The First Time I Travelled to China
The first time I travelled to China I was riding in the back of a blue Malibu station wagon. It wasn’t the China in eastern Asia that you’re probably thinking of, though. It was the one in EPCOT Center, where Mao Zedong had been replaced by Mickey Mouse and pretty Asian girls got paid to wander around all day looking exotic for Southern and Midwestern American tourists.
Prior to this trip, my only exposure to Chinese culture had come from my family’s frequent visits to the House of Chin, the only Chinese restaurant in Biloxi at the time. The House of Chin was the first of many Chinese restaurants I’ve fallen in love with during the course of my life. They had a big aquarium filled with overweight goldfish, and they served 7-Up with cherry juice in it. (This drink is usually called a Shirley Temple, but I was a boy, so the waiters used to call it a Hulk Hogan or a Darth Vader instead.)
Neither of these experiences was especially authentic – probably not authentic at all, according to some of you hipsters out there in Readerland – but they both played a part in putting China on my world-travel radar at a very young age. So, when I sat down to pick my 2014 winter break destination, Beijing was an obvious, natural choice.
The Second Time I Travelled to China
The second time I travelled to China I was flying economy class on China Eastern Airlines: Seoul to Yantai (China) to Beijing. China Eastern doesn’t have a very good reputation among the people I’ve talked to – my return flight had to be re-arranged at least 4 or 5 times – but the flights themselves were great, and as always Incheon lived up to its reputation as one of the most efficient airports in the world.
Here’s something you might not know about me and flying, by the way. I have amazing luck when it comes to airplane seating. For some reason, no matter how many people are on a plane, no matter which section I’m sitting in, regardless of whether the flight is domestic or international, the seat next to me is always empty. Sometimes I get a whole row to myself. It probably has something to do with the fact that I get my tickets through those last-minute services like Expedia and CheapTickets that book the one-off seats no one else wants. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
The Challenge of Being an Honest Southerner in a Dishonest World
When I got to Yantai (my connection city) I quickly processed an important fact: China is filled to the brim with hustlers and con men. (For the sake of my libertarian principles, please note that I said “hustlers and con men.” They’re not necessarily the same thing.)
As soon as I came through customs I was approached by two or three men speaking rapid-fire English: “Hello. You need a cab?…What country are you from?…Are you from the USA?…Do you like China?…Do you need a tour guide?…How long are you here?…”
I’ve often wondered why a lot of the more experienced travellers I’ve seen in airports and bus stations have a distant, almost angry look about them. The more I see of the world, the more I understand that look. It’s camouflage, an unspoken way of telling the riff-raff to leave you alone.
As a Southerner, I find it kind of hard to adjust to this. A lot of people have told me that I look like a very friendly, happy person, and that’s probably because I’m from a very friendly, happy place. I know I sound like a brochure, but it’s not at all uncommon in the American South for total strangers to strike up conversations about everything from the weather to their families to world events. When someone asks where you’re from (my dad is notorious for this), they actually want to know. I think it would be a shame to travel around the world meeting new people and lose your friendliness in the process. Thankfully, there is a middle ground to strive for. Whenever a scammer approaches, I’ve found that the best thing to do is say “No sir, but thank you” very politely and keep walking.
When I got to Beijing, the taxi sharks were circling in full force once again. I figured the smartest thing I could do was go to the Hotel Services desk and see if maybe there was a shuttle I could take. There wasn’t. But they were able to set me up with an official taxi to help me avoid scams. Incidentally, there was a currency exchange right next to Hotel Services. Because China is one of the only countries that has direct diplomatic relations with North Korea, I thought I would try my luck and see if it was possible to purchase some North Korean money as a souvenir.
“Excuse me,” I said to the lady behind the thick plastic window. “Can I buy money from the DPRK here?”
“DPRK?” She gave her supervisor a confused look, and they exchanged a few words in Chinese.
“What are you looking for, sir?” the supervisor asked me.
“I’m looking for money from the DPRK.” Then I finally just went ahead and said it. “North Korea.”
“Ohhhh. No. We don’t have that here.”
“I can’t buy North Korean money at any of the exchange desks?”
“Do you know where I might be able to purchase some?”
“Okay. See, I thought that maybe because China shares a border with them, it might be possible to find some of their coins and things here.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Note to self: North Korea is like an ugly chick that China is having sex with. It’s not going anywhere, but China really wants to keep it on the DL.
