Saturday, May 05, 2007

It is 3:20 am....Seattle to Tiananmen Square via SFO


And he's brilliant. He says to me "Girlfriend. Trust me this is for your own good. If you stay up all night here, and drop out on the plane, you will be ready for the shift when we hit Beijing."

In case you don't know, I trust Robert completely. Absolutely. So of course I stayed up all night on my little computer. I didn't fall asleep once. The only problem with this little theory is that I'm not yet far enough removed from my college days. Rather than my body falling out at 7:00 am for the flight, I was WIDE AWAKE. My body just figured this was one of those fun all nighters for old time's sake and me being the type not fond of drugging myself up, didn't take any sleeping pills. So I stayed awake. I stayed awake from Seattle to San Franciso. I stayed awake until I could see these really strange "white things" from my plane window.

I'm sure I knew this on some subliminal level, but really, I didn't *know it* really. You don't fly in a straight line from San Francisco to Beijing. Rather, you fly in a bit of an arc. An arc that takes you over the edge of polar ice caps. That was an amazing site. I think I want our next trip to be to Antartica. No, it has nothing to do with the "white things" I saw on this plane window (aside from the fact that there is lots of white in Antartica), but still. I digress.
Perhaps I slept 3-4 hours on the plane. Robert, on the other hand, slipped a sleeping pill and some Airborne almost as soon as we sat down. I turned to him to ask a question about two seconds into the flight and he was knocked out. He missed out on the really good (yeah, not really) Ramen noodles snack and chicken stir fry. I wonder if we were instead going to South Africa we would have been served Boerewors sausage sandwiches. That would have been tasty. The Ramen, not so much.

As we got close to Beijing, I was fascinated. China is roughly the same land mass size as the United States. Just as I am always amazed at how "unpopulated" our (there I go assuming...welcome Canadians and the rare French native on this blog...welcome all) country is from above when you fly across the heartland, I was totally in awe at all the farmland we flew over even on the relative edge of the country. Then we got a little closer and I started to see just why I'm now such an environmentalist.

I had read somewhere--no idea where so there goes that credibility--that with the relatively recent boom in industrialization in China that environmental policies were not keeping up with the pace. As to be expected I suppose. More on Intellectual Property and THOSE policies to come later. Anyhow...we're flying over clearly obvious industrial regions. And just like in the States, when you're looking at the industrial areas, it just doesn't look as clean as the pretty farm land and the gleaming new buildings. I guess I was just thrown for a loop when I saw these canals and ditches just clogged with waste--trash, construction waste, etc. It was likely looking at someone's very recent scar from a tragic accident. I keep trying to just put it in context. The context that this is the second city that I've had the pleasure of traveling to as they were preparing to host the summer Olympics.

Back in 1996, I went to Atlanta as a Coca-Cola scholar and got to walk through lots of the Olympic facilities just as they were being completed. But I digress. Over Beijing, we flew over quite a few construction projects. I have no idea what they were for, but one looked very much like a stadium project. The other was a massive expansion (I think) of the airport.

This was my first real international flight. When the pilot landed the plane, she got a round of applause. Yes--she. Robert was awake by this time and he tuned me in to the traffic control folks and that was interesting to listen to. Evidently, English is pretty universal for flights. The Bejing crew would talk Chinese to each other some, but they communicated with the pilot (and she with them) in English. I did know from Robert's past trips to Asia that most folks would speak English but still, I didn't really "feel like" I was in China just jet. Everything was still so...American.

When we walked into the airport, it was so quiet. And dark. Funny or ignorant thought that first crossed my mind? "Wow...I'm now in a communist country. No such thing as excess here." Anyhow, no matter where you go, no matter what language the people speak, all you have to do is look for the little man running towards a door icon and you're well on your way to the exit. So there we went.

First stop was immigration. I'm a couple generations back American and my people didn't come through immigration stations to get to the U.S. So this was honestly a kinda scary experience for me. I didn't speak the language, didn't know if it would be appropriate for me to walk up to the booth with Robert, didn't know if I would even be able to understand the government worker about to determine if I was worthy of entering his country. Then there were the huge signs with all the instructions in English about how the government essentially retains the right to make your life a living hell for the fun of it under government act 2 gazzilion, BfG subsection 8 established many years ago and updated just yesterday. All in the name of protecting the People's Republic of China. It almost seemed a bit off the edge to me, but then I remembered that I was from the United States and we had a really nice piece of legislation called the Patriot Act that could get me detained on my flight back to the States if I fell asleep with my head in Robert's lap and someone became "uncomfortable" and I was unable to be awakened by the stewardess (or steward---guys can do it too). I'd be disobeying flight crew instructions and in the name of protecting the United States of America, I could be detained and have my life made a living hell for the fun of it under goverment act 2 gazzilion, BfG subsection 8 established not as many years ago and updated yesterday--US version.

I wanted so bad to take pictures. But my gut told me not to. By the end of the trip, I would realize that taking pictures in airports and at immigration check stations--big no-no across the globe. Except in the States. I mean they frown on photos at immigration as well, but you can get cool airport photos like these:
At the visa check station, I was paranoid that maybe I goofed on my visa application and life would begin to get ugly quick. Instead, the guy looks at my passport, stamps it and about a million other little pieces of paper. As he hands it back to me he points to his head, gives me a quick smile and says "Your hair...I like your style." That was about the first and LAST compliment I got on my hair in China. BUT...it was a GOOD intro to a country that quite admittedly, scared the living daylights out of me.

We walked some more and did the celebrity alley. I call it this because it reminds me of like the red carpet walk for the Oscars--sans the red carpet of course. There's a fence keeping the people back who are all pressed up against it with their signs and cell phones (oh my WORD...this is a Seattle dweller telling you that I have NEVER seen so many cell phones in use in all my life!!) looking for someone. We had no one to meet us--we proceeded to the taxi stand.
There we had our first experience with folks who didn't speak English, didn't read English and had no idea what in the world we were trying to say. Thankfully, Robert had the wherewithall to have his co-worker translate about 5 or 6 phrases onto a sheet of paper. We managed to convince them that we were going to the Capital Hotel, Beijing. On Qian Men East Street. Which was about 6 minutes walking from Tiananmen Square. It was actually like forever a day from the airport because, evidently, having airports clear outside of the city is the way to do things.


Our forever and a day cab ride cost us $15 US. $15 in the US would have gotten us to the edge of the airport. At least in Houston (depending on which airport you fly into) I know for a FACT that $15 would not even get you to the edge of the airport. That was the $60 no tip because I just ran out of cash and really thought I was going to have to walk cab ride of my life. But I digress yet again.

On our cabride (which, yes, I fell asleep for most of--I mean come on, I don't stay awake on ANY car ride that lasts longer than 15 minutes. 45 minutes if I'm driving), we were just in awe at how many high density housing complexes there were. I've been to NYC. But even that was no preparation for just how closely packed in and DENSE Beijing is. Although, I have to say, it was not nearly as crowded as I thought it would be.
Once we checked in at the hotel and promptly hung up Robert's coat in the closet (this will be an important fact soon enough), we ventured out onto the street. Specifically, we wandered over to Tiananmen Square.

I was absolutely unequivocally overwhelmed. First there was all the staring. Hard core staring. It wasn't rude really. It was just...different. In the States, when you get caught staring at someone for being "different' you feel a sense of shame and guilt. You try to turn away quickly...you want to apologize. So not the case in China. Robert is heart and soul convinced that he tried his best to prep me for this. One of my fave bloggers is a sister living in China and I read her entries about going out to the Forbidden City with her hubby and daughters and people literally walking up to her and asking to take pictures with them and touch her kids' hair. Robert talked about walking into stores and being stared down because he was so tall. I suppose I walked out the door expecting people to walk up to me and ask to take a picture and people to stare at Robert because he was tall. I didn't quite account for the fact that not only am I a sister, I'm a tall sister AND I chose the very wrong moment to go for convenience over style with my hair. I absolutely stood out in a country where it is all about fitting in (well, mostly about) and that was so not good. No one walked up and asked to take my picture. They stared. They whipped out their cell phones. They called people to come and look at me. They stopped in their tracks and told their friends to turn around and look. They snapped photos with their cell phones and even the other TOURISTS would position their cameras so as to get a shot of the neatly pressed guard AND that odd looking black girl.

Overwhelmed really does not begin to describe the all of what I was feeling. I shut down. Literally. I have never been so self-conscious in all my life. Robert asked if I wanted to fly a kite in Tiananmen Square. I told him no. I turned down flying a kite in Tiananmen Square because I was just so scared of everyone looking at me.

We went to the flag pole hoping to watch them retire the flag that evening. Clearly, lots of others were hoping the same (or maybe they were just following the freak show) because lots of us were pressed up against the fence waiting for it to happen. Then it started to rain. So we decided finding cover was a better idea.
We managed to wander our way over to Donghuamen Night Market. I have no sense of direction so at the end of the night, when we were ready to go back to our hotel (with the handy little "take me back here" card the hotel Assistant Manager/Concierge handed to us) I was ready to walk it back when we had a bit of trouble hailing down a cabby on the right side of the street. Yeah, thank GOODNESS, Robert had some sense about him because I would have been hot and livid if I would have trekked all the way back to the hotel from there.

At the night market, there's a whole area of shopping right around there. The first shops we see? McDonald's (which R had to stop at and get a soft serve cone--that boy needs his dairy) and KFC. I shutter at how gross that stuff is. But it is only day one. We wandered into a grocery store that was just ripe for picture taking. So many colors and things I just never seen before in my life. Alas, I am a picture taker, not a photographer, so I was too scared to whip out my camera. Oh to call a do over. I was still a little tender from all of the fascination with "that girl" so it wasn't until we got to the actual night market (found the long way around and even then R was not impressed, he was expecting more variety), that I loosened up a bit. We walked down the aisle once and just went about it pointing.

Robert is a lot more adventurous than me when it comes to trying food. I’m not a vegetarian, but I have serious texture issues. He picked about three things thinking they would be something other than they were. I loved every last one of them. At the end of the aisle, we made the decision to find a restaurant nearby rather than make another pass through the market. We spent like $6 and I was almost full. We roamed, found $1.75 cancer sticks and right next door found a little restaurant. Where of course no one spoke English. I was starting to feel like I was in China. This was a good thing. No one spoke English, but there are plenty of pictures on the wall. Only negative was that those pictures looked all like the exact same dumpling. I didn’t know which would have meat, which would be veggie. I don’t know HOW we managed to convey this, but the girl helping us out, pointed to one dish. We said sure…that and this. Come to find out, we SCORED!

I got a veggie dumpling of some sort (yummy!) and Robert finally got the meat he was looking for. There was some soup thing and some black flakes of something with it. I was full before I got to taste that. Most important though, smoking is allowed EVERYWHERE. The guys at the next table from us ate their dinner and lit right up. Yeah…I can’t blame those barely on the wagon for teetering to the other side.

We finished dinner and roamed some more. We managed to find this side show something or another off of the market with a girl singing (not very well, in any language) and all sorts of folks that had plenty of t-shirts and other touristy stuff to sell us.

It was an interesting side nook, but we were finally starting to wear down. On the way out to the cabs, we walked past a bank that was being restocked. You thought armored cards in the States had security. Again, I had the urge to take a picture, but not the urge to end up detained so I passed.
At the cab line, we tried to find a cab driver that spoke English because the next day, we were going to have a driver take us to the Great Wall and then take us to our contact guy to pick up our train tickets. I saw one driver having an extensive conversation with folks that looked European so I was all on the “He must speak English”. Yeah no not so much. We were so tired by this time that we gave up and figured on letting the hotel figure it out for us. But as I noted earlier, that didn’t end the night. What I DID love about China was the honesty of all the people we ran into. Any one of the cab drivers on the side of the street we were on could have let us hop in back and charged us a ton to drive around the block and get faced in the right direction. But all of them just pointed us to the other side of the street. Which, ironically, when we got around the corner, we ended up back on the other side of the street and someone picked us up and took us where we were going. Go figure.

Back at the hotel, I did some exploring and the theme of the trip became such:

“Oh my goodness! There’s a western toilet and running water!” You know it is a rough trip when that is the highlight to checking into your hotel. It was day one so I didn’t quite grasp the importance that a hot shower would soon have so I clicked on the tv and tried to flop onto the bed. Note to self, you don’t FLOP onto a bed in Beijing. Robert’s cracked tailbone will attest to that. On tv though? Guess?

Deal or No Deal. I knew that it wasn’t a U.S. brain child. But to turn on the tv and see something so familiar was just classic. Classic.

The quote of the day as said by Robert:
This is so great. Now I’m the landmarker instead of the land mark. Instead of “look at that big white boy” people now say “Do you see the big white boy? Right beside him. Look at her!”

4 comments:

Karen said...

Girl, you can write some good stuff. I enjoyed reading. I got the scared feeling. Loved your market pictures.

We had a Chinese exchange student about 5 years ago. He was here on a three week program. On the night before he was to return to China, his father flew from China to take him out of our house in the middle of the night to defect. It was a crazy evening. I'll call the layout "The Spy Who Left Me" if I ever get around the making it. I really thought he might have been a spy! YIKES.

Karen Wilson-Bonnar

RACHEL =) said...

WOW, LOVE all your pictures! Sounds like you had a great time!! :)

Tara said...

Wow that's a lot of writing. I started reading it and then remembered I was at work and should probably be doing something somewhat productive. I will read more later. I have a blog but don't really "blog" anymore. Maybe I'll work on that. We do have a nifty blog for our program you might like http://emac.utdallas.edu
Your trip looks totally fun and awesome. Love the photos and miss ya.
-Tara

Greta said...

awesome writing and loved the pics