Only a few hours’ typhoon delay impedes our entry to China, and when we arrive it is late and we are the only flight passing through immigration. The metro is shuttered for the evening, so we opt for a cab. As foreigners, we pay a higher price on taxis but get to skip the line. We check into our hotel at around 2 am. The front desk workers don’t speak English, so they call the cheery manager to translate and expedite our passing-out procedure.
Our first of three nights on this Beijing leg has elapsed, and the city waits to be explored. Sometimes, people ask me which country is the least like America. I have never known for sure, but have always had my suspicions the China was at the top of the list. Now I get to find out if that is true. Obviously, it’s hard to say for sure--or how to even measure--what makes places cultural different, but my rationale is thus: China is different because it is most capable of being different. Not much of Chinese culture falls under the influence of America, with comparatively few exceptions. India, for instance relies on the West for a lot, and is become more Western as a result. While they are a large country with varied cultures, languages, and religions, English serves as the most popular lingua franca, and there are so many figurative bridges between India and the United States. In popular culture, there are many Indian-American celebrities popular in both countries (Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj). Indian food can be found in any mid-sized city in America with very little variation (unless, like me, you sometimes get served the “white person-level” of curry in an Indian restaurant) and American food is readily available in Delhi. Not to mention, there are so many Indians in America in general that choose to start lives there.
China is different. Few actors of Chinese descent in America maintain a Chinese identity, and the cultural gap between American and Chinese often feels wider, as if there isn’t room to be both (Svoboda). As for Chinese food in America, it hardly overlaps with Chinese Chinese food. Except, of course on dumplings, though even then dumpling sizes and styles in China vary greatly from the skillet potstickers we eat at home. As for migration the Chinese typically do not relocate to the United States nowadays, and if they do it is for just for college and decreasingly for permanent relocation (Economist).
As we walk down the late morning avenue to scrounge up some lunch, more people ride bikes than cars, the air is brighter and cleaner than I thought it would be, and early-morning Beijing is less like Wall Street and more like Mr. Roger’s neighborhood as parents and children meet on the way to school, the elderly smile toothlessly from benches, and women in sundresses flutter past. We follow the crowd into a small, well-lit store dedicated to pastries and the like. At the front, a woman is selling small cakes the size and shape of a wrapped McDouble, each with a different filling. We buy one of each and while some are savory and others sweet, all come flaky, buttery, and branded by the store’s edible ink stamp.
Our day is spent wandering the city’s Confucius Temple; at night we go out for hotpot. Though I have had it before, in addition to the occasional fondue, I cannot get used to the do-it-yourself boiling thing. Eating hotpot in China is an experience in which I believe every visitor should indulge, but I don’t think I’d make a habit of it. When we enter the restaurant, an entire wall is lined with skewered meat, seafood, and vegetables, each priced at one reasonable Yuan (0.14 USD). At the counter, the non-English-speaking staff tries to walk us through selecting our skewers, broth, and collecting our sauces then seats us at the top floor where our stock is already starting to simmer.
I have been studying Chinese for over a year, and somehow still don’t know the Mandarin words for “broth,” “beer,” or “wildly destructive morons.” Between our inability to use chopsticks the proper way and our general inexperience with the hotpot scene, we leave an incredibly messy table. And chairs. And floor. I even spill beer all over my lap. My dad maintains a relatively clean side of the table, and honorably ignores the opportunity to razz me for it. I have, on occasion, referred to my father as the Sancho Panza of my adventures. He proves himself most tonight in his loyalty to this errant Knight of the Wayward Chopstick.
We wake up Monday morning to find that all the museums are closed, quelling my father’s hopes of seeing the National Palace and National Museum. Regardless, Tienanmen Square is open, as well as the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao. We walk around the Square and I wonder why the place hadn’t been renamed because of what it connotes for many who visit. Curious as to what the Mao Memorial Hall is like, we slip in line just as they are about to close and dozens of Chinese mourners begin pushing past us to ensure they can buy flowers before the stand closes. When we reach the security check, we are ushered through a metal detector and made to empty our pockets. I go through smoothly, but my dad isn’t so lucky. He took his camera and, since photography is forbidden, he cannot enter.
I tell him I’ll meet him on the other side in a few minutes, and I am not mistaken. Guards hurry the crowds double-file past a giant statue of Mao seated with enough white roses at his feet to give 10,000 hopeless aspiring actors affirmation that they are indeed in the right line of work. Then we enter the next room which is dark, cool, and quiet. When an infant babbles, a guard shushes it fiercely. This is no time to talk, whisper, or even breathe too loud. Perhaps they are afraid to wake him. Atop the casket in the center of the room lay a life-size Chairman, on his back, looking like he died today and, after a quick embalming, had votive candles stuck in his skull in lieu of a jack-o-lantern for the upcoming holiday. We shuffle through this room for thirty seconds, then are back outside, walking back into Tienanmen as if none of that was at all weird.
We nap briefly in the room and await a biologically determined dinner time that will come when we both reach the necessary boredom and hunger thresholds. When that time arrives, however, the sky has opened up and some of the street has flooded to knee-deep levels. Regardless, it is dinnertime so we must persevere. Our destination is the Olympic Village location of Bianyifang: a duck restaurant that no longer exists. So when my dad and I arrive, we quickly interview every nearby Chinese person and find a replacement duck restaurant in the building next door.
I am elated to get out of the various swimming pools that now constitute northern Beijing, and I am even more happy to be less than 30 minutes away from a meal of Peking duck. In this restaurant, the dining room is separated from the kitchen by a glass panel so not only will we be able to eat the meal, but we will get to watch the preparation, too. We settle on the duck, obviously, and when the waiter comes over we point at the cheapest-looking duck thing on the menu and tell her it is for 2 people. She doesn’t seem to understand, but the order has “1 ren” next to it in Chinese characters, which I have always known to mean “person” as in “one serving.” We say we want two, and then she tells us, in broken English, that it is not enough for two people, so we order a small tray of dumplings, too. She seems to understand.
I am completely overwhelmed by the sweetness and savoriness of the duck that comes, and after eating a plate of dumplings and splitting an entire bird we are bursting. But I eye the chef through the window as he prepares yet another plate of what we just had. Everyone else in the restaurant already got their food, and I pray that “1 ren” doesn’t also mean “1 bird.” Our order was so rich that I feel another bite could make me pass out in the comfortable chairs, and we both sigh dramatically when the waitress takes the second duck from the chef’s hands and takes it to our table.
“No, No, No” my dad pleads, shaking his head, devastated.
“We do not want it,” I shout in Mandarin.
The waitress floats away, disappointed, though she readily takes the second duck off the bill. My dad and I both exit the premises sheepishly.
The museums are all open today, so we are going to attempt to see as much as possible before our night bus to the Mongolian border at Erenhot. We start on a train to the bus station, however, because we first need to secure our tickets north. We enter a bit after 10 am, and buy our tickets and stow our bags within fifteen minutes. From there, we hop on the metro back to Tienanmen.
The National Museum of China is our main target, and my dad and I agree to spend no more than an hour on the eight dynasties and several millennia that compose the “Ancient China” exhibit, and then spend the bulk of our time on Modern China. Unsurprisingly, covering so much history in so little time is challenging, and I amuse myself by imagining what I’d have to do to my childhood bedroom to make it worthy of a Shang Dynasty clay pot. Perhaps a water feature would be nice. Ooh, and the cats could sip out of it! I think about redecorating for most of the visit, and then we look for the next exhibit. To our dismay, there is no exhibit on modern China, and I feel like I just stared at hours worth of clay and armor and tools for nothing.
The afternoon is spent in the Palace Museum, the gigantic complex that forms the center of Beijing. A great picture of Mao hangs on the front, the only out-of-place or asynchronous part of the monument. As we stroll through, a couple of Chinese men ask my dad for a photo, and I tease him a little bit but I am glad I am not the only photo-operable person between us. The sun is nearly setting when we leave and we have few hours left in the city before our border-bound bus. The one popular Chinese dish we have yet to eat, and that I know how to order in Chinese, is noodles so I track down a filling bowl using my archaic Apple Maps. The restaurant is dark when we arrive and definitely reminds me of my childhood greasy-chopstick in Wilton, Connecticut. A few people are sitting, slurping noodles, but many more tables are empty, as if there is some magic number of clients you must have eating in the restaurant in order to turn the lights on. Thankfully, the beer is cold and the noodles are hot, not to mention the meal comes to only a few dollars.
Svoboda, Sarah. “Why Do so Many Chinese Students Choose US Universities?” BBC News, BBC, 2
“What Happens When Chinese Students Abroad Return Home.” The Economist, The Economist
Newspaper, 17 May 2018.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.