Alright, here we go. Forgive this first post, it requires me to think back to a little over a week ago when I was getting on a plane in San Francisco. With a backpack much heavier than anytime during high school or college and two large suitcases each weighing as close to 50 pounds as possible (I cannot tell you how many times we weighed those clunkers to get it right). An auspicious morning free of any problems or complications. Before my departure, my mother gave me a necklace charm given to her by a friend at the most holy Chinese Temple in Chinatown, San Francisco – this thing may actually be good luck. I traded my usual pre-flight ritual of listening to music for reading a guidebook to China, sent to me by my program. By the time I arrived at LAX, I had read that sucker from cover to cover.
Despite living in LA for five years, I had never flown in or out of LAX and so navigating that place, especially finding the correct international lounge, was rough. If only I knew what Beijing International Airport had in store for me. In any case, I had plenty of time to spare and I eventually found the ticket counter for Air China, made it through international security and to my gate. Looking around at my fellow passengers, I remember thinking, “Awful lot of honkys, more than I anticipated. Good that I’ll have some other confused Westerners around me, hoping to catch a smidgen of English.” We finally boarded the gargantuan 777 and I located my window seat, in the front row of my section, right over the wing, so the amount of leg room I had was insane. The next 14 hours were filled with movie watching, interspersed with Mandarin review and napping. The flight attendants are constantly bringing me complete meals and drinks, despite my Chipotle burrito (my last vestige of Western cuisine).
Maybe it was the several power naps I took or my general disorientation, but 14 hours went by faster than I expected. After skimming the Alaskan coast, where I hoped to catch a glimpse of some Maverick hunting elk from a helicopter, in no time, we were jutting down into mainland China. My first observation was the building clusters looked like neatly organized piles of Lego bricks.
We finally taxied into Beijing International Airport and disembarked. The name of the game now was Follow the Throng of People. I went through Immigration and Customs fine, then down to baggage claim where I nervously awaited my two suitcases. They finally came and so now, I had to take a free shuttle to Terminal 2 where my contact would be awaiting me. I arrived at Terminal 2 and because my phone was now basically a smart brick, I frantically walked the length down and back, inside and out, dripping sweat and wringing my hands. Finally, a Chinese man noticed my constant pacing and looking around. He approached me and inquired as to my troubles. Using the limited Mandarin at my disposal, I explained that I was trying to find my friend. The man asked if I had his phone number in my phone. (In my state of almost panic, that basic idea was like a genius epiphany – “Of course!”) I showed him the number and he supposedly called my contact on his phone. I say supposedly because at the time, in my head, I was imagining this brilliant scam where he picks up unsuspecting tourists at the airport (a la “Taken”) and then calls his partner to come kidnap me. From that moment on, I was on high alert and carefully eying my potential captor. Eventually though, he had led me downstairs to the first floor: international arrivals lounge. Turns out, the distinction of one floor was to blame for all my anxiety and consternation. We eventually located my contact and I sighed with heavy relief. I thanked the man endlessly and he asked for a tip. My gratitude, coupled with my guilt for suspecting this man of deceitful motives, insisted that I oblige. Still, I ain’t no dummy either. So when he asked for 200 Y, I seized the opportunity: aha! my first barter exchange! I haggled him down to 30, thanked him profusely once more for his assistance, and he went on his way. I felt somewhat ashamed that my first reaction to this scenario was to panic and assume I was moments away from being kidnapped and sold into the slave trade. Of course, given my parents’ grave concern and my active imagination, it was not unnatural to feel that way.
Finally, I met my contact face to face; Dong Dawei, or “Dylan”. He was already with the two other arriving teachers, whose flights had gotten in after mine, causing me once again to feel guilt at having made them wait while I was racing up and down the wrong lounge. They all shook me off and said not to worry about it, that they hadn’t been waiting long. We schlepped our respective belongings to the subway that would take us to downtown Beijing. (Quick side note: for those who pride themselves on their train surfing skills, I encourage you to test your mettle on the Beijing airport monorail or subway.) From there, we hastily hailed two taxis. Fitting all that luggage and four individuals into two taxis, during Beijing rush hour, was shall we say, taxing. But we finally made it to our hotel, Home Inn, a chain comparable to say, a Motel 6. We dropped off our stuff, did a quick change (I am not ashamed to say that I gladly accepted a spray of Axe from my fellow teacher and roommate, Dan), headed back down, and walked around, looking to grab a bite to eat. We first stopped at a tiny shop where Dylan bought each of us a bottle of water; Nongfu Spring, a reportedly trustworthy and safe brand. We then stopped at a street vendor and each got a bag of pork buns before finally stopping at an outdoor patio restaurant, Good Noodles. Dylan did all the ordering of course but everything was delicious.
