Monday, December 3, 2012

an accidental trip to China

"No, you don't understand," we insisted to the immigration officer at the airport handing us an entrance visa application form to fill out. "We don't want to enter China. We're just trying to find the international transfer area."

"Just fill this out," snapped the officer, who didn't speak much more English. The next thing we knew, we had entered the People's Republic of China, somewhat accidentally and against our will. It was 5AM. We had twelve hours to kill.

Chinese Pizza Hut

What was I doing in Beijing? I am Canadian, and China is kind of the opposite of Canada - not only on the other side of the world, but full of lots and lots of people in smaller spaces (like, a billion of them), which is quite overwhelming for Canadians who like to have at least fifteen metres of open personal space around them.  Yet here we were, in the beautiful Beijing Capital International Airport, the busiest airport in Asia, recently renovated for the Olympics, suddenly surrounded by a bustling crowd elbowing and spitting and rushing past us. Not having expected to be in this country, we had no idea how much the local currency was worth compared to Canadian dollars, nor were we aware of special laws particular to the country.  Was it illegal to bring anything we had in our carry-on baggage into the country? Can I access Facebook here? What happens if I say the word "communism"?

everything is poetry in China, even public signs

We had not slept last night on the plane. The sleep deprivation was, oddly enough, the most urgent matter to deal with in our new country, so we fell asleep on the first bench that we could find in the airport.  This ended up being right before passengers entered the security gate, and is actually an interesting place to people watch. It's the opposite of the Love Actually moment: you can watch people tearfully say good-bye to their loved ones, over and over and over again.  I did not. I slept.  When I came to, there was a flock of Korean ajumas standing right over my head, engaging in an intense discussion in their outdoor voices about getting new white hairs, not seeming to notice the groggy traveler trying to sleep three feet below them.  There were also a lot of guys standing around "talking" into their cell phone. I have this theory that cell phones in Asia are set at a much lower volume, forcing everyone to have to yell loudly into them, especially in public.  I closed my eyes and once again thought about how much I missed Canadian-sized personal space.

Having sort of slept, we decided to try to go outside.  On the streets, we were met with the cacophony of noise and exhaust fume that was early morning Beijing traffic. The sun had just started to come up, or at least I thought it did; you couldn't actually see it in the sky because the sky was either incredibly foggy or smoggy. Taking a deep breath of rush hour traffic in our lungs, it might have been the latter. We decided it would be best not to linger outside on the streets.

Luckily, we discovered the wonders of the hourly motel. Up to now, I have always had a certain negative perception of what Koreans refer to as "love motels" that you could book by the hour for a "rest".  Being neither a politician or a lady of the night, I never thought I'd have use for one. However, in the context of our situation at the moment, in the middle of a forty hour travel back from Bangkok to Ottawa, everything about renting a room at these places came together to make sense.  I mean, I was with my husband and we really, really, really needed to sleep. More importantly, we really could use a shower. And it seemed unlikely that a chattering gaggle of Korean ajumas would pop up in our motel room.  So we rented it.  Who cares if the whole place seemed sketchy and weird? I had what felt like the best nap and shower IN THE WORLD.

The best shower in the world, solely on the basis of its existence

Afterwards we were feeling a bit more refreshed, so we went off in each of Chinese food.

Luckily, Chinese food is not all that hard to find in China.  We opted not to eat at the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant at the airport, and instead went into a Celestial Restaurant, chosen more or less because it was there.  It featured an interesting menu with a lot of dishes, including more unusual ones like donkey meat, bullfrogs, and sea cucumbers.  Incidentally, it also featured "American-style fried rice" which is what we have come to perceive as Chinese food in North America (you are not included in the "we" if you are Chinese-Canadian).  I think it's interesting how we've developed a different style of Chinese food in North America, featuring dishes invented in North America like "American" fried rice, General Tao's chicken, and fortune cookies. It's particularly interesting to see those Chinese-American dishes make their way back to Asia, and featured on the menus as somewhat foreign dishes. Kind of like, say, L.A.-style Korean barbecue galbi. In the end though, we went for the chicken dish with walnuts, sauteed beef with chili, non-American fried rice and an bottomless pot of jasmine tea.

Chinese food in China!

Afterwards, we still had some time to kill, so we found a bar and nursed a bottle of Tsingtao beer. This allowed me to sing my own version of one of Canada's greatest songs:

"I say, what the hell am I doing drinking in Beijing, at 26?"

(I am actually 27, but artistic license allows me to knock off a year.)

You know, I'd like to come back to China some day and properly explore it. But you know, maybe as a planned trip next time, on purpose.