Postcards from China

BY VONDA PAIGE

"Welcome" signs at the Beijing International Airport

I’d been thinking about this trip since my boss came back from his visit in 2010 and talked about what he had experienced and witnessed. When he said he was thinking of organizing an employee trip, I immediately claimed that it be so.

I’m traveling with about 30 colleagues and acquaintances, and I’m amused by the different tactics we are using to survive the 12-hour flight. Almost everyone has some type of music player. I’m packing a library in my bag, hundreds of songs, a bag of chocolate, fruit, work and my journal. Let’s go!

Welcome to Beijing

We arrive around 5:25 am at Beijing International Airport. The flight went by surprisingly fast. I slept most of the way, and I had no idea what the flight attendants said each time they made announcements – even in English. I totally sympathize with foreigners who who don’t speak English and travel on U.S. flights. In a brief moment of panic, I realize that the attendant on my aisle did not give me and some of our crew the immigration forms needed to enter the country before we departed the plane. We scramble to fill out our destination and local contact: Beijing Marriott City Wall (7 Jian Guo Men South Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing). OMG!

We board our bus to the hotel with enough luggage collectively to rival 50 Miss America contestants. The trip takes about 40 minutes, and as we travel, we learn some history of the city and discuss the sights we will visit, courtesy of our hosts and tour guide. The first rule: “When in doubt; don’t eat it. No one is allowed to get sick.” Pretty good rule. I’m sticking to it.

The Most Handsome Guide

Tour guide, Chris Cui

Our tour guide, Chris Cui, wins us over immediately with his pronouncement that he is without a doubt the most handsome tour guide in China. He tells us that we won’t get lost if we act like “sticky rice” and stay close to him. I think he needs a shot on Saturday Night Live. He says he learned English watching an entire season of the television show Friends. That explains the slang, “yup” for yes. Later, upon reaching each tour stop, his pronouncement that we have arrived is a sing-songy – “We are here-yah!” I love it.

Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China, with a population of nearly 20 million people. I can’t even wrap my brain around that given the fact that it’s only the third largest city in China behind Chongqing (32 million) and the second city on our trip, Shanghai (23 million). Los Angeles has a mere 3 million people; New York has 8 million.

The city has amazing grand gardens and opulent palaces built by and in honor of past emperors. It’s known for arts, culture and the seat of political power. It has undergone various name changes, beginning with the Jin Dynasty and through the Ming Dynasty. In junior high, I remember studying it as Peking. In 2008, the Summer Olympics drew thousands to Beijing despite some politicians and organizations decrying the choice of China because of the country’s human rights’ record.  As we visit the Bird’s Nest, the national stadium built for the games, I find it ironic that just three years later, artist Ai Wei Wei, who designed it, has been accused of dissent by the Chinese government.

Given the huge masses of people, I’m struck by how clean the city is. There is virtually no litter. And, along the long stretches of highway, there are rows and rows of beautiful gardens. I snap photos of one section only to see another and another even more beautiful than the last.

One child. One car.

Chris tells us about China’s one-child-to-a-family policy adopted by the government in 1978 as a means of population control. Think about it. No one has a brother or sister or uncle or aunt, nephew, niece or cousin. This means most of the population is either a parent, child, grandparent, husband or wife. If you want to have more children, you have to pay a huge fee. And if you violate the policy, your child is considered illegal and won’t have access to government-provided health care or education.

For all the times I wanted to get rid of my younger brother when we were young, I definitely would have missed having a sibling. And, the relationships I have with my aunts, uncles, cousins are just as important to me now as they were growing up. I suppose you don’t miss what you’ve never had. But, I wouldn’t want the government telling me that my cousin Trina is illegal.

Cars, like people, apparently can put a drain on a country potentially bursting at the seams. When Chris mentions the rule limiting the number of automobiles you can own and the designated days when you’re supposed to drive, we all gasp because we know in America we would lose our minds over such a restriction. Apparently not everyone in Beijing follows the rule religiously either, as the highways are quite crowded as we ride through the city.

