Chapter 22: Hitting the Great Wall(s) of Beijing

The Great Wall of China, cascading over a mountain
Sometimes, you hit walls in life in China. And sometimes, you hit walls on the way to the Great Wall.

When I think of Beijing, I think of walls. I think of the Great Wall, that fortress meandering over a panoply of mountains surrounding Beijing, built to keep foreign invaders out of China.

Today, foreigners can be found all over Beijing, a city that in 2008 warmly welcomed them to the Olympic Games. But sometimes, no matter how open things seem to be, the walls still remain.

I was hitting a wall of my own in Beijing when I couldn’t get in touch with my Chinese boyfriend, John. It was past nine on the evening of September 28, and he had promised to arrive in Beijing on the morning of September 29. But he hadn’t called to say he would definitely come, or that he had bought a train ticket — and his cell phone had lost power, so I couldn’t call or send a text message. I was in my hotel room, without the distractions of the day — a walk around Tian’anmen Square, a visit to a replica of the home from a Dream of Red Mansions — and all I could think of was this vacation couldn’t move forward without John.

A bath, I thought. Just take a bath. So, as I slipped into the tub — my last refuge from a mental breakdown — and my phone rang. It wasn’t John’s number, but I picked it up.

And, sure enough, it was John. “I just got on the train — I’ll be arriving at 7:45am in the Beijing station.”

Just like that, his words broke through the barriers in my mind. He was coming. Our National Day vacation would happen. We would be together again.

Yet, all of my elation never prepared me for the walls that awaited us, after John arrived. Because, when you’re young, in love, and traveling independently — on a budget — in China, something’s bound to catch you, sometime. Continue reading “Chapter 22: Hitting the Great Wall(s) of Beijing”

Chapter 21: A Foreign Face in Beijing

Western woman meeting the governor of Hangzhou, China
As a foreigner in China, sometimes your "foreign face" is your most useful asset. (Pictured: the company introduces me to the governor of Hangzhou, because I'm the token foreigner.)

Attending the conference in Beijing is the closest I’ll get to feeling like a model — because I’m valued more for my appearance than my intellect. My foreign appearance, that is.

Our company has a booth enviably located near the main entrance and the stairs, guaranteeing just about everyone will pass by. We’ve stacked our tables high with the company’s free manufacturers’ directory — available in exchange for a business card.

Standing behind that table, I want to be more useful than just a face. I help the sales reps unload boxes of directories. I collect business cards, hand out directories, and shake hands, just like everyone else. But in the end, I am still a curiosity, and still largely ornamental — and the attendees can’t help but remind me of it, especially once I speak in Chinese. Continue reading “Chapter 21: A Foreign Face in Beijing”

Chapter 20: The Forbidden Heart of My Ex-Chinese Boyfriend

Tiananmen gate, just before the Forbidden City in Beijing
Frank, my ex-Chinese boyfriend, used language to create distance, making his heart as fortified as the Forbidden City in Beijing once was.

Sometimes, life doesn’t keep the people you love the most by your side. As John left on September 19 for Shanghai, I still spent every workday in the office with Frank, my ex-Chinese boyfriend, sitting right by my side. And on September 23, I would have to attend a conference in Beijing with Frank.

Mr. CEO, the head of this Chinese Internet company, had asked me to go to the conference. “I’d like you to help represent the company,” said the sprightly 30-year old with a hand cupped over a slight smile, almost as if embarrassed. Maybe Mr. CEO had so much more to say, but simply kept it to himself.

Frank, however, wasn’t about to keep to himself his assessment of why I was going. “You’re there for ornamental purposes,” he announced confidently, almost with a smirk on his face. I wasn’t a Christmas tree, yet it was obvious that Mr. CEO needed me there to make the company look more international. Still, Frank’s words smacked of such sarcasm, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how he pushed me away and created space between us — even when that space, physically, didn’t exist.

When you’re forced together, against your will, sometimes language is all you have for separation. Continue reading “Chapter 20: The Forbidden Heart of My Ex-Chinese Boyfriend”

Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret

It has barely been five days since I returned to the US, yet my mind is lost once again in China.

I had some shocking experiences, such as hearing stories from my heart surgeon friend in Beijing. I had to convince my father-in-law to give up on nucleic acids, and never take them again. I experienced a surprising detour on the way to Shaolin Temple, and realized it wasn’t really worth it. I am really alarmed by what I saw in Lijiang, watching a World Heritage site being capitalized to death.

But really, sometimes it’s too easy to get caught in the shadows of China — because there are so many shadows. I know I tend to react strongly when I see injustice. My husband John says it’s a good thing — it means I care about China, and I want the country to improve.

And, admittedly, there are improvements, especially in John’s hometown. Continue reading “Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret”

Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter

For those of you who don’t know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my first landing in China — August 27, 1999. That day, when I stumbled into Beijing’s old international airport, never did I realize it would change my life entirely. That I would spend the majority of the next ten years living and working in this country; that I would find my husband here, and get married here; that I would find myself so entirely captivated by a country so drastically different from what I’ve known.

Truly, though, it’s the people in China that I love the most. I’ve discovered friendships in this country so deep, and precious, and strong. These friendships sustain and nourish me, and help me to rise above all of the difficulties one encounters in this country.

Besides my husband, there is one friend in China who stands out from all the rest — and this year marks 10 years of friendship together. That friend is Peter Pi, who I had the privilege of spending five days with in Beijing. Continue reading “Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter”