Starting at the end of June, I left Sanming for Beijing to meet my cousin, Jess. Our plan was to spend a little under a month traveling around China, starting in Beijing and then heading west to Xi’an, and then proceeding southwest to Sichuan and Yunnan, and finally ending up in Shanghai, where we would say goodbye.
Before I left, I took some last photos of the building in Sanming where I taught for the last two years -- and where I won't be teaching anymore, as I'm moving onto the bigger, more developed city of Xiamen in southern Fujian
As happened last year when I was getting ready to go, I had too much to do in Sanming before my departure date, or anyway it seemed that way. I also suffered from the inevitable Trip anxiety about everything going well on the trip. It always goes this way for me, whether I’m leaving for a weekend or a month. Before I go, I get anxious. This anxiety is all-consuming and results in me sleeping poorly, thinking constantly about the trip, and spending hours on the computer making inconsequential decisions, like whether to buy a train ticket directly from one city to the next or a bus ticket from the big city to a smaller city midway in order to avoid flooding in the area. These sessions online searching for tickets also inevitably end in me making a random decision, since perfect knowledge is impossible from home. When you travel, sometimes you just have to go for it.
I realize that this whole stress experience is something a lot of people don’t have when they’re planning a trip – they just go for and make the plunge and their upcoming trip is a huge thing to look forward to. Perhaps it’s a testament to how cushy my life is in China that a big trip becomes a bigger source of anxiety than anything else going on in my life. I find, however, that usually within about 12 hours of leaving home my stress basically disappears. This is an incredibly weird phenomenon: I feel stressed out, very stressed out, about traveling, right up until the moment I actually leave. And then once I am out the door and have put a fair distance between me and home, the stress is completely gone. Yeah, completely gone. Not just lingering or dissipating, but disappeared. Like a nightmare that you vanquish simply by waking up.
The stress was gone for me, on this trip, right around the time my train from Fujian Province was within an hour of Shanghai. I had spent the evening on the train relaxing and reading and chatting with a young college student on the train. He was going to school at Tongji University. He was friendly and seemed perfectly happy to chat with me in Chinese until his head turned blue, which is one of the best things about riding on the train in China, if you’re studying Chinese. We chatted most of the morning and then I started to notice the marshy outlands of Shanghai out the train window late in the morning. We were going to arrive in Shanghai a bit before noontime, and around ten was when I noticed that we were passing through what looked like an endless swamp. Small agricultural villages floated by, and it seemed that every house we passed was flanked by a water border of some kind. Mostly it was rivers or creeks, with frequent fields of rice flooding across the flat land. Buildings were small and concrete, with gabled roofs. I saw almost no one in the fields and the sun barely burned through the thick smog that clouded the air.
This is a photo of the 2008 class's classroom. They took all there classes here. Above the blackboard in the back of the room it says "Where there is a will there is a way." Get it? Will? That was great for my ego in my moments of teacher's desperation.
When we were about an hour from Shanghai I wrapped up my talk with the college kid, and he asked if we could exchange phone numbers. This is something that happens with almost every random Chinese person I talk to and never results in any further contact between us, but I gave him my number anyway and he gave me his. He told me to call him if I wanted to go see Tongji University; he would be happy to show me around.
When we arrived in the Shanghai train station I briefly felt a little bit of the panic and stress I had felt back home when I had been planning the trip, as I realized that I hadn’t planned how to get to my hostel from the train station. Then I remembered that I had Google maps on my phone, which allowed me to simply check the bus route to my destination, from wherever I happened to be. Oh yeah, that was why I hadn’t planned how to get there. It was also one of the huge advantages of traveling in China as a resident. I met so many foreigners on the trip who had no phone, no map, spoke no Chinese, had no easy way of getting around; but I had been in China for two years, which meant that none of these things were problems. I had a phone I had spent 450 U.S. dollars on so I wouldn’t have to wonder how the hell to get where I wanted to go; I had taken all the addresses and phone numbers with me so that I would never have to look for a hotel on this trip; I had studied Chinese for two years in China, so speaking wasn’t a problem; and, the best part of all, I had booked all my train tickets in advance through a Chinese travel agent called China Connection Tours.
When I had been planning the trip back home, I had been unsure of the importance of booking train tickets in advance. We would be staying in many destinations for four or five days, and I had to pay a 5 to 20 dollar surcharge for every ticket the agency booked for me, so it seemed like maybe it was planning overkill. This had been another great thing for me to stress out over while I was planning the trip. Was I planning too much? Was I locking us into an itinerary that we wouldn’t enjoy? Was I just a spaz who was doing way too much in advance and wasting money on train tickets that wouldn’t be used?
