My First Solo Adventure
During my first week in Beijing, I began a habit of getting up and dressed soon after Joe’s 6:30 departure for work. Beyond getting over a wicked case of jetlag, I wanted to get in the habit of accomplishing a task or activity that would help me acculturate to a life that was very different from the one I’d lived in the United States. Beijing is a big city and I also wanted to see and enjoy as much of it as possible during our tenure.
About a week after arriving, I decided Tiananmen Square (site of the famous photo where a protester stood in front of a military tank) and the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) would be my destination for the day. Although I’d ridden the subway with Joe at least a few times since arriving, I hadn’t ventured more than a mile from our apartment or onto the subway solo. So as I enjoyed my regular morning coffee, I plotted the train route from our apartment to Tiananmen; the trip would require eight stops and a transfer between two train lines. Armed with my camera and cell phone, I headed out.
To say I was excited inadequately captures how absorbed and fascinated I was by every element of this venture: from the commercials that flashed by on the TVs lining the subway tunnels to the changing demographics of the riders (urbane and westernized to petite framed, darker skinned and less westernized). Surrounded by unintelligible sounds, I was grateful for the Siri-like voice announcing each subway stop in English.
The closer we got to Tiananmen, the more crowded the train and the more attention I was drawing from Chinese who had never seen anyone black. I couldn’t be sure but I think at least those closest to me were talking about me. I’d wedged myself against a door and the seats next to the door only to realize that we were approaching my desired stop. Luckily, enough people were exiting that I was neither panicked by my inability to announce “I’m getting off” nor forced to push my way off the train.
Once at the Tiananmen station, a smiling couple whom I’d noticed Subway Sign looking at me on the train stayed close, exiting as I did and slowing or hastening their pace to meet mine. I couldn’t be sure if I were a novelty or being targeted for theft. I slowed hoping they’d keep moving, then the woman came close enough to make me shoo her away, only to have her come closer and hand her phone to her husband. I checked the zipper on by bag and pulled it closer to my body, relented and let her take a picture just so they’d leave me alone. Not so fast. Once she had a picture her husband wanted one too and they enlisted another exiting passenger to take our picture. I just walked away.
The subway stops right below Tiananmen Square, which is a couple of football fields long and wide. Swiping the subway card and emerging from the musk and humanity of the subway, I realized I’d gotten off at the stop on the farthest end and wrong side of the street from the famous Forbidden City wall emblazoned with Mao’s portrait. To get to Mao, required I go back down the stairs, cross under the 14-lane avenue and up another set of stairs back to street-level—all through a gazillion people, half of whom seemed to be gawking at me. But … I’d come too far not to continue. Mao...Close But Yet So Far
Once on the correct side of the street and nearer the Mao picture, other tourists were trying to include me and Mao in their selfies (as if I’d never seen a cell phone), or pulling me into the frame by my arms and clothing. Initially, I felt a bit helpless but not scared: I stood at least five inches taller than most. Then the urban survivalist in me found its voice. Bitch-face is universally understood and barking “Hey!” aggressively warned most people off touching me. But it was nevertheless overwhelming, and cemented my lifelong dislike of crowds.
s, and an old man flying a kite in a small park. My disappointment dissipated and I inhaled the newness of it all.I snapped a couple of pictures to commemorate having been to Tiananmen Square, but I demurred standing in the snaking Disney-line queues to enter the Forbidden City. I’d had enough ultra-close personal contact with short strangers. The darkness and crowded subway were unappealing on such a beautiful day, so I decided to try the bus. Tiananmen Bus Route sign At the bus stop, I realized the foolishness of that plan since I can’t read Chinese characters. I decided to walk part way home and de-stress from the experience, none of which had unfolded as I expected. The farther I walked along the broad boulevard the less frustrating the adventure felt. I was enjoying the Chinese flags flapping in front of government buildings, street sweepers using tree-branch brooms, and an old man flying a kite Blog - Straw Broom
Although I didn’t know it then, this adventure provided my first lesson in living abroad. When reality falls short of expectation try to appreciate the reality.
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