Characters of the Story: F.L.A.T.S.A.M.
Each Letter stands for one person. One of the A’s is myself =)
I was lucky to have the window seat and had my first view of China as we finally approached land after flying over the Pacific for hours. Saying that we were super duper excited is an understatement.
The Beijing airport was gigantic and very cool. There were trains inside the airport to transfer passengers from the Immigration area to the baggage pick-up belts. We were having a good time in this train taking our first few pictures of this trip when we heard the automatic stop announcement. A woman’s voice commanded, first in Mandarin and then in her Chinese-English accent, “The train is stopping. Please pick up your handbags and get out!” Did she just ask us to GET OUT?! We did as we were told and decided that China was going to be a lot of fun!
No Speekie Engresh!
Everyone’s luggage was spotted on the belt one by one, money was exchanged and the next task was to find out how to get to our hotel. We approached a Beijing Tourist Information desk at the airport and everyone working there seemed to have difficulty speaking English. A lot of difficulty, actually. When we asked them a question, such as “how do we get to Place XYZ?,” they looked at each other, discussed in Mandarin, told us something in English that we could not totally make sense of, and pointed us elsewhere to some other information desk. At that time, little did we know of the language barrier looming ahead; we would soon find out that people hardly knew English. If anyone did know English though, it was store owners and salespeople in the Beijing markets. More on those shenanigans later 🙂
After a lot of walking back and forth on the bus platform, we found the bus that takes us directly to our hotel. It was the last stop.
“Perfect! Thank you! Zhie Zhie!” we said to the two airport guys who helped us out. They just laughed and nodded and looked at each other and laughed some more. Hmmm so obviously there was something they found funny and we didn’t.
Earlier, while waiting in line for immigration, I had told my travel buddies that “Thank You” in Mandarin is “Xie Xie,” pronounced “Zhie Zhie” (I guessed that). Turned out, this pronunciation was totally wrong. Over the next few days, we were unable to properly thank anyone in China. All of us would pronounce it in our own way based on what we heard from Chinese people on the streets and in the markets. We truly butchered this word, going from Zhie Zhie to Sia Sia to Shi Shi to God knows what, before we finally learned to say it correctly – Shiè Shiè!
Arrival in City Centre
From the bus we noticed stores that we recognized such as Guess, Zara, KFC & Pizza Hut. The city seemed felt vast, spreading out in all directions through wide roads connected by really large intersections. While we constantly looked out the windows and were fascinated by the smallest things, our bus driver made stop announcements in Mandarin. We had no idea where we were but were enjoying the energetic feel of what was before us.
After about an hour or so, our bus stopped in front of a HUGE hotel and a lot of people started getting off. Do we get off here? We definitely didn’t pay for this five-star hotel. With the map of our hotel in my hand, I volunteered to go ask the bus driver.
“Excuse me, Do you know where-“
“xmsx akxjd kxsdxfkjh jjxsjdfxaaxaaaxaa” shouts the bus driver.
Not only did he cut me off, he shouted at me in loud Mandarin! I was scared. I followed his finger to look at where he was pointing, only to see that it was a sign written fully in Chinese. Does he expect me to read that and know where to go? We hurriedly got off the bus because by this time everyone else had.
After being lost for about ten minutes, we saw what we were looking for: the big, bright, clear sign that reads “Beijing City Centre Youth Hotel” at the right side of a gigantic road, across from the Beijing Central Railway Station, and in the middle of what looked like the busiest intersection in the city. While the location was very impressive, the squat toilets in our washroom were anything but. We made sure that during our five days in Beijing, we kept toilet paper handy and used English toilets in restaurants or wherever possible!
Speaking of restaurants, our first meal in China was at McDonald’s. Let’s just start with that, we thought, we’ll have plenty of time to try Chinese food. Unfortunately, right the next day, we learned that food hunting for tourists like us can turn out to be quite a mission in China!
On our first full day in Beijing, we had each eaten just one mini banana and a small orange for lunch, and had been walking for at least seven hours before we had dinner at Pizza Hut. We stopped by many restaurants but the foreign menu items drove us out. I know, we weren’t being real tourists. But mostly, mostly it was the smell that repelled us right from the outside. I specifically remember one restaurant named “Beijing Muslim Restaurant,” which we entered delightedly for some Halal food and ran out horrified and literally screaming! The smell almost caused my stomach to barf and force out any little remains of the mini banana and orange. We couldn’t know this then, but this was nothing compared to what we encountered later that night. I’ll be describing that fragrant environment in my next blog-post.