We then headed back to the shop and Dylan bought each of us a bottle of beer, ridiculously cheap for how much beer they give you. After Dan displayed some marvelous ingenuity by using a gate to open the bottles, we walked around the neighborhood, nursing our beers and pondering the laws regarding open containers. Turns out, we were fine. We headed back to the hotel and turned in early, a more than acceptable proposition for all of us.
We woke up early the next day and took a taxi over to the Beijing BEIT office for the start of orientation. I will say, with the utmost humility of course, that I was kind of a hero for a minute, being the only one of us with language skills and correct denominations of Chinese currency. One of the office interns, Grace, met us and accompanied us to a local branch of China Construction Bank, where we were to set up our bank accounts. A bit like the DMV, so to pass the waiting, Grace and I conversed and she helped me review some vocabulary. We then taught Dan and Tainia the numbers 1 through 10 in Mandarin and some useful words. After getting our banking squared away, we returned to the office and headed out for the traditional Peking Duck arrival lunch. It was all so very good.
We came back to the office and began orientation which consisted of a packet of information and some survival Mandarin instruction taught by Chao, another office intern. Once again, I felt like the TA as it was more review for me but also an opportunity to take a back seat and help my fellow teachers (and occasionally show off).
After class, Grace and Chao escorted us via bus over to a pizza restaurant called the Kro’s Nest, home of the second-biggest pizza in Beijing. It was clear by the American music and decor that it was a sort of Hard Rock Cafe to appeal to American tourists. We all shared in a humongous, delicious Hawaiian pizza and then walked back to the hotel. The next morning, Grace picked Dan and I up and we split a taxi over to BeijingXi Railway Station. Along the way, we drove by the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and many government buildings. (Given the short, hurried nature of our orientation, that would have to suffice until we could all return to Beijing to visit the sites properly.) While driving, I couldn’t help but note that this section of Beijing was a blend of ancient and modern architecture. It’s clear they took great pains to preserve the art and culture while integrate modern buildings and infrastructure.
After seeing Dan off, Grace and I had to wait a couple hours for my train to depart so we grabbed our own little corner and talked endlessly about US and Chinese politics, about how each viewed the other’s country, about my international relations studies, etc. When it was finally time to depart, Grace asked if I would like to purchase a special service for 50 Y that would allow me to board early and ensure that my luggage would have a place. Given the number of people and my desire to avoid looking like a classic tourist or tripping over my luggage or holding everyone up, I decided to take it. In fact, since I seemed tall and young and virile, I was recruited to help the porter guide the luggage trolley down the ramp to the train. I was applauded for my effort and probably gained a few brownie points with my fellow passengers, so that was good. I located my bunk, stowed my luggage, and laid down for what was to be a five hour train ride.
When I feared we were getting close, I came down from my bunk and just watched out the window for the remainder. Endless countryside and very few people. I frequently checked in with my bunkmates, fearful that I would miss my stop. “Women zai Xingtai?” “Are we at Xingtai?” They reassured me no until we finally made it to Xingtai. “Women qu.” “We go.”
I carefully disembarked with my two suitcases, making sure to tell everyone “duibuqi” for the inconvenience. At the station entrance, I was greeted by two of my contacts, Tina and Alice, plus Tina’s young son, Tony. We first drove over to the school where I discovered I was to teach… pre-school and kindergarten. A welcome but unexpected surprise. I met the principal who took me around to introduce myself to the different classes and teachers. After saying a very quick hello, we drove over to my new apartment. Tina and Alice helped get me into my place, showed my the different amenities and services, and then bade me good evening. I took a moment to take it all in but quickly set to unpacking and settling in. I’ll admit, I did feel overwhelmed and a bit scared, all alone in an unknown city. I remember feeling really nervous about how was I going to navigate everything with limited Chinese? But I knew I would get better and that I had at least three people looking out for me. For now, I could get some rest, confident I was safe and sound.