Over Spring Break in America (Chinese schools have no equivalent) part of my family was fortunate enough to come and visit! Namely my Auntie Poo (my mom’s younger sister), her daughter Addison, and my “adopted” 姐姐(big sister, pronounced ‘jie jie’).
They flew into Beijing and I was allowed a week break from teaching in Hohhot to travel and stay with them and play tour guide in the capitol of China. Although it was a vacation, it was hardly easy. First of all, there was a matter of lodging. It’s expensive to fly to China (a cheap round-way ticket is in the ball park of $1,000). It would be nice to pay for a swanky hotel with English speaking staff on top of that, but by and large unfeasible. So everyone crammed into my Mom’s quarters in Beijing (a room with a double bed and one bunk bed). To be honest, it wasn’t even that bad. I loved being so close to my family that I’ve missed so much.
Second of all, there’s the matter of adjusting to the time change (it’s basically like flip-flopping the nights and days of the US). And thirdly, there’s the smog. Aunt Poo wasn’t, pulminarily speaking, in the best health upon landing in Beijing. The air agitated everyone’s allergies and runny noses and sneezing and coughing. So even from the start, it was going to be a rough week for my visitors.
Megan arrived a few days before Auntie Poo and Addison, so I was able to have some one-on-one time with her. I took her to my favorite pastry shop, introduced her to the subway system, took her to Wangfujing, a world famous street of shops and malls, and bought her one of my obsessions since living in China: a Swatch (makes no sense, I know).
Megan, Cheng, Tong, and I went to the Blue Zoo (an aquarium), we had snowball fights, we went to the 798 art district, we had fun playing slug bug (which in China means you punch someone and scream: “slug bug” every time you see a foreigner. In Hohhot, I can basically only do this when I look in the mirror), and we hung out with our American family friends who also live in Beijing right now (I fondly call them The Nilis).
Unfortunately for Megan, the first few days in China, she ate precious little authentic Chinese food. I can find my way around the HUMONGOUS Beijing pretty well on my own with my terrible Mandarin, but having stomached eight months of authentic Chinese food, in Beijing I appreciate the access to other types of fare. I dragged her to Italian restaurants, McDonalds, French bakeries, and other establishments of a strictly foreign ilk. I had fun watching her try to brush her teeth without using the water from the tap, and seeing her feel uncomfortable in the ZERO personal space afforded one on a subway.
When Auntie Poo and Addison arrived, we only did more. We went to the Great Wall (it was a terribly windy day). Addison, Megan, Cheng (of The Nilis clan), and I all wore ridiculous hats while we climbed the amazing heights. On our way up, we stopped at a turret to pay our respects to Grandma Peggy (she said she wanted to travel the world, so travel she shall).
And on our way down, we found a camel who had climbed the Wall with his own nefarious designs in mind, no doubt. We forced him to take several pictures with our group.
Aside: If you’re wondering why Auntie Poo and Mom are wearing the fancy hats, it’s because they plucked them from the heads of Addison, Megan, Cheng, or I.
We went to Tiananmen square and to the Forbidden City (with a real guide this time, I learned far more and, would you believe it, it’s actually bigger than I first surmised. I think they added a few more courtyards since last time). We had Hot Pot (Chinese Fondu) where a guy came out and stretched our noodles by basically dancing, jumping rope, and kung fu fighting with them. We went on trolly rides through the skinny original streets of Beijing. We had glorious Starbucks.
I took them to Ya Show, a five story mall with rip off Louis Vuitton and Chanel purses galore, souvenirs of every variety, and a nail salon where Megan had a shocking foot exfoliation procedure that, I swear, produced enough skin from her feet to create a whole new third foot. Addison turned out to be a shrewd haggler. We went to the Olympic Green, where we stood in the shadow of the great Nest and Cube, and walked probably a good three miles to find a decent restaurant (wouldn’t you know it, the only decent restaurant that’s not in a hotel close to the Olympic Green is a McDonalds). Did you know the apartment complexes across from the Olympic Green cost 100,000,000 RMB per month to rent during the 2008 Olympics (or so I hear. I could be wrong)?
Having my family around was a real blessing. We were loud, we made spectacles of ourselves, being boisterous and punching each other intermittently whenever we saw a foreigner. We went to a three hour long Chinese opera and I think at one point every one of our party fell asleep.
Aside: Having people around me that are unaccustomed to the Chinese way of life was eye-opening too. Megan was noticing everything that has ceased to be a wonder to me. The tints on car windows, for example. There is no restriction for how dark a window tint can be, like in the US. And most cars have tinted windows except for a small section at the front of the driver’s and front passenger’s windows, so they can see their side mirrors. There are things called Black Taxis, which are regular people who use their regular cars to ferry people around the city, charging whatever fee they deem necessary. Addison was shocked to find out they weren’t actually all black cars. The scooters and mopeds that people drive as much as cars are driven have large hand mittens that go over the handles. The drivers put their hands inside and when they leave their scooter, the hand mittens stay there, attached to the handles. It’s kind of ingenious and simple.
The last thing we did as a family was have a small birthday party for Mom where everyone drank and there was roast duck and dumplings and a room decorated with dinosaurs and then a delicious cake. That week was wonderful, once in a lifetime, spent with my family in a tiny little room. In the mornings we walked to the corner of the block where there was a bakery next to the KFC and everyone became obsessed with steam cakes.
But now it’s over, I’m back in Hohhot, and I have about a month left in China. It’s strange to me that I’ll be back in the U.S. and I’ll have this intimate knowledge of two cities in China, one of which I didn’t even know existed until I came here. It’s strange to me that life will still go on here, and that I’ll probably never be back. It’s strange to me that I feel like I don’t know Chinese, but I catch myself understanding what people say when they speak to me (if they’re kind and speak a little slower than normal and enunciate a scosh more than they normally would). I’m still shocked when I automatically hand a cashier the correct change without stopping to think and count on my fingers to figure out the amount they’re asking.
I’ve learned a lot here, and I hope that, even though I’ll be more than 647 miles apart from my Mom here very soon, she’ll be okay, on her own, in this place. It’s not the easiest thing I’ve done in my life, moving to the other side of the globe. But little things help, like having a brief respite from the world for a week with my family, like being able to have had Molly with me for half of it, like having great Chinese friends who help me with anything.