he was escorted off the stage by uniformed policemen. He managed to make it back to the edge of the stage a few more times during the performance, only to be detained or thwarted in his efforts to beer the performer by fellow audience members, all the while dodging the police officer. Entertaining as it was, I was exhausted, and when the lights came up, I felt relief. I’ve never slept so well on a piece of wood.

Shijazhuang

“China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.” – Charles de Gaulle

While obvious, the vastness is hard to grasp until you visit.

After a jumble of flight delays into San Francisco (“due to fog”- Is this really nothing new to Bay Area people? Why even schedule morning flights?), multiple conversations with “ticketing agents” (the new title of choice for those unfortunate souls who deal with angry passengers), a 3 hour hop over the Rocky Mountains, a race through the San Francisco airport, a very long conversation with a Chinese “ticketing agent,” a 13-hour flight over the Pacific, a battle with the luggage carousel, and a little bit of luck, I arrived in Beijing.

Caleb and I at Beijing Intl Airport

Caleb and I at Beijing Intl Airport

…Only to get on a bus and drive 5 hours East to Shijazhuang in Hebei Province.

Caleb "Sleeping" on the Bus

Caleb “Sleeping” on the Bus

Hebei Province is Iowa’s sister state. Like Iowa, Hebei is often a kind of overlooked area of China and so the relationship is an important step in fostering cross-cultural communication and exchange. This year is the 30th anniversary of the founding of the “sister state program” and so in true Chinese fashion, the Foreign Secretary of Hebei threw us a formal banquet.

Etiquette and Awkwardness

Etiquette Training

Etiquette Training

In order to prepare for the banquet, our group got a crash course in Chinese banquet etiquette. Some basics just in case you ever attend a Chinese banquet:

- The host always sits furthest from the door. In case you are confused about who the host is (which apparently is common with the frequency of Chinese banquets) this is a telltale sign.

- Never sit down before your host.

- Despite the fact that there are about 15 dishes on the Lazy Susan at any given time, you usually eat in succession, finishing a sampling of one thing before moving onto the next. Cold dishes are served first, followed by hot dishes, and finished with the staple (rice or dumplings usually).

- The temptation is to eat directly from the Lazy Susan, especially if you aren’t adept at chopsticks, but obviously this is very rude (it would be like eating with the serving spoon) and you must first set the food down on your plate (which isn’t very much because you got it with chopsticks) and then put it into your mouth. I started calling it “the plate tap.”

- When offered a business card, you should always accept it with two hands (which can be difficult when you are also holding a drink.) Since the person is “giving you” his or her name, it is a sign of respect to accept it carefully.

The Aftermath

The Aftermath

Toasts

The real core of banquet etiquette revolves around alcohol and thus I thought it merited its own section. Generally, the banquet begins when the host makes some remarks about the guest (or guests) of honor, distinguished by their seats nearest the host. Usually at the conclusion of these remarks, everyone stands and raises their glasses to signify respect for the guest. Where in the United States the conclusion of this grand gesture might signal the end of formal drinking ritual, for the Chinese this is like the gunshot fired at the beginning of a NASCAR race.

Individual people often spend the majority of dinner out of their seats, walking around to the guests and toasting them individually in turn. When this happens, the toastee should stand, receive the toast, and then perform the limbo/battle of trying to get the lip of your cup to touch lower on the toaster’s glass. Getting the lower position is a gesture towards the subservience of your status in comparison to the other person. Picture a room full of individuals in formal attire with glasses of wine, beer, and occasionally the shot glass of baijiu (which is a horrendously disgusting grain alcohol that I will not write more about here) “getting low” to win the contest and prove their inferiority. Caleb volunteered to demonstrate how this might work:

You will definitely lose if you:

You have a chance if you:

You will definitely win but possibly spill your drink if you:

If you are dining with a particularly raucous group of Chinese, they might chug their drink and show you the bottom of their glass to indicate you should also finish your drink. (It was on this occasion that I solidified my belief that red wine ought not be chugged.) Between drinking, laughing, eating, toasting and talking, it would be easy for the banquet to go on indefinitely. Thankfully, there is a signal for the formal conclusion, which, not surprisingly, also involves drinking. The guest of honor makes a toast to the host, repeating many of the same platitudes, thanking him for his hospitality, and repeatedly using the word “relationship.”

