Monday, February 11, 2008

Travelogue #25: Diaries of the Chinese New Year, Beijing 2008

<---Travelogue #24: Copied, Pasted, and Pissed: Plagiarism Gets Personal
--->Travelogue #26: My Rocky Introduction to Korean Dating

Wednesday 2-6-08: "Goddammit, you're an acrobat."

Fireworks crack the Beijing sky like gunshots. Boom boom boom. I watch through my hotel window, but when I shut my eyes, I feel like it's Bombs-over-Baghdad time.


Caution. It's Lunar New Year in China.

Boom boom boom boom.

I arrived in Red Country this morning, exhausted and unshaven in a hoody. I looked like the Unabomber. The flight was early, and I felt its effects through the rest of the day. Tiananmen Square?

It's the largest public square in the world, but as I padded across its immense width, I couldn't quite remember its history. A student protester was almost stomped here by a tank in the late 1980s, right? (I later went to my hotel's internet cafe to check Wikipedia. I ran into a problem: I could log-on to the web, but I couldn't log on to Wikipedia. That stuff about China and net censorship? Not an urban legend. The government forbids Wikipedia. Wow. I hope I won't get pistol-whipped by an official for writing that sentiment on a Chinese computer.)

We walked into the Forbidden City, a complex of temples adorned with extravagant flourishes of jade and gold.

The temples reminded me of the smaller ones I'd seen in Korea, and perhaps for that reason, the Forbidden City left me feeling strangely unaffected. The temples were so huge and so meticulously structured that I felt overwhelmed and understimulated at the same time, meaning that I didn't know where to look, that I didn't know enough history to care, and that I felt too tired to listen carefully to my lovely tour guide.

That's right. Tour guide. Her name is Lina. It's eight English teachers from Korea and her on a bus; she's usually armed with a microphone, a cute smile, and an extensive knowledge about everything China. When not on board, she's introducing us to either landmarks or a a troupe of Chinese acrobats.

Did I just say Chinese acrobats?

Yes, I did.

In the late afternoon we descended upon a shimmery theater to watch an acrobatics show. To put it simply, the acrobats were cool. They did flips. They did flips on stilts. They did flips from see-saws. I fell asleep. I heard a roar of applause and opened my eyes. The crowd was clapping and the acrobats were still flipping.

I broke into an internal monologue: "I get it! You're an acrobat!"

Another flip.

"Stop proving it to me! I am not doubting you!"

Flipping, flipping, flipping!

"Goddammit you're an acrobat!"

I fell asleep again.

Dinner came later and mirrored lunch: same restaurant, same communal let's-share-barbecue -beef-and-sweet-and-sour-chicken vibe. During meals, I misspoke several times, saying "here in Korea" as if China was Korea. I also wanted to say "com-sam-need-ah" to thank the servers, until I realized that though Beijing is a mere hour and a half from Seoul, it's in its own country with its own language. That means I got to put "Annyong Haseyo" in my lockbox.

Now I'm in this hotel room, where out the window the fireworks just won't stop. Other teachers walk the city streets but I stay behind, vowing to join them tomorrow night.

I need sleep, the kind that won't be disturbed by acrobats.

Thursday 2/7/08: "It's not the 'fairly good wall' or the 'reasonably okay wall.' It's the Great Wall!"

Sleep makes me a man again. I take a shower and put on my contacts. I don't look like the Unabomber anymore.

China, I'm ready for you.

We kick the day off at a jade factory. The Chinese love jade, and I'm not talking about David Caruso. According to our tour guide, in Chinese esteem, "gold is precious, but jade is priceless." I respond to that knowledge with the following photograph:

Our next stop is Ming's Tomb, where I pay more attention to the ladies and gentlemen who work there than to the actual tomb itself.

I wonder what they're chatting about. Dinner? Gossip about a co-worker?

These men walk back and forth, back and forth...and back and forth. That's their job description. I guess they're protecting the tomb from angry photographers who get too close? Jason looms creepily behind them, as if he's Wayne Brady looking to choke a bitch.

After a quick lunch, it's off to the Great Wall of China...and here ends my snark.

The truth is, before the Great Wall Experience, I haven't yet enjoyed China. I put enjoyed in italics because I want to make clear the distinction between learning from something and contemplating its meaning versus actually enjoying it. And feeling it. Living it instead of just watching it.

Today I live the Great Wall.

Sure, I take my share of pictures like everybody, but I climb that wall. I feel it under my feet, its irregular and ancient steps, some higher than others, their steep thrust up, up, up into the green mountains. If I sound pretentious, know that I don't mean to be. I mean, come on, it's the Great Wall of China!

The closet I came to scaling it came in 1992, when I as Bart Simpson skateboarded across it in the name of Nintendo. 1992. Bart Simpson. Seriously.

My companions share my joy as we climb to the wall's highest point at its highest tower. It's cold and windy but I do a little dance anyway. "The Great Wall!" Natalie bellows, "it's you, me, and Genghis Khan!"

The experience leaves me with a residual buzz. As I write, I can still feel it in my legs.

Dinner is Peking Duck, a Chinese delicacy. If you want to eat Peking Duck, our tour guide tells us, you have to call the restaurant two days in advance. That time allows the eatery to kill the duck and hang it til its skin dries. That's what you call a delicacy. I think that means we're safe from a Peking Duck Bell.

Damn. This bird tastes good; it's more tender than turkey and it's packed with a tangy sauciness. Chopsticks clash over its last morsels. We run out of it quickly, too quickly. I never thought "Duck, Duck, Goose" could sound appetizing, but after this meal, just thinking of that game makes me salivate.

Sunday 2-10-2008 "Back home...home is Korea?"

Friday is my final full day in China.

We see the Temple of Heaven, where if you shout through a wall on one end, the person on the opposite end of the temple can hear you as if you're speaking through a telephone.

We see the Summer Palace and its beautiful view of an icy expanse that in the summer turns to lake.

But what I will remember most from this day is my time with Lina the tour guide. We shiver under a blanket as a rickshaw takes us spiraling through the bumpy alleys of Beijing.

It is on this ride where I get to know her as more than just a repository of China knowledge: this woman wants to own a small business one day, one where she'll sell cultural knick-knacks from the Arabic world. Cool. Since she visited Seoul in the past, we discuss the in's and out's of Korean food. This moment is another one of the I would never imagine... variety: a Chinese woman and a Nebraska boy talking Korean food on a rickshaw rolling through Beijing on a cold February afternoon.

I close my eyes, reminding myself that this, all this, is real.

This is real.

The next day I am back in Korea.

Home. That's the word that disoriented me in China. After you go on vacation, you go home. That's how it works. When I was eight, I would visit my grandparents in Omaha, Nebraska, and in the middle of our stay, I'd ask my mom, "Do you miss our house?" "Yes," she'd say. "Do you?" I'd nod. I'd always nod, because being away from home always clarified why home mattered.

In China, I found myself thinking about people back in Korea. Does that mean Korea really is my home? Well, I did feel comfortable returning to the Seoul airport, for I reveled in the Korean characters on the signage, thankful to be free from the unfamiliar Chinese. On Sunday I ate dakgalbi, my favorite Korean dish at my favorite Korean restaurant...

"It's your temporary home," my mom stressed through an email.

Can you be "home" if you've spent only three months somewhere? My friend Jovan once told me her definition of "home", and my mom echoed the sentiment in her email: "Home is where your mama is."

When I think about it more deeply, I agree. Sure, I might have several homes where I'll meet people who will touch me or even change my life. But home? Home-home?

Home is where my mama is.

<---Travelogue #24: Copied, Pasted, and Pissed: Plagiarism Gets Personal
--->Travelogue #26: My Rocky Introduction to Korean Dating



Anonymous said...

Reading your post really got me thinking on home and where it really is...Interesting

Don said...

You definitely invite the reader inside your mind with the strong setting, Alex. Love the pictures just as well. I agree, learning from something and living it may be two entirely different things but with your sharp mind, I don't think you are too far away.

lol @ the nintendo game/The Great Wall humor.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on maintaining a great blog!
It gets better and moore interesting with each entry.Looking forward for next one.

Anonymous said...

Click your heels three times and.....oh well, you know the rest. I always thought I wanted to see the Great Wall, but now I'm not so sure my knees would last through the hike!