And, the pedestrians do not have the right of way. We wince out loud at the close calls when we see buses pull in front of tiny cars, just inches from a man on a bike or a woman with a stroller. At one point, our fellow traveler, esteemed Princeton University professor Dr. Cornel West, shouts:  “Look out for the dog! Look out for the dog! Look out for the dog!” The dog made it. I had to stop looking out that window.

Chinese Cuisine

Our hosts have done a magnificent job of selecting various restaurants for our meals, in that we really get the flavor of authentic Chinese cuisine. I’m not the most adventurous eater, but I try to taste everything. I had to pass on the eel and the jellyfish. Just couldn’t do it.

Food is served family style, with everyone selecting from communal dishes placed on a rotating platform in the center of the table. We quickly learn the order: hot and cold appetizers, vegetables, soups, chicken and fish entrees, more vegetables, noodles and, if you’re not full by now, here comes the sticky rice. Usually, by the noodles, we’re stuffed, and we feel guilty leaving so much food on the table. To the Chinese, it’s an insult to risk not having enough food, so they over-prepare. After rice, the meal usually ends with fruit, namely watermelon. When we see the watermelon, we know we can stop eating, and it’s time to call the bus.

Classic American chips and coke

I try my hand at chopsticks and, by the end of the trip, I can manage them a bit. I commit a crime and tuck the super fancy chopsticks we get at the Four Seasons in my bag. I’m such a thug.

We have to ask for water. While soft drinks are in abundance, water is a precious commodity. Given the temperature and humidity, I find I’m personally dehydrated a lot; so, trying to drink enough water is a challenge.

The Great Wall of China
It’s hard to put into words how incredible it is to climb and stand atop this wonder of the world. It was hot and muggy the day we visited and, had I not been working out regularly, there is no way I would have been able to make the climb. And that would have been disappointing. It winds over China from the bank of the Yalu River and ends at the foot of snow-covered mountains. This was my favorite stop on the trip. I marvel at knowing that this was built by hand without cranes and machinery. You just stand on the wall and all you can think is: Wow.

I was a little dismayed by some of the commercialization at the Wall. The souvenir vendors, I get. But just as you enter the long walkway to get to the cable cars that take you to the top, what sits on a hill is a Subway restaurant with the big neon yellow and green sign. Here we are in the midst of this ancient creation, and the Western world’s best contribution is food that comes wrapped in paper? Sad face.

Coming Home

Tavis Smiley Foundation Executive Director Vonda Paige pauses for a photo with local students

We spend the last three days of our trip in Shanghai, with plans to fly back to Beijing and then home. We’re all tired, but it’s been such a good trip. At the airport, I get a few more souvenirs and think about the long flight back.

As the plane flies over North America, I feel the cabin pressure shift, and it immediately becomes cooler. Several hours later, we enter the states, and around 6 pm, June 3, we land at Los Angeles International Airport.

“Did you enjoy yourself?”  the customs agent asks me. I give her a big ‘ole tired, cheesy grin: “Yes, it was amazing.” And it was. I had shopped for pearls, I had some business ideas, I had seen the Forbidden City, and I knew a few Chinese phrases.

I get home but I can’t sleep. I’m still wound up about the trip. I have a taste for Chinese food. The closest place was the Wacky Wok about 15 minutes from my apartment. Funny, I never noticed it before. When I asked, I was told they opened just 10 months ago.

I go home with Moo Shu pork and steamed rice and pull out my purloined chopsticks. I eat while watching The Karate Kid for the sixth time. This time, I fast forward to the shots of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

I‘ve been there, but right now Los Angeles, (wǒmen zài zhèlǐ) we are here-yah!

  • Shelly

    This reads like a very humorous account with funny and interesting details of a travel journalist! Thanks for sharing the experiences; it was a pleasure to read!

  • Stephanie

    On July 6th I returned home from a 10-day tour of China and, sadly, I did not do a very good job of journaling while there. Your entries have captured all of the wonderful memories for me! I think I will print and paste in my empty journal! LOL Thanks for sharing!

Last modified: July 17, 2011 at 11:46 pm