Friday, June 22, 2012

To China, With Love Part One: Ancient Culture Street

I think it's about time I faced my complicated love-hate relationship with China.  I've talked about it a little bit before, but I never wanted to go into too much detail because if there's one thing I hate, it's a romanticized travel-log. But it's been 11 years, and I think it's all right to reminisce a little bit, especially because if there's one view I don't have of China, it's a romanticized one. This is the real deal, dudes.

SO, I married Mike and all, and then a week later we sat in the Portland, OR airport waiting to board our little prop plane that would take us to Vancouver, Canada, and then on to China. I was so distraught about leaving, so overwrought, that I just stared at the ugly pattern on the carpet to keep myself from totally breaking down. To this day, when I look at the carpet in the Portland airport my stomach churns. My mom was there. At 22, I had never left the country before, had never really been anywhere at all, so this was HUGE. When it was time to go, the pattern on the carpet failed me and I started hysterically crying. I cried all the way out to the plane, up the stairs, down the narrow aisle, and into my seat. I cried all the way to Vancouver, basically. People were staring at me. They probably thought Mike had kidnapped me. He probably wondered what mess he'd gotten himself into. I still hate prop planes so much.

In Vancouver I made a life-changing, grown up decision and had lettuce and tomato on my hamburger at Burger King instead of just eating it totally plain. "I'm married now," I said to myself, "it's time to stop asking for plain hamburgers." I was having breakthroughs all over the place!

The first thing I noticed when we finally got to our little, oddly-shaped apartment in Tianjin was the salmon colored leather couch and chair in the middle of the room. Everything was totally weird and foreign, but it wasn't as weird and foreign and scary as I thought it would be, and that was a comfort. Plus, Mike had really scared me by saying I wouldn't be able to get chocolate in China. He was way, way off.  There was also Diet Coke, so I knew everything would be okay.

Mike worked the night shift building clean rooms at a Motorola plant. He worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m 6 days a week. It sucked so bad, because he just slept all day when he was home, and his sleep was fitful and unsatisfying. It also made him walk and talk in his sleep, to both hilarious and puzzling results.  He was always tired and I was alone most of the day and night in a country where I did not speak the language and knew nothing of the social rules and customs (like spitting in the street and throwing chicken bones on the floor of restaurants, but that is for another post).

I wasn't going to let my solitariness stop me, so on the first night I was officially by myself I got in a taxi and asked to be driven to "Ancient Culture Street" where you can buy scrolls and art and souvenirs, etc. The cab driver looked at me like I was insane when I told him where I wanted to go, and he said something in a very concerned and earnest tone, but I didn't understand. I just kept showing him the card that said "Ancient Culture Street" in Chinese.  Finally he gave up and took me there. After I paid him and shut the door, I turned around and saw that Ancient Culture Street was closed for the night. It was totally boarded up, dark and scary, with a few stragglers lurking in the shadows.
This is what it looks like during the day: cheerful, welcoming, ancient-culture-y. At night, it was totally freaky.  But I couldn't let anybody know that I had made a mistake so I just walked along Ancient Culture Street, pretending I had a purpose in being there and that I knew what I was doing, praying the whole time that the cab driver who brought me there would drive away so I wouldn't have to come crawling back to him with my tail between my legs, admitting that I did not, in fact, know the operating hours of Ancient Culture Street, and that I did not, in fact, know what I was doing AT ALL, and that I did not, in fact, have any business being in China.  After about five minutes of walking along the scary dark alley, I hurried out to the main road, hailed a taxi (mercifully not the same one I had come in), and drove home. I felt humiliated and defeated, and yet I was also proud of myself for having ventured out on my own at all. It was the ice-breaker that led to many misadventures for me in Tianjin.

It was the first, but not the last time I would have to pretend I knew what I was doing in China.


  1. You're brave. Tell us more. I know I made you a playlist when you left. I hope that helped.

  2. I remember that playlist fondly. It did help, especially the song from Mom to me that went "if you come back here, I'll fix the place up...."