The first night Emily and I spend in Beijing, we sit in a restaurant with a group of friends; a bottle of Jameson and a boom box rest on the table. The Jameson was bought at the airport and the boom box is blaring rap music. Surprisingly, no one at the restaurant says a word. Welcome to Beijing.
“There aren’t any rules here,” Greg, the groom of the wedding we are here attending, explains. “Don’t just look both ways when you cross the street, look all ways,” he pauses. “Traffic laws aren’t really enforced.”
We cross the streets with extreme caution.
Greg’s stepfather works at the U.S. Embassy here and Greg and his fiancée, Candice, moved from New York three years ago to go to grad school. Candice was good friends with Emily at New York University.
It’s much colder here than in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we wore shorts; here it’s jacket weather. A few days into the trip it snows. Beijing is more spread out than Hong Kong. It feels a little bit like L.A. in that way. In Hong Kong, we walked everywhere. Here, we spend much time in the car. It’s more difficult to get around. Most people do not speak English.
It’s fun hanging with Greg and Candice and seeing their lives here. We eat some excellent meals. Peking duck is a huge highlight and I try a taste of bees and worms just to say that I did. They are crunchy. The hardest part psychologically is placing the bee, dangling from your chopstick into your mouth.
We spend two days sightseeing. The first day we visit the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. The Great Wall is as impressive as I’d imagined it would be. We take a chairlift to the top of a mountain and climb the wall; it really is a climb, at times significantly steeper than a flight of stairs. At the top, it stretches on and on into the distance and you are transported back in time. I can’t stop wondering about how it was built. It’s an unbelievable feat.
In the car ride later, our guide explains a bit about the government in China. She explains that tomorrow we will visit Tiananmen Square. She says she never knew what happened there until she became a guide and people started asking her about it. She did not learn about it in school. I ask her if she’s ever seen the photo of the man standing in front of the row of tanks. She says no.
That night our eyes are sore from the pollution in the air. Back at the hotel, my Gmail creeps along. Google hardly works. Facebook is blocked. The New York Times website is blocked.
We get dressed up for the Beijing leg of the wedding—a party in one of the fanciest apartments I’ve ever been to. The view overlooks the modern 2008 Olympic Park. I am struck by the clash here between the upper and lower classes. It’s far more pronounced than back home.
The next day, we visit Tiananmen Square. It’s raining and it feels a bit surreal. A security detail searches everyone trying to enter, though when our guide shows her badge, we are waved through. There is no memorial, no mention of the 1989 protests. Mao’s tomb is in the center and large photos of him hang.
There are cameras everywhere and huge video screens showing sweeping wide shots of the countryside. Words like “honor” and “country” flash in big letters. Compared to the Great Wall, there are very few non-Asian tourists. Our guide takes us to the center of the square and points up at the flag waving in the wind. She explains the five stars on the red Chinese flag. She tells us about a beautiful ceremony in the morning and urges us to come back sometime to see it.
In this moment, I realize that this is probably the most foreign place I’ve ever been to. I am a bit shaken.
That night, back at the hotel, I see the “Made in China” tag on my shirt in a new light.