This is the same classroom from the other end -- viewing the front of the classroom, the place where I stood for 5 hours a week for two years, trying to help 50 people make some progress learning English.
Turns out, it was not a waste at all. Throughout our trip, I can’t remember running into a single other foreigner who didn’t have some horror story about something that had happened to him/her two or three days prior wherein he or she had to sit in a hard seat on a Chinese train for 12 to 30 hours. We met so many people who had done this. For some reason, this summer in China, the entire country had decided to go out traveling, and it was virtually impossible to get a sleeper train ticket anywere. The only things for sale were hard seats. We met people who had totally changed their travel plans in order to avoid nightmare rides like this, and then we met people who had done days on trains in hard seats. We met a few people who had even done overnight rides with standing-room-only tickets. They had literally stood on the train for whole nights, surrounded by rowdy Chinese tourists or regular folks heading out to dagong, hit work…in other words heading out of their hometowns to do some kind of manual or unskilled labor.
The worst case of travel unpreparedness I saw on our trip was a young guy we ran into in Sichuan. He was American, maybe 25, with long brown hair and a beard, dressed in earthy colors and dark green carpenter pants. I ran into him in the morning, when we were checking out of our hostel to head south to Yunnan. This poor guy was also checking out, but he was headed to Shanghai. He had booked a flight to the city without booking a hotel room, and for some reason (which I couldn’t fathom) he had waited until this moment, when he was about to leave for the airport, to try to resolve the issue.
He was freaking out. He couldn’t speak Chinese, so he had enlisted one of the poor front-desk girls at the hostel to help him get a hostel bed or a hotel room. But every call she was making was turning out to be a dead end. I stood at the counter behind him, waiting to check out, while he cursed in front of me.
The main street in the center of Sanming University.
“How could there be no fucking rooms left anywhere in that goddamn city?!” he asked (not at her, but himself – he was obviously not trying to be rude to the front-desk girl but his stress was getting the better of him).
“Sorry, they say they have no room,” the Chinese girl said patiently.
“Can you try that number—try that one you had before,” he said, leaning over the counter and pointing to something on her computer screen. She was helping him find hotels online. I wondered if this task—pseudo travel-agent—really counted as the responsibility of the girl at the front desk at the hostel, where beds were about 45 yuan, or $6.50, per night.
While I waited the girl called four different hotels or hostels (I wasn’t sure which she was calling) and came up with nothing. The guy was completely frozen.
“Shit,” he said. “I really have to get to the airport. I’m really late already. Fuck! How am I supposed to just go to Shanghai with no hotel? Fuck. I’m probably going to have to get some fucking expensive hotel and it’s going to be more than my plane ticket. I may as well just not go. Shit!”
He was talking to nobody, because the girl behind the counter clearly only understood that he was very upset (she undoubtedly understood the word “fuck”, also), but I wanted to interject because I had been in his shoes several times.
“Dude,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Just go get on your plane. You’ll find something when you get there. When you arrive, just get in a cab and tell the driver ‘hotel’, and he’ll take you someplace fine.”
This didn’t really calm the dude that much, but perhaps it helped, because a couple of minutes later he pulled the move that sometimes you just have to pull when you’re traveling. He said “Fuck it,” grabbed his bag, and headed for the airport.
Remarkably, my cousin and I got to the curb before him and were working on hailing a cab when he arrived in the street. Even more remarkably, when we successfully hailed a cab and I offered it to him, he refused. “No, no, you guys were here first. You take it, it’s your cab,” he said.
Obviously this American had not been in China for long. I was astonished that he had even considered refusing an open car from someone who was offering it to him; any other Chinese in the entire country would have stolen the cab from me without even blinking if I had bent down to tie my shoes. If I actually offered a cab to a Chinese in a hurry, I am 100 percent certain that it would never be turned down.
Nonetheless, I told him to get in the cab and catch his flight. Which, after a slight hesitation (he looked like he was willing to accept whatever fate was going to throw at him at this point, including an inability to get to the airport in time), he did. Jess and I continued to try to get a cab for a few minutes, and got to the train station in plenty of time.
We basically always had plenty of time, even when I was stressed out about time. Maybe because I was often stressed out about time? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Anyway, we didn’t miss any trains or planes the whole trip. We had only one small mishap on the trip, which was that Jess’s day-bag got stolen. Other than that, everything went fine. And I started to realize that everything was going to go fine as I walked along the street in Shanghai, headed to the subway so I could go to my hostel, already halfway to Beijing a full three days before my cousin would even arrive there.
