by Myra Brien – The Calculated Adventurist
My husband is a teacher and we decided that over his 3-week Winter break we would make a return trip to Beijing, China with our son (The Boy), who is now 15 months old. The trip was amazing, the 12 hour plane ride there and back was not awful like I expected, and The Boy did better than my husband and I. My fears about kiddie jet lag went unfulfilled, thank goodness.
Beijing has changed so much, and yet remained the same since we lived there two years ago. New high-rise apartment buildings are changing the skyline of our old neighborhood, our subway stop has been improved and new lines have been added to the maze the Beijing Subway is becoming. It’s easier than ever to get around, without a child in tow that is. We felt like we had never left, except we had The Boy with us. The Boy has blonde hair and blue eyes and looks so different from a Chinese baby that he attracted a lot of attention. The Boy is also extremely social and smiles easily, so he was happy for all the attention he received from an adoring public, some of whom had never seen a foreign baby in real life. On the buses and subways we saw more than one person snapping pictures of him with their cell phones.
Our return reminded me of the daze I was in when we first moved to Beijing … how lost I felt all the time (even when I knew where I was going), how much I appreciated being home in my apartment where it was peaceful and relatively quiet, and where one is forced to go with the flow. The sea of humanity is too great to try to move against. Just try when on Subway Line 13 at rush hour. We became part of the few who would wait until the mass of other passengers had cleared the subway platform and the stairs and hallways were unclogged before going on. As my husband and I pressed on with The Boy in tow, we found ourselves with people who also didn’t want to get crushed and those not considered the “elite” of China, namely migrant workers carrying huge recycled plastic rice sacks filled with their belongings and tools.
Every time I see those rice sacks it blows me away. Just how much rice can someone consume? A lot … just go to China and see for yourself. I asked a friend how long it took her and her family to eat a 20 pound bag of rice (small size bag) and she said about 3 months.
Anyway, back to hauling our son around. There came points where there was no use thinking about how much work it was to carry him up and down stairs and getting in and out of crowded buses. It was exhausting and the brain works better at that kind of thing when you just don’t think about it. The problem was, by the time we arrived at our intended destinations we were so tired that our brains wanted to remain off. We actually enjoyed the trip and seeing old friends revitalized us, but there’s not much worse than hauling a crying and grouchy toddler up thousands of steps on the Great Wall of China.
All this reminded me of what it was like living in China and the adventures I had just getting home at the end of the day. One time I kept a mental log of my experience getting home one evening during rush hour.
This quote proved to be so true.
“Every mile is two in winter.” – George Herbert (1593 – 1633), Jacula Prudentum
I would find myself returning home every evening between 7:00 and 8:00pm after having left about 9:00am. By 5:00pm the sun went down and the hordes are going home from work and the bus and subway riders need an “After-School Special” about what it means to have personal space.
So, here is a timeline of one of my fated trips home replete with descriptions of the cold and the run in with a jerk cabby. If all this sounds bad to you, just remember that it’s China and one can get used to just about anything … all in a day’s work.
Ready to return home. I had a huge bag of groceries with me and I debated with myself whether or not it was worth it to taxi to the subway instead of taking the bus. I decided to wait for the bus, even though it meant changing once. While not looking for omens, maybe it was a good sign the bus arrived quickly.
Got to the bus stop where I waited for the bus that goes to the subway. It was cold, about 15º degrees F, so I was thankful for the gloves I’d re-appropriated from my husband who had appropriated them from me last year because he liked them. The wind had started to blow and people were jumping up and down to keep warm.
No bus. It was getting really cold now. The bag of groceries may as well have been filled with cement. I gave the bus a deadline. “If it doesn’t come in 5 minutes”, I thought, “I’ll take a taxi to the subway”.
I got a taxi. It was a bit hard, seeing as everyone wants one when it’s cold. My driver looks like he’s from the sticks and smells strongly of garlic and B.O. A lot of people, especially the country people, chew raw garlic in the winter to avoid getting colds. It works! … probably because no one wants to be around someone who smells so bad. But it was kind of hard to avoid when you’re a captive audience stuck in their taxi or next to them on a bus. The worst was when I was stuck standing butt to butt against someone, crammed in a bus, and the person closest to me answered their phone. Not only do Chinese people yell into their phones, but the spewing garlic and old food odors would make me feel faint … but I digress. So I was in the taxi and told the driver where to go. He impatiently tells me he knows where to go and insists on taking the packed bumper-to-bumper 4th Ring Road because he thinks it will be faster than using the side road. After some disagreement and probably some miscommunication, I firmly told the driver to just take the side road. In return I got an angry, profanity ridden scolding that smelled like garlic. Just as I was about to tell him to let me out and refuse to pay, he got a break in the traffic and hit the gas pedal hard, horn blaring all the way.
Arrived at subway station. I remember feeling like a trout going upstream as I fought the current of people coming off the subway. No seats available, but at least I was able to put my giant bag down and give my back a rest. My glasses began to fog up because it was so warm. On the subway I don’t get stared at as much unless I start speaking English or Chinese. Speaking of speaking, a woman started asking me questions in English. She wanted me to teach her daughter, so we exchange phone numbers. During our conversation, she can’t remember a particular word and another man tells her the word in English. We had an audience and didn’t know it.
Arrived at my stop and made my way out into the now 10º F weather. I got an arctic blast as I walked out the doors and descended into a mass of HeiChe (black car) drivers all screaming and yelling to people. “Where do you want to go?”… “Return Home!”. The air was thick with coal smoke. The key is to not make eye contact with anyone if you don’t want to encourage a bargaining war for a ride home. For especially persistent ones, I would keep my head down and shake my head. Only the brave would actually try to grab my arm, and for that they got the look of death … but it didn’t happen. I made it across the street to my bus stop and saw about 100 people waiting. Really! … about a 100.
The bus arrives. I stick my elbows out, put my bags in front of me and prepare to be crushed. I also make sure to keep my ground so that any shoving I receive is countered. Fortunately, two buses come at the same time, so part of the mass breaks off to shove onto the other bus. I got a seat. Small victory!
I got off the bus. The wind was stronger now for the final 5-minute walk home. My nose felt like it was about to break off. I walked as quickly as possible and practically ran up our stairs into the sauna that was our apartment.
That was my typical evening routine. It feels so long ago. Now, it’s dinner for The Boy, then bath and bed. I still fall into bed exhausted every night, but my return to China made me wonder how I ever survived there, especially when I was pregnant. Next time, I’ll tell you more about what it was like to be unexpectedly pregnant in Beijing.
See Myra’s personal blog: The Interactive Expat