Cosmic Prose

Natasha Regehr

Impressions of China: Birth to 43

I went to China last week, after 43 years of waiting.  Here are  some impressions:

  1. Elementary school.  Northern Ontario.  There is one Chinese family in town.  They run the Maple Restaurant.  Yum.
  2. University.  Vancouver.  Many pleasant ESL students ask me to proofread their English papers.  I learn how to use chopsticks and answer the telephone in passable Mandarin.
  3. First year teaching.  Over-achieving students with helicopter parents taking pictures of their desks and complaining about the new teacher.  Desks must always be in rows.  Please can you assign more homework.
  4. All the other years of teaching.  Chinese kids are so responsible.  Their parents actually care if they’ve done their homework or practiced their scales.  Please can I have more Chinese students.
  5. Tenth year teaching.  Husband runs away with gullible Chinese girl, who leaves her DNA in my motorcycle helmet forever and ever.  Chinese women everywhere are my nemesis.
  6. Literature.  Horrific biographies and historical fiction about the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution.  All the world shudders.
  7. Merchandise.  Made in China.  What a bargain.
  8. 20th year teaching.  My choir is going to China.  I must get a visa.  What? I must get a visa? Don’t you know I’m Canadian? Is my blue passport not a magic charm everywhere else in the world?
  9. May.  Chinese embassy.  Standing in line, waiting to be questioned.  Reading about a memoir about a man who had to live in a hole in the ground and eat worms because he fell out of favour with the Chairman.  Beside me is a magazine reporting on the current state of Chinese politics: celebrating 68 years of benevolent party rulership.  Glossy photos of men in suits in the Great Hall of the People, rooting out corruption.  The authorities take my money and my passport without posing a single question.  Come back in seven days.  Visa approved.IMG_1466
  10. July.  Flying to Beijing.  They serve noodles on the plane.  Chopsticks and all.
  11. Monday.  Disembark at Beijing airport.  Where the heck am I supposed to go.  There are no signs.  Those signs are in Chinese.  They don’t count.  Is this a line or isn’t it.  It is a blob-line.  I am at the wrong end.  I am in the wrong line.  This is worse than a Moroccan line.  I am never going to get out of this airport.
  12. Monday evening.  Taxi.  The driver has never heard of my hotel.  He speaks no English.  He studies the Chinese characters on my phone and fiddles with his GPS.  Cars honk.  He drives.  Traffic slows.  He honks.  Roads are blocked.  He pounds his fist on the gearshift.  He mutters and sputters.  He is either apologizing or cursing.  I do not give him a tip, because the guidebook told me not to.
  13. Monday night.  Downtown Beijing.  Chinese lanterns really are a thing in China.  And fake jewelry, and cute shoes.  And more chopsticks.  Always chopsticks.  The city feels clean, quiet, and empty. My friends are singing in the streets at midnight.  The Chinese people are not smiling.
  14. Tuesday.  Great Wall tour.  It is not as great as I expected.  Maybe it’s the smog’s fault.  Jade showroom, silk embroidery, tea ceremonies, expensive giftshops.  Chinese food as I’ve always suspected it ought to be.  The tour guide is delighted with our Moroccan energy.  She takes a video of us dancing on the bus.
  15. Wednesday morning.  Tiananmen Square.  How the heck do I cross the street.  There are barriers everywhere.  Layers and layers of barricades, lanes and lanes of traffic, lanes of bicycles, lanes of pedestrians in ponchos.  No crosswalks.  No signs.  No English.  No smiles.  How the heck do I cross the fricken road.  Underground.  Secret labyrinthine network of unmarked tunnels and unhelpful people.  X-ray machine.  Metal detectors.  Long, long lines.  Is this the front or the back of the line.  Is this the right line.  Why is it so hard to walk into a simple open space.  Really, I’m harmless.  There’s the Chairman.  Selfie.  Just me and Mao, standing in the rain.  Police trucks, snack trucks, and a massacre, not so very long ago.
  16. Wednesday evening.  Qingdao.  We are met at the train station and whisked to our private bus.  VIPs.  Welcome to China.  Welcome.  Welcome.  Enjoy the buffet.  Can I help you.  I’m so helpful.  Helpful people everywhere.  Can I see your room key please.  Put your chopsticks here please. Wait one minute please.  The water for your Lipton green tea is almost ready.  Good night.  Here are your matching t-shirts. Please wear your tag at all times.  Deafening crickets.  Good night.
  17. Thursday.  Qingdao.  On the bus.  Off the bus.  Wait please.  Please wait.  Now sing.  Enjoy the buffet.  Now wait again.  Keep waiting.  Wait some more.  X-ray machine.  Metal detector.  Red carpet.  Wait please.  Now sing.  On the bus.  Off the bus.  Good night.  Good night.
  18. Friday.  On the bus.  Off the bus.  Museum tour.  Be careful please.  Be careful please.  On the bus.  Off the bus.  Guards everywhere.  Good night.
  19. Saturday.  Wait please.  Sing please.  Eat please.  Wait.  Sing.  Eat.  Guards.  Good night.
  20. Sunday.  Restless.  No more kitschy t-shirts and ball caps.  No more greasy camp food and Lipton tea.  No more not seeing China while in China.  No more not singing while at a singing festival.  No more wait one minute please.  No more.  China is waiting for me.
  21. Monday.  No taxi.  No phone.  No map.  No escape.
  22. Tuesday.  Beijing.  Taxi trauma, followed by taxi success.  Not unlike Morocco, minus the success.IMG_3125
  23. Wednesday.  Walking walking so much walking.  Forbidden CityJingshan Park.  Pagodas and imperialism.  Dynasty after dynasty.  Gates and statues and guards guards guards everywhere.
  24. Self-directed hutong tour.  Like a Chinese medina.  Ancient housing in back alleys where residents get up in the middle of the night to use festering public toilets.  Bicycles.  Scooters.  Potted plants.  Laundry.  Humility.  Rickshaws.  And suddenly, swarms of tourists flaunting their yuan at shops set up to exploit the curious foreigners invading the locals’ private residential space.
  25. Sore feet.  So sore.  So hot.  So damp.  So sweaty.  Beijing is yucky-hot.  Ick.  I buy a rainbow umbrella hat that I may never remove, except to eat this gargantuan pineapple teriyaki burger and drink this Tsingdao beer.  That’s better.
  26. Thursday.  Market day.  Silk market, but not the silk I want.  I have a foot massage instead.  The masseuse kneads my feet and asks if I would like to marry his friend.
  27. Antique Market.  More my style.  So much to see.  So many vendors.  So hot.  I buy three musical instruments, two teacups, and two embroidered belts.  I pay less than half price for everything.  Morocco taught me that.
  28. Pearl Market.  You want to buy a bag?  Gucci! What you want to buy? Come and look! Welcome to China! Where you from? Which one you like? How much you want to pay? Persistent, but not belligerent.  Always smiling.  Rarely countering.  Never sulking.  I buy fake pearl earrings for a pittance, just to say I did.  Chopsticks.  Tea.  Opera glass.  Solar-powered battery charger.  Traditional “silk” dress.  A Chinese shirt with a “Made in Italy” tag.  That’s okay.  I’m sure I have an Italian shirt that was made in China. Same same.  And then the sickening realization that I left my bag of purchases somewhere, at one of the many vendors spread over five floors of active bargaining space.  Oh look.  There it is with the fake pearl lady, just where I left it.  These Chinese are trustworthy.  I’ll give them that.  Three cheers for the police state.
  29. Subway.  Easy peasy.  Well-marked.  English signs.  Colour-coded arrows.  Dual-language self-serve machines.  Cheap fare.  Station names I can locate, if not pronounce.  Recorded announcements with British accents.  Standing room only.  Stations so huge they should be divided into terminals at transfer points.  One needs a train to transport one from train to train.  Sore feet.  Such sore feet.  But is this not brilliant? Precise lanes for entering and exiting the train when it arrives.  Seamless circulation of passengers on and off.  Everyone waiting obediently in perfectly formed lines.  I like these lines.  I like these trains.  But I do not like the feeling in my feet.
  30. Peking Opera.  “Farewell my Concubine.”  But I did not plan ahead.  The show is sold out.  I console myself with overpriced hutong shopping and Peking duck (beak and all, I suspect, although I do not eat that part).  I will never not eat Peking duck again.  Most.  Satisfying.  Meal.  Ever.  The waitress tries unsuccessfully to hail me a taxi, and so I take a…
  31. Rickshaw ride instead! This is the highlight of the trip.  So fast.  So fun.  The breeze against my face.  The shopfronts and noodle shops flying by.  Speeding past the inching traffic.  I want one.  Somebody buy me a rickshaw.  And a driver.  Why doesn’t Morocco have rickshaws? IMG_3213
  32. Friday.  Home day.  But not before I squeeze a little more wonder out of Beijing.  Up and packing at 5am.  Walking through Yongdingmen Park by 6am.  Middle-aged men fly kites.  Couples play badminton.  Groups do tai-chi.  Women hang their purses on the trees.  A solitary lady walks in circles, clapping.  A man listens to his radio and flies his kite from the bottom of the pedestrian underpass.  Three or four people do temporary calligraphy on the stone tiles using water and broom-sized paintbrushes.  No one can stop to glare at me for photographing them.  It would interfere with their zen.  6am in a Beijing park, a small utopia.
  33. Temple of Heaven.  Not really a temple at all.  A bunch of very old buildings where emperors once did rituals for good harvests.  One, the “Hall of Abstinence” (a hall I lived in for much too long, by the way), is a palace in which the emperor would refrain from carnal and dietary pleasures for three days before saying his annual prayers.  Imagine.  “I must go to my fasting palace to fast.  I’m so glad I have a palace just for that.  How would I manage otherwise?” I think I prefer the “Divine Music Administration” palace, thank-you very much.
  34. Lama Temple.  Famous Tibetan Buddhist temple.  Buddhas, Buddhas everywhere.  And Buddhists, too, incense and all, kneeling and supplicating.  Children mimicking their devout parents.  Many many temples, each with different Buddhas for different people and different prayers.  The culminating Buddha is unreasonably big.  The guidebook says that each of his toes is the size of a pillow.  Does this one have more power than the others, I wonder? People leave offerings.  Throw money.  I thought religion was passé around here.  Do they really think these golden toes perform transactions on demand?  But in all religions, we do this.  We give with hopefulness, perhaps, or just to solidify the awareness that there is something outside ourselves, and that sacrifice is a type of reaching out.
  35. Last-minute impulse shopping.  Paying exorbitant prices because I don’t know if these tags are negotiable or not.  And this shirt is just what I was looking for when I settled for “Made in Italy” at the Pearl Market.  I ask if I can try it on, and the shopkeeper pulls a thin piece of cloth across the corner of the tiny store.  I smile knowingly.  Hutongs and medinas think alike.  And my Moroccan tailor can take in these pants so they will fit me perfectly.
  36. Hotel.  Shower.  Noodles.  Taxi.  Airport.  Foot massage, at thrice the cost of the last one, and without the matchmaking service, but worth every yuan.  Every last one.  When I emerge from the aircraft twelve hours later, I can’t fit my feet into my shoes.  That’s what Beijing did to my feet.  Now please, can I catch a rickshaw to Gate 50C? I need a rickshaw.  My feet are traumatized.IMG_3137

That’s it.  I went to China.  It’s not as crowded as I expected.  It is remarkably clean — mainly because there are people everywhere with straw brooms and giant chopsticks picking up garbage the instant it appears.  No one wears helmets, but cyclists and scooters have dedicated lanes, where they whiz past the rest of us with ease.  Except for the baffling airport line and the Tianneman tunnels, everything is calm and clear and organized.  I can’t seem to escape the ubiquitous squatty potties, but at least they’re marked, and at least one (often) has a choice to squat or not to squat.

And the people! Some stern, almost menacing; others baffling; some watchful, others focused solely on their own chi; but most, gracious, friendly, and genuinely glad that I have come.  They are proud to show me their modern China, and they are proud to know a real Canadian.  They want to take selfies with me.  A little girl photographs me on the subway, and I give her a broad smile.  This is surface China, tourist China, and it is a pleasure.

Now, that other China — the one that drives the system behind its own great, silent Wall — I had a little glimpse of that as well. But that’s another story.IMG_2202

1 Comment

  1. really interesting report, Natasha.
    Thanks. I know I’ll never get there so this is great.

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