Post-dinner Posing

Post-dinner Posing

The Crowded Empty Mall

One night as an assignment, we ventured out into the world in groups, armed with 6 hours of Chinese instruction to find dinner. We took the bus in a random direction, got off in a random place, and started to wander around. Across the street we saw a mall, a giant, beautiful new mall, and decided this would be a good place to look for food because of all of the appetizing signs. Everything else seemed sort of dingy.

Photo 5

Outside of the mall with random dinosaur statues

We crossed the street (no small feat in China!) and followed the masses in the giant doors, flanked by uniformed guards. Waves of air conditioning washed over us as we took in the sight…

The Crowded Empty Mall

The Crowded Empty Mall

Masses of people in a mall with no stores. Every storefront was covered with paper that said “Coming Soon!” in large English letters. We looked around for an hour and a half, convinced that someone capitalized on the presence of all these people to sell them food, but alas no. It was just a giant empty mall. And it was weird.

The Crowded Empty Mall

The Crowded Empty Mall

Other Highlights:

Tai chi in the park across from the hotel

Tai Chi in the Park

Tai Chi in the Park

In the mornings, the park across from our hotel was constantly abuzz with activity. People were speed walking, fencing, dancing, etc.

My Chinese Name:

Love of the Written Word

Love of the Written Word

My Chinese name was given to me by my Chinese teacher of 9 hours, Wang lao shí (Professor Wang). She must have gotten a very accurate impression of me. My name means “lover of the written word.”

Temple of the Happy Buddha:

Outside the Temple

Outside the Temple

On our last day in Shijiazhuang, we went to Zhengding to see the Temple of the Happy Buddha. It was a stunning architectural survey spanning quite a chunk of Chinese history as things were added and remodeled over centuries. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the interior of any of the monastery’s buildings so you can’t see the statues here.  I touched the Buddha of health for luck and good health. This particular Buddha was constructed by the emperor specifically to prolong the good health of his mother. The most impressive “main” Buddha stood 21 meters tall, had 9 heads, and over 40 arms. The Japanese tried to steal it during their occupation but as it was made of bronze, it was too heavy to move and impossible to cut. In fact, the Buddha is so big and heavy, the temple it resides in was constructed around it.

Photo 12

The Largest Temple

Photo 11

A Good Sampling of the Architectural Detail

Photo 13

Part of the Monks’ Garden

The sign at the end of the garden at the buddhist monastery.

The sign at the end of the garden at the buddhist monastery.

The Next Grand Aventure

“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” – Hilarie Belloc

In the months leading up to tomorrow’s departure, the question posed to me most often was some variation of “Why would you want to go to China?”. Despite its phrasing, the question was rarely disdainful. Rather, I think, it was genuine curiosity that motivated the inquiry. Before this excursion, I was exclusively a European traveler. I walked the cobblestone streets of Paris and Rome, clad in the fashion of the moment, equipped with my flawless (invented, I’m sure) French accent. In our wily American imagination, Western Europe is an exotic destination. The language barrier (where it exists) presents challenge enough, and the sites solidify a nebulous idea our education has cultivated about the “depth of European history.” But, let’s be real. Most things seem old to people who inhabit a country only slightly older than the battery. (Seriously, the battery was invented in 1800.)

Me in Paris- Feb. 2011

Me in Paris- Feb. 2011

Unable, despite the months of practice, to come up with an adequate answer, I’ve thought of a better question: Why wouldn’t I want to go to China?

Maybe you at home are playing along and have already listed some reasons: It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s Communist. It’s censored. It’s crowded. It’s far away. It’s huge. You don’t speak Chinese.
To you I say, so what?

In crafting a response to both questions, I thought of a second, even better question. I believe it is the one these people were really asking: Why go anywhere at all?
Sadly, I think, if you have to ask, for you there is no answer. I feel about the world how Edmund Hillary felt about Everest. When asked why he wanted to summit the highest mountain in the world by the New York Times in 1923 he replied simply, “Because it’s there.”

Without getting too philosophical, places exist to be seen. And not only seen, for I am not a tourist, but experienced. I don’t believe I can lead a fulfilling life in a bubble. Contrary to reason, reminding myself that I am one in seven billion people makes me feel empowered. It allows me to draw conclusions about the human experience, expand my worldview, and remind myself that I exist as part of something bigger.

So, I’m going to China.

images-2