Thoughts on life after the PhD
A few musings on my first trip to China.
9/20, 11 a.m.
The Skyliner English announcer says “Please enjoy the view from the cockpit.” I love how the Skyliner thinks it’s a plane.
Also, what view? Until you get out of Tokyo it’s mostly just an endless stream of train tracks and telephone wires.
I Skyped with my parents this morning and my stepfather told me that I should order a dish called “beggar’s chicken” because he’d once had a patient who was a general in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army who had made a real feast for him that included this dish. I try not to crack up laughing when I imagine myself trying to pantomime “beggar’s chicken” in a Beijing restaurant.
9/20, 1 pm
At the airport. The smoking room has a sign that says “Adult smokers only.”
It’s during international trips that my usually-in-check OCD tendencies really come out. I am always convinced that I have the flight time wrong, or that I didn’t properly pay for the ticket, and when I go through check-in and they hand me my boarding pass without any problems I’m always kind of amazed.
9/20, 4 pm
My God, the English translation of the Chinese film they’re showing on the plane is so awful that I honestly have no clue what’s going on. “Do you know how cow dies?” “Boasted by you.” “I give you ride.” “Can I eat you?” The English in the in-flight magazine also seems to have been written by an eight-year-old.
What if Beijing isn’t real? What if it’s a city that tourists travel to but never return from, and all the photos on Facebook and all the travel literature is fake, because in fact anyone who goes there never leaves and gets turned into a donkey or something? Like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio?
9/20, 7 pm
My taxi driver is using the meter, which hopefully means that my pronunciation of “use the meter” was correct.
9/20, 8 pm
Why the hell is everyone wearing cat ears? Is Beijing the new cosplay capital of the world?
9/21, 10 am
Everyone sings around here. Not just crazy people. Random people will be singing at full volume while walking on the street, or someone might just break into song mid-stroll. I’ve seen little old men carrying radios on their belts that blast Chinese folk songs.
First impressions: the whole city seems to be in a state of cheerful decay. Buildings and walls are crumbly, there are random piles of garbage everywhere, junked-out motorcycles and bikes on corners. It makes Tokyo feel kind of sterile in comparison.
It’s also an olfactory odyssey. There’s a new smell every five seconds: incense, car exhaust, grilled meat, piss, tea, more piss, rotting food, garlic, cigarette smoke, grease, perfume.
9/21 and beyond
Scale. I think that’s what I’ll remember most about Beijing’s sights. Japan has grandeur when it comes to temples and shrines, but the Forbidden City is, well, the size of a goddamn CITY. Spaces between things are so huge here. The Summer Palace is this enormous lake surrounded by so many temples and gorgeous buildings that you could spend all day there and not see all of them. I feel like half my sightseeing time here is spent walking BETWEEN things.
It also kind of makes you marvel at royalty that would spend such a huge amount of money and effort on something so massive and gorgeous…and then effectively say to the general public, “Nope, this is all ours, stay out.”
I could eat Peking duck every day. And steamed pork buns. And loofah leaves, and snake beans with chili peppers, and noodles in brown sauce, and lamb skewers, and every kind of unleavened bread product sold from the Uighur stalls on the street, and Shaoxing wine, and probably even those little fried worms that I almost ordered but chickened out on.
Wandered through Prince Gong’s mansion this morning and practically had it to myself, which was nice in a city where it sometimes feels like all of China is trying to get through a tourist attraction ticket gate. Walking through moon gates and endless corridors reminded me of seeing Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou as a teenager and imagining China as this place of immaculate beauty and women with perfect clothing. When the time came to decide which foreign adventure to embark upon I think I’d realized that the China I saw in Zhang Yimou films was never really real, but here in Beijing, surrounded by all this architectural beauty and the sound of birds and a little rain, it’s good to know that some of it was real.
Seeing the Great Wall for the first time was a little like being thirteen and seeing your favorite rock star. Standing up there on a hill by myself and looking at the way it snaked endlessly over mountains I could only say “Oh my God, Oh my God” again and again and actually cry as I looked at it. Maybe it was because the weather was perfect and the sky was so blue and the mountains so green. Or maybe it was just the sight of something so endless that was actually built by human hands, and all the conflicted emotions that come from knowing that it was built to keep people out, but now it’s this place that thousands of people come to, and it’s so physically beautiful that you just kind of want to keep walking along it forever.
I miss Beijing.
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