I guess, my point is that I kind of overthink travel a bit when I’m sitting in my comfortable Fujian home, half-dreaming, half-worrying.
After arriving in Shanghai I found the hostel without any trouble. It’s called the Rock&Wood International Youth Hostel, a well-located and clean and modern hostel with decent prices for Shanghai (60 yuan, about $9.50 per night for bunks). The only strange thing about the hostel was that there were literally no Chinese staying there. This was the only time I had seen a youth hostel in China with no Chinese, and I never saw a native Chinese in the several nights I stayed there (this was also where Jess and I ended our trip). By the time my head hit the pillow that night I wasn’t worried about anything. In my first night in Shanghai I went shopping for some essentials that I hadn’t been able to buy in Fujian, and chatted with a couple of Australians who had traveled the world, skateboarding everywhere, and had come to Shanghai and discovered a Russian community of skaters in the city, just by going out and skating in the streets. They told me that Shanghai has the largest skate park in the world, and that they had gone there, and that they had seen less than a dozen people there all day. That most of the place was grown over with weeds. This was about as unsurprising to me as the fact that Shanghai had the largest skateboard park in the world was surprising. These two were the first skaters I had seen in China.
They also had impressions of China that were profoundly weird to me. Their impressions were roughly thus:
- Beers and going out clubbing are super cheap
- The Russian skaters throw great parties
- It’s, like, an international city, you know?
Anyway, they were cool guys. And by the time I met them I had had a few of the hostel’s 10 yuan beers. So eventually I commandeered the conversation and started telling them stories about what I had learned in Fujian, about the Chinese government, modern Chinese history. I told them about a student of mine whose mother had died because the family couldn’t afford the surgery needed for the form of cancer she had (I never learned, because of the language barrier—at the time I learned the story I couldn’t speak Chinese—what kind of cancer she had).
I talked more than I usually do, and I remember a distinct silence after the story about the cancer.
“Woah, man, that’s intense,” one of the Aussies said.
Then they went to bed. I realized that I would have to tone down my China obsession and try to assimilate a bit more back into the expat mindset if I was going to live in hostels for the next month, and if I was going to serve as any kind of enjoyable guide for my cousin. Hard truths about politics and daily life in China probably don’t go well with fun summer travel. Anyway, I felt like the skaters needed a dose of reality.
I, too, finished my beer, and went back to my room. The next day I had a flight to catch to Beijing.
I had an expat buddy in Beijing. Two, actually, and I was planning to stay with them my first night in Beijing and then move to a hostel, so as not to put them out too much, and meet my cuz the day after next at the Beijing airport.
After arriving in Beijing I went straight to the subway to head to their place, and was immediately confronted with the most immediate and brutal fact of Beijing for anyone who has to ride the subway there: There are a lot of fucking people.
After taking the express rail from the airport into the city (about 30 minutes), I entered the actual subway. Folks were “lining up” at the entrances to the subway cars, and as the actual train arrived a subway employee, probably noting my large rolling suitcase, waved me to another line that she presumably thought would be les of a shoving match to enter through, and I ignored her. Ignoring Chinese people is, unfortunately, a kind of habit of mine, as I usually find public officials, waiters, and transport people to be kind of pushy and unhelpful and unconcerned with the people they’re actually supposed to be helping. If they want you to do something, it often has nothing to do with what is actually right for you—you’re standing someplace that you’re technically not allowed to stand, for instance, and even though there are 20 other Chinese standing there the official singles you out as the foreigner and asks you alone to move to a different spot, for “safety”. Something like that. But it turns out in this instance I should have listened, because when the train arrived it was completely packed, literally packed with people, and the only way I could get on was to basically use force. Which I did. Which resulted in a couple of yelps from people whose shins met the blunt edge of my suitcase. I felt bad, and apologized, but I didn’t even know whom I was apologizing to. The subway car consisted of a mass of bodies crushed in together, and it’s not like anybody was going to call me out on being rude. The rule in situations like this in China is: do what you have to do. In this case, that means that everybody was pushing, and it’s not like I was going to go against the grain here.
I made it to Natasha and Nick’s place (my expat friends, one British, one American) and dropped my stuff in their comfy, upscale apartment. Natasha had a knack for living in nice places in China. (The rent on this place, I later found out, was more than 60 percent of my monthly salary in Fujian.) Natasha and I chatted and caught up. She would be moving to Chicago soon to go to grad school, and Nick would be moving with her. This would definitely be our last chance to hang out for a long time, and we had met in China – she and I had moved here at the same time, and knew a mutual friend from back home who introduced us over Facebook. Our friendship was kind of a rare one for me: the chance to talk to someone from the same place, who had come to China for the same reasons, and yet experienced a very different China from me, was totally refreshing for me. Natasha had stories about “real” expat life in China—meeting foreigners who had married Chinese, who had lived here for years, who were married to other foreigners themselves, who had long-term careers here. I had basically spent the last two years in the presence of Chinese, and that was it. The world of foreigners in China was foreign to me. And it was always comforting to hear that I wasn’t the only one.
In the evening we went out for dinner and trivia night at an Irish pub. This was weird for two reasons: first, the Western food was good; second, the Italian restaurant we had dinner at happened to be hosting a symposium for foreigners in Beijing involved in the energy industry. And it was packed with about 50 other foreigners. And there was a keynote speakers whose topic was solid waste disposal. The host of the symposium introduced her by explaining, with a little embarrassment, that solid waste did not mean what we might think it meant. It meant, like, cans and bottles and paper and stuff like that. Not, you know, that solid waste. So the four of us sat through our dinners of pasta and pizza, unable to really talk at any length because of the talk that was going on, listening to fascinating details about how garbage is dealt with in China. Also, the power went out. And there was a leak in the ceiling that was pretty distracting.
We did trivia later, and the other foreigners were weird. This is another inevitable thing about China, and a reason I’m usually not unhappy that I chose to go to a city with almost no foreigners in it. The foreigners in China, in general, tend to be at least slightly weirder than the people who actually inhabit English-speaking countries. No one seems to know why this is. There’s a general theory that it’s because life in China is easy, so it tends to attract people who couldn’t handle a more challenging existence back home. Of course, that’s a half-baked theory. The truth is that China contains a lot of lame foreigners, and, naturally, a good percentage of really amazing people. Nick and Natasha were examples of the really amazing contingent. But they did mention that it could be hard to find decent foreigner friends in Beijing.
One of the women we did trivia night with, in particular, showed her stripes when she said some pretty tactless things to Natasha, one of which went something like, “Oh, you were thinking, Natasha? That’s new.” (Prompted by Natasha saying she was thinking about something. Aside from the fact that this joke is not funny, it makes no sense, because Natasha is one of the smartest women I’ve met. And that lady was definitely not.)
Lu Xun, looking like a player in his Cosby sweater, I must say.
That evening I slept on the air mattress they so graciously provided me, and then moved on to my hostel, where I would spend another night. The next morning I would go to meet Jess at the airport. I spent a while getting oriented, and then went to the Beijing Lu Xun museum, which was right near the place we stayed (Bejing Templeside Guest House, an amazing place located in a Beijing hutong, which sadly will be closed at the end of this season because the owner wants to renovate the property, so I won’t write much more about it here except to say that Emma, the young girl who manages the place, is a wonderful and helpful lady and that I hope she finds a great job after the hostel closes). Lu Xun is pretty much The Big Guy in Chinese literature, and it was interesting to see photos of the places he used to live and to read quotes from some of his books, and get a general feel for his life story (he was obviously brilliant). But, because most of the displays in the museum were 100 percent Chinese, I can’t say much more than that. I could get the general drift of the meaning of the displays, but can’t say that I absorbed a lot about Lu Xun from the museum, due to the lack of English (which is fair; I can’t see a lot of foreigners spending time in the museum).
I will say that I found one quote, centrally displayed over a black-and-white background of pretty austere looking grass in a field, pretty wonderful:
The Lu Xun quote in his museum.
“What is a road? It’s something that was trampled underfoot in a place where there was no road. It’s something that—in a place where before there were only thistles and thorns—was started.”
I didn’t do much else that first day. I found some really good street food vendors, and pigged out on lamb’s meat sandwiches in the hot Beijing summer sun. But that was about it. I was fully intent on relaxing, and I was very glad that the anxiety I had felt in Sanming had pretty much stayed there with all my crap when I left. I still had small worries, especially because Jess hadn’t really arrived yet, but I was happy, and felt the refreshed, renewed feeling you really only get when you travel. In the evening I chatted with the girls who ran the hostel and drank beers and read, and went to bed early so I’d be ready to pick up Jess in the morning.
Next post: Cuz arrives in Beijing and the trip begins in earnest.