Xanax, KFC, and Celebrity Status – China

Xanax, KFC, and Celebrity Status

They say there are several stages a traveler or expatriate goes through abroad, and they go something like this: 1. a stage of general fascination and delight with how everything is so different from home, 2. a stage of annoyance with how everything is so different from home, 3. a stage of desperate homesickness and wanting to leave, 4. acculturation. The first time I went to China, I was mostly in the first stage.

My oldest little sister, Laura, was teaching in China for two years; it was her first Christmas there, so she told Faith (my littlest little sister) and me to come visit. This was back in 2002, and I was distinctly unhappy about being sealed into a flying coffin for 12 hours or so. Fortunately, I had just discovered Xanax, so I agreed to come visit, even though the plane tickets cost a small fortune.

China had never been on my list of places to go, but I could see the benefits of going to China when I had a place to stay and a guide who spoke at least some of the language. Traveling alone in Asia would be intimidating for those of us used to traveling in countries who share the same friendly alphabet, so you can at least guess what’s going on some of the time.

Laura was living in Ningxia province, outside of Yinchuan, which is the capital of that province. It is very inland, north-central China – something like our midwest in the US, but even colder in the winter, since it is mostly surrounded by desert. It’s a rather poor province, but had just gotten its first KFC at the time of our visit (KFC seems to be more popular in China than it is here, for some reason). Laura was quite thrilled about this, although I couldn’t see why at the time. I had told her originally not to go to China, since she has strictly American tastes when it comes to food – hamburgers, pizza, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, pie. By the time we got there, she had worked out how to make many things from absolute scratch, and with a few missing ingredients (biscuits, for instance).

Touring China
Touring China
Anyway, Faith and I landed in Beijing all right, but we had to make it to Yinchuan somehow, where Laura would meet us. In order to do this, we had to purchase tickets for that flight in Beijing (why they wouldn’t let us do this in advance while we were still in the US, I don’t remember). Additionally, our hotel for the one night in Beijing was supposed to send someone to meet us at the airport (as advertised on their website), but no such luck. In my drugged state, it was the most I could do to get us to the hotel, since everyone around us seemed to be speaking in Chinese. Once at the hotel, I lay down on the bed “for a 5 minute nap”, I promised Faith, and was out for the rest of the night. Miraculously, she was able to find a Chinese businessman from LA who spoke English and was able to help her get tickets. I am told that I gave her the Chinese money for this transaction and was able to instruct her on what the proper amount of change should be, but I remember nothing of this.

The next morning, we boarded a small, terrifying Air China plane and were off to Yinchuan, where Laura met us. We had never been anywhere so foreign as China, and EVERYTHING was absolutely fascinating on that first trip, especially in the smaller city where Laura lived. Taxis, rickshaws, mules, bicycles, and pedestrians all shared the streets, in seemingly equal proportions. There were open-air markets with rows of plucked chickens and vats of blood and internal organs where we took lots of pictures, to the amusement of the locals.

Best of all, we were celebrities. I guess there weren’t that many white people who made it that far west of Beijing, so everywhere we went, people pointed at us and wanted to take pictures with us. Faculty and students at Laura’s university were very hospitable, inviting us into their homes for huge dinners where we ate incredible, exotic things, to restaurants for banquets where we ate incredible, exotic things, teaching us how to play Mah Jongg, and the university even gave us a driver and a car for some excursions to see incredible, exotic things – the banks of the Yellow River (covered with frozen sand dunes), the Xia Tombs (like giant beehives in the desert, guarded by squat, large-breasted, square statues), the Temple of Hell (mostly underground – you entered through a giant mouth, and then you went through various rooms where statues and paintings gruesomely depicted the various types of punishments you could expect in different areas of hell), the neglected fragment of the Great Wall to the north, the Helan Mountain stone carvings (really incredible, ancient carvings still in their original environment – mostly of people and animals with large penises).

Playing Dress Up
Playing Dress Up
Best of all, these places were all empty, since it was by far the off-season as far as tourism goes. This was because, as we discovered, northern inland China in winter is bitter, bitter cold. It was so cold, in fact, that we had to go to an army surplus store and buy PLA uniforms – full, long, green coats and commie hats with ear and nose flaps. This, of course, amused the locals even further – three white chicks dressed up as Chinese military men.

A word here about Chinese food – I complain about it a lot in my emails from my second trip to China, but it has some exceptional points, if you can get past the no cold drinks thing and the scary meat dishes. China has a large variety of vegetables, and you can eat vegetarian cuisine there quite happily for some time and not run out of options – the mushrooms are really varied and quite delicious, they eat several things that we’ve never considered eating, but that are quite edible – lily, for example, which has a nice crunch to it and a nutty flavor, and I’ve never had eggplant in so many fantastic ways – once in a wine-flavored, garlic, deep brown sauce that also appeared in a mushroom dish. Plus, they sold roasted chestnuts on the street corner. In fact, even though I normally shun most vegetables, I came back from this trip with a craving for vegetables (and for dairy – since there was no dairy to be found that far from Beijing).

One other thing about Chinese food is the way they serve it – you order up everything, and it all goes on a turntable in the middle of the table, so it all gets spun around, and everyone gets to try everything. Very communist of them, I suppose, but I was delighted by this, as I always try to sample things from other peoples’ plates anyway. This way, if someone has ordered something that looks better than what you ordered, you can try their order without shame.

Anyway, it was a most excellent trip, even with the bitter cold, the high pollution (on a snot index, it was about a 9 – woke up every morning with black snot), the split pants, the animals being castrated on street corners, and the hot drinks.

The second time I went to China, in 2005, it was on the Friday of finals week, we were exhausted from the semester, and we were headed off to Tianjin, a city of 9.5 million about 90 minutes by train south of Beijing. Tianjin is the third largest city in China, and is more of an industrial city than a tourist city. It used to be a booming port. I’ve never seen so many bicycles on the roads in my entire life as I saw there, doing a crazy dance with the cars and the pedestrians. Somehow, it works, too. We didn’t see anyone get mushed, and by the end of our time there, we, too, could step nonchalantly off a curb into a stream of bicycles and cars without fear of being run over.

We were responsible for 5 English classes at Nankai University, and we were running a series of simulations with each class (a simulation is like an extended role play – for example, you could take a simulated real-life situation, such as a UN meeting, and debate a particular topic, make proposals, and vote on a solution or compromise). Our experience was somewhat different than mine was the first time, I think, partly because of our location – in a large city – and mostly because of the lack of hospitality at our university. We were using a computer which we had been told we could use one afternoon, when the poor lady who was trying to get her work done asked when we would be leaving. “Tomorrow,” we said. “Good,” she said.

The author can be reached at jessica.hampton@gmail.com.

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