The Qinghuayuan Hotel in Beijing’s Haidian district, where my friend Karen booked a room for me, has a Service Guide booklet which advises its readers as follows, in Chinese and English:
1. In case of renting rooms, the guests shall submit valid credentials, complete the housing registration form, enter the rooms by the housing card, without permission, no visiting guest shall be accomodated, no bed shall be transferred.
2. The time of receiving guests to 23:00, at the time receiving guests, the formalities for receiving guests shall be made at the information desk before entry.
3. The checkout shall be made in time before leaving the hotel. In case of withdrawing rooms from 12:00 to 18:00, half-day room-fee shall be added, in case of withdrawing rooms after 18:00, that day’s room-fee shall be charged.
4. Cash and valuables shall be stored in the safes at the information desk, in case of any loss in the rooms, the hotel is derelict of duty.
5. As for equipment in the rooms, no increase or decrease or changing use shall be permitted, no scrawling or painting on the wall be permitted, in case of damage, compensation shall be made in accordance with stipulations.
6. No electrical equipment shall be used in the rooms to ensure security.
7. No entry into hotel for guns, ammunition, flammable and explosive materials, chemical toxicants, and so on hazardous articles, no poultry ot domestic animals or pets shall be taken into the hotel.*
8. No permission to wench, drug taking, gambling, drinking affray or spreading obscene articles and so on criminal activities.*
9. Be quiet hullabaloo in the public places of the hotel, so as to avoid affecting other guests work or rest.
I got to Beijing and proceeded through the Frontier Point, Baggage Pickup, and Customs section of the airport, then bought a phone-card with neither incident nor a single word of English. I thought I was pretty slick.
Then I went out into the airport itself, and was immediately beset by people saying “Taxi? Change money?”* For most, shaking my head no worked just fine, but one of them, a wiry, tattooed, scar-faced guy* in his thirties, stuck with me. Hoping to shake him off, I walked over to a payphone, stuck in my card, and began to dial Karen’s number, pointedly ignoring him. No luck: he sat next to my bags, making a big show of guarding them.
When I got off the phone, he sprang up:
“No, thank you.”
He kept it up, and finally I switched to Chinese and told him that yes, I would need a taxi, but no, I would not be needing it now. I was going to wait for about an hour. He got impatient:
“Why the hell are you waiting so long?”
“I’m waiting for my friend.”
“Where’s your friend?”
“And he’s coming here to pick you up?”
Annoyed and disappointed – he’d wasted five minutes of his time on me – he made a dismissive, pawing, fuck-you gesture in my general direction and headed off towards the other bignoses.* I could hear him as he went – “Taxi? Change money?”
Then I went out the door with my bags and got an illegal taxi anyway, making sure that the fee was agreed upon beforehand.
The car was much wider than a normal taxi, so it accomodated my bags nicely. The back windows and the rear window were blackened, both to create an artificial sense of luxury and to hide the fact that the driver was illegally transporting a passenger.
My driver, a large guy with an impenetrable Beijing accent, swerved cheerfully in and out of traffic, maintaining a speed of not less than 70 kilometres per hour, the whole way to Qinghua. When traffic was too thick, he just drove on the other side of the road.
At the hotel, I realised that although I could say “to renounce emptiness” and “learn from the self-sacrifice of Comrade Lei Feng,” I could not for the life of me remember how to say “credit card” or “ATM.” This occasioned a lot of well-deserved snickering from the xiaojies behind the front desk, and awkward negotiations*, but eventually things got worked out and I went up to my room, where I spent the next half-hour trying to figure out the phones. Then I found the Service Guide and it all became clear.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome you to Air China Flight 986 from San Francisco to Beijing. If you are not flying to Beijing, please let one of our stewardesses know so that she can direct you to the appropriate flight. Today, flight time will be approximately 11 hours and 20 minutes…”
The day before I left Philadelphia went in a haze of immunizations*, rushed goodbyes, hugs and promises to write. The endpiece was my going-away dinner, organised by Sahar, at an Indian restaurant in West Philly.
More people came than I’d expected, and so when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find Sahar, Moose, Chris, Bridget, Steve, Stewart, Vlad, Rich, and Chris M. waiting for me indoors, barely pissed-off at all that I’d shown up nearly an hour late.
Sahar and Moose brought me a card and got everyone to write something in it and sign it. (“Don’t get arrested over there” was the most common bit of advice.)* We ate, and we talked, and we laughed loudly enough to alienate the other people in the restaurant.
— Remember Kyle and the iced-tea?
— Remember Mr. Levy, and how we called him Mr. T. behind his back?
— Remember the closed and perfect circle in the fourth-floor hallway in 9th grade, and how Veronica drew butts on the blockboards in 11th grade?
And at some point during all the laughter and in-jokes and remeniscences and well-wishes, I realised: This is how you say good-bye.
Needless to say, everything did not go smoothly with my exit on Friday morning. My plane left at 11, and right up until about 9, I was still loading mp3s onto my new player and checking battery levels on everything.
There was a bomb squad truck outside my terminal at the airport, but no noticeable excitement inside. Check-in went uneventfully, and afterwards my parents and I grabbed breakfast at the world’s slowest pseudo-diner.
And then it was 10:30, and time for me to go through the checkpoint, past which my parents couldn’t follow me. So we had our hugs out in front of the diner, and I teared up and got in line for the metal detectors.
They were still standing there when I got through, and we waved goodbye, struggling to see each other through the crowd.
And that was the top of the rollercoaster. Suddenly, oh shit, everything became real – China! What the fuck was I thinking? – and something slammed down like a camera shutter, freezing the moment in my memory and forever dividing that from this.
Looking back and waving intermittently, I turned to walk toward my gate. Then a page came over the PA system calling for Michael O’Kane to board immediately, and I started to run, waving over my shoulder as I went.
The word that came up most often in everyone’s goodbye notes was “adventure.” I kind of scoffed at that, at the time – adventure, schmadventure; I’m just going to a small city in northeastern China for fourteen months on my own without qualifications to teach or any real idea of what the hell I’m doing – but you know what?
Most of the foreigners I’ve seen here don’t speak a word of Chinese, and are just going on prepackaged tours to Beijing and Xi’an and the like. A lot of the guys I’ve talked to in bars along Sanlitun Road are here for business, or to teach, and don’t speak more than a phrasebook’s worth of Mandarin.
All catty jokes about “fucking Americans” aside, I don’t know if I can really say that my experience will be better than theirs, or that I’m somehow more special than they.* But I can say that their experience isn’t an adventure – it probably isn’t much different than it would be in any large city in a country where they didn’t speak the language.
At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, this is an adventure.
And I’m pretty sure it’s going to be great. It has been so far.
…At the hotel, I realised that although I could say “to renounce emptiness” and “learn from the self-sacrifice of Comrade Lei Feng,” I could not for the life of me remember how to say “credit card” or “ATM.”…