Upper Class Lodgings for a Working Class Vacation
350 yuan later (around 25 bucks or so), I was on my way to the Inner Mongolia Grand Hotel. You can really tell a lot about a person from the places they stay when they go on vacation. At this point in my adventures, I’ve slept on floors; I’ve stayed in public saunas that issued wooden blocks as pillows; I’ve been crammed in the loft of a mountain cabin with a team of Japanese hikers; I’ve shared rooms in hostels with hippies and hipsters; and I’ve lived in two apartments with a belligerent Pomeranian. But when I’m free to do whatever I want, I prefer to stay somewhere nice. My personality, my clothes, my taste in food, my musical preferences – these things are strictly blue-collar. But the snob in me loves a nice hotel. And the Inner Mongolia was (is) a nice place.
After checking in and putting down a 500 yuan security deposit, I ventured out to find some food and get my first look at Beijing from the street level.
You might be disappointed to hear this, but my first meal in China, apart from a noodle dish I bought during my layover in Yantai, was at a McDonald’s. I’m all for experiencing the local culture, but sometimes after a long day of flights and layovers you just want something quick, inexpensive, and familiar. And here’s an interesting tidbit about McDonald’s in China: the workers all wear revolutionary, Che Guevara-style berets with golden arches printed on them.
I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. China is officially a capitalist country dressed as a Communist one.
I saw further evidence of this when I went to the bookstore right next door. When I packed my bags for my China trip, I was careful not to bring any books that might cause controversy at customs. (Don’t call me paranoid. People have been arrested for reading George Orwell’s 1984 in both Egypt and Thailand.) Imagine my surprise when I found multiple copies of Orwell’s book (and Atlas Shrugged – holy shit!) available in Chinese. The times, they are a-changin’.
I was tempted to buy them as novelties, but in the end I walked away with just one book in hand: a Chinese-language edition of Ulysses, which I will proudly display on the shelf next to my Korean and Japanese translations, as well as the copy I picked up in Dublin.
Across the street from the bookstore was a vendors market where sellers were eagerly peddling all kinds of food and knick-knacks. You know all that cheap plastic stuff you see in the USA with “Made in China” stamped on the back? This is literally where all that stuff comes from.
“Hello, my friend. Which country you are from?”
“I’m from the USA.”
“Ah, USA, very good. You need panda?” Here the vendor showed me a stuffed panda bear. “It’s very cute, right?”
“Yes, very cute. How much is he?”
I did the math in my head. “300? No, that’s too much. That’s almost 20 dollars.”
“Okay, okay. 250.”
“I’ll give you 100 for him.”
“100? My friend, that is too low. No. We are friends. 200. This panda very cute. You give him to your girlfriend. She love him.”
I went through dozens of these haggling sessions when walking around the Beijing markets. The cool thing was, the vendors never seemed confrontational. Animated, yes. Eager to make a sale, unquestionably. But never hostile. It was really kind of fun once I got the hang of it.
Hello. Mao are You Today?
Another thing I really enjoyed about the Beijing markets was seeing all the Mao merchandise for sale. I realize that Mao’s name may not be familiar to many Western readers, so here’s the Wikipedia version of who he is.
Mao Zedong (i/ˈmaʊ zəˈdʊŋ, dzə–/), also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao(December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976), was a Chinese Communist revolutionary and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he governed as Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. His Marxist-Leninist theories, military strategies and political policies are collectively known as Marxism-Leninism-Maoism(often shortened to Maoism) or Mao Zedong Thought.
I’m not a Maoist in any sense of the word, obviously, but I was intrigued to see his image on backpacks, t-shirts, buttons, magnets, ornaments, flasks, keychains, statues, collector plates, posters, alarm clocks, watches, and even playing cards. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Chinese citizens and party members often carried a little red book filled with Mao’s teachings. Tourists can now buy plastic reproductions of that little red book with Chinese writing on one page and English translations on the next. It’s like a Commie Graceland.
Some Final First Impressions
Reeling with excitement and feeling self-impressed for finding a Chinese Ulysses just hours after landing, I started walking back to my hotel around midnight. On my way there, I saw a lot of things I didn’t really expect to see in “Communist” China.
For starters, China is really into Christmas.