It was my husband who urged me to accompany him to a trip to China. He had a work engagement there and kept insisting that I should tag along. With my youngest planning to move to university, we were about to become empty nesters. “Why should you sit around in an empty house, feeling sorry for yourself? Come with me on a trip to China instead, it will help you get over the heartbreak.” He told me. I was skeptical at first, but then I knew I wouldn’t get any work done during that time due to my emotional state. “Spending 3 weeks in China is as good a way to waste time as any.” I thought to myself. I packed a bag. Off I went.
What is it about tourism that makes it so alluring? I was constantly feeling like fish out of water. Most of the time I had no clue what was going on around me. I felt embarrassed by it all. I spent considerable time looking at ancient artifacts that some man with a grand ego built hoping that future generations would remember him. I marvel at this. Perhaps tourism is more about what I am trying to escape than what I am came to experience? Perhaps failing to understand is the point. But Hey! Look at this grandiose building in Beijing’s Summer Palace.
“Seek knowledge even if it’s in China” some attribute this saying to prophet Mohammed, others say it’s made up. In the eight century, China symbolized a place that is far away and difficult to get to. Then there are all the stories of adventurers traveling to China in the Arabian Nights. Those stories from the 11th century will tell you nothing about China and everything about how people of that time imagined a faraway place with exotic customs. Peeling further the layers of the onion that is my perceptions of China, comes novels such as Wild Swans by Jung Chang, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and POW! by Mo Yan among others. Here I am running through a fountain in Tai Koo Li center in Beijing realizing that China is nothing like I had imagined. All my perceptions are wrong. Not the knowledge I came seeking.
I thought I had put the eternal tourism of my wandering heart to rest. But sitting here at the Loashe Tea House is bringing up the old gypsy spirit. I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed the traditional Beijing arts performance. But judging by the reaction of the rest of the audience, it was fantastic. I find myself thinking: “I will learