In May of 2007 I graduated from college and flew to South America to visit my friend Nicole. I spent a month trying to recall the Spanish I’d spent seven years studying as Nicole and I traveled around Chile and Peru. When I left, she promised to visit me wherever I went next in the world. I think she was hoping for Europe. Much to her chagrin, I moved to Asia to teach English.
Most of my friends spent their summer break going to Thailand or Japan, anywhere that was a tropical paradise. Nicole was reluctantly coming to visit me, and I chose China for our travel destination. All I really wanted to do in China was walk on the Great Wall. And since Nicole and I had seen Machu Picchu together, I figured we might as well check off another wonder of the world.
I was still drunk from the night before (hey, vacation, right?) when I packed for China. I sobered up before I got on the plane and I wondered what I’d chosen to bring with me to Beijing. I hoped I had deodorant. As Asians don’t really stink from their pits, deodorant was like gold for foreigners in Korea. It was a valued rarity mailed in from the west. Luckily, in my hazy state, I had remembered my deodorant and toothpaste and everything else that was necessary for traveling. I was all set for my Chinese adventure.
As I walked through immigration in China, I realized how much Korean I had learned and how useless it would be in China. The Chinese characters looked like complex pictures of dancing robots, fire, and ladders. I’d had a friend write “I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat seafood, vegetables only” in Chinese on paper for me. I sat on as airport shuttle in China trying to rewrite these words. A young Chinese man peeked into my journal and smirked at me. I guess my version was illegible. Oh well. I just had to survive six days in China.
Through the windows of the airport it had looked like a storm was brewing. As I left the shuttle and looked for a taxi, Beijing’s air smacked me in the face, filling my lungs with hot greyness. It was smog, not a storm. I would feel like a chain smoker for the following six days.
I was in Beijing less than an hour when I had the first of many rip offs. My taxi driver overcharged me, which I didn’t figure out until much later. All I’d wanted to do was get to the hostel and see my friend. I paid the driver for the ten minute drive, and went into the hostel.
Nicole was waiting for me, looking skinny, dark and beautiful as ever. She hugged me, and then began bitching. “Okay, I’ve been WAITING for you to get here. I’m scared to leave this hostel. My taxi driver tried to drop me off in the middle of the night in an alley, and I was like, ‘hell no I’m not getting out here!’ And did you see that chipmunk caged up outside? He’s like, going crazy. I want to set him free…” Such is conversation when you haven’t seen a friend for nine months.
I dropped off my backpack in our stinky little room, which Nicole had left overly air-conditioned. I grabbed my purse and camera and we headed out to explore Beijing.
For most cities there is a distinct ‘downtown’ area. In Beijing, every day it would feel like we found a new downtown. That first day we wandered a wide pedestrian walkway, brushing against many shoulders.
In Korea, people dress very properly most of the time. Aside from women showing a lot of thigh, most of the body tends to be covered up. China was so different. The heat was nearly unbearable. Men all around rolled the bottom of their shirts up to their nipples, leaving their fat bellies hanging out. They occasionally slapped their gut, sending a small spray of sweat jumping off their skin. People packed into ice cream stores like the crowd at a concert. Beijing was sticky hot.
We wandered around, bumping into sweat-slicked arms watching Beijing buzz. A fashion show for a line of nearly identical swimsuits was going on to our right. On our left was a grocery store with men dressed up like knights marching across the entrance. The whole city stunk worse than Korea’s sewers, and Nicole endlessly repeated “Ugh, it smells.”
We eventually became more creative with describing the precise smell of the city. “I know what it is,” Nicole said. “It’s cooked organs mixed with sewage.”
“It’s fart-covered armpits mixed with rotting poo.”
The source of the stank seemed to come from a nearby market. We gasped a final breath of the fresher air, which was smoky, and headed in. Stacks of plastic crap were displayed behind pushy salespeople who grabbed our arms and promised special prices as we tried to pass by. We came across a man who had a bucket of snacks for sale. The snacks consisted of starfish, seahorses, and still-wiggling scorpions. These creatures were all displayed on sticks like lollypops from hell.
We were camera crazy, but not adventurous enough to eat anything. Another man was selling more Chinese treats on sticks. “Oh, hello. Whassat?” he said to us, pointing to a tarantula.
“Tarantula!” I said, reaching into my purse for my camera.
“No! Spider!” He said. “Whassat?” He pointed at a gecko, sliced open along the belly, flattened out and fried. Its head was facing us, with dead eyes and the tip of the stick poking out of its opened mouth.
“It’s a gecko,” said Nicole.
“No! Lizard!” He said.
As I angled my camera different ways, trying to capture all the grasshoppers, beetles, and centipedes, I felt my purse shift a little. I spun to look and saw a Chinese hand inside my purse. I squeezed my elbow to my body, catching his finger slightly before he pulled his hand out and casually walked away. “That man just tried to pickpocket me!” I said calmly.
“Wait, what?” Nicole asked. “Who?”
“That man walking away. He had his hand in my purse. I could feel it so I caught him in time.” Thirty seconds past the near-robbery, I started to get mad. “What an asshole! I wish I would have hit him or something.”
“Anna, you were so calm, I like, didn’t know anything even happened.”
We walked around a while more, sweating and keeping our bags close to our bodies. Eventually we went back to our overly air conditioned room. It was a welcome feeling, being cold.
We had signed up to tour of the Great Wall the following day, so we had to set an alarm for 6 a.m. Nicole had an alarm clock in her phone but it was set to the time in Milwaukee. After an endless discussion about time differences (“If we want to get up at 6 a.m. here, you have to set it for 4 p.m. there,” I’d say. “That doesn’t make sense,” she’d reply), we were set to finally sleep. Throughout the night, my jet-lagged friend would wake me up to ask about time differences or whatever random thoughts crossed her mind. But as I was falling asleep, I had no way of knowing that.
On the TV set in the bedroom I saw some Chinglish that made me smile. A little sign with a moon and stars said, “Good Gsught.” Well a good gsught to you, Beijing, I thought.
(written in 2010)