So having given up on hunting Chinese food, we decided to go for Western-style food almost all the time. At restaurants, we would start off by pulling out two cards and showing them to the waiter. L had got them for us from a Chinese friend back in Canada and they were the most useful thing ever! They invited smiles and sometimes laughter from the waiters 🙂
Ordering the food was another operation of its own. Take our order at Pizza Hut for example:
“Cheese Pizza. Make it very big please!” said A, moving her hand in a big round circle.
“Bring it soon. Like make it fast!” M requested.
My stomach was doing somersaults so in hopes that the urgency of the situation be understood, I rubbed my belly and said, “We hungryyyy!”
We burst out laughing at our own actions and broken English, and the waiter was trying his best to understand each of us talking at the same time. Thankful, we dug in when the extra-large pizza finally arrived, looking more like what would be a medium size pizza in North America.
The Beijing Subway
The subway was so modern – it was like the European systems and unlike anything we have in Toronto. Instead of tokens, there were magnetic cards that you swipe to get in and out of the subway. When trains arrived, their doors opened after lining up with platform screen doors (that help protect people from falling onto tracks, and also prevent subway suicides, which have taken place in Toronto more often than you might think). As L put it, “it felt like a market“. I agree with her because it even smelled like one sometimes. It was packed! And why wouldn’t it be? We were in the capital of the world’s most populated country. It was super convenient as well! I didn’t have to take a single taxi during the five days in this city. What we found very surprising though was that every time you enter the subway, you put all your baggage through security machines like the ones in airports. I guess I can say I felt quite safe in there! 🙂
Our Celebrity Status
One thing I had to get used to in Beijing was paparazzi. I was outside a tour site when I posed for a picture on my own camera when two Chinese students asked me if they could take a picture with me. “Ummm, okay, sure!” I decided one picture is alright. I wasn’t the only special one; my friends too had people approaching them from all sides. And this was just the beginning, because over the next few days, we learned that somehow we were very interesting spectacles for the Chinese. We were made to take pictures with kids, old people, couples, students, other Chinese tourists – you name it! Mostly we did it rather unwillingly, but we felt bad saying no to all the smiling, hopeful people, who seemed to have never seen a batch of brown girls as diverse as us. But sometimes, they didn’t even ask. I remember us sitting on Jingshan Hill enjoying the views when a woman literally pushed L and A apart, sat in between them, and smiled with her fingers in a V sign while her husband snapped a picture. Since we were so popular, we decided to do the coolest thing ever! We set up a photobooth and charged people 1 Yuan for taking a picture with us. No I kid. We weren’t crazy enough to actually materialize this idea. We believe it could’ve worked very well though! 😀
On my second day in Beijing, I updated my Facebook status to “in Beijing!” through my iPod Facebook application. My friends wanted to do the same, but they couldn’t even log in. And when I tried to access my own profile again, it didn’t work and gave me an error. We later learned that Facebook and YouTube had been banned in China for over two years. And then I remembered hearing that on the news a while back. So how was I able to update my status that one day? This mystery remains unsolved!
And the Awesome People of Beijing
Let’s start with the babies. Toddlers in China were so adorable, looking like cute little dolls! What made most of them draw my attention though was the big whole in their pants, which allowed them to sqaut down and use the earth beneath them as a toilet whenever need be. Creative much? 😛
As for girls and boys, they dressed extremely well, pulling off all kinds of Western outfits and accessories. And of course, they all must’ve been very good in school, especially with no Facebook or Youtube distracting them. Fake brand name accessories from Coach, Luious Vuitton and Gucci were the norm.
Truly contrasting the young students’ amazing fashion sense were the old ladies who wore pyjamas in broad daylight. As for old men, they were quite interesting too. One old man on a bus asked my friends where they were from and when they replied “Canada,” he looked very confused. Drawing an “X” with his index finger, he indicated a big “NO!” Our skin was not white and therefore, we could not have been Canadian. Alright then! 😀
Also, I don’t remember seeing a single person who was fat, had acne, or bad hair! People were also very artistic – performing balancing acts, singing and playing instruments together. Extreme punctuality seemed to come naturally to them as well. Overall, people in Beijing were extremely nice and went out of their way to help us out whenever we got lost, even though language was a huge barrier. While they spoke to us in Mandarin, we were somehow able to make sense of their gestures and nods to figure out where to go. I certainly miss the Chinese!
What I loved the most was that this city contained so much history in itself, and you can only realize that when you visit its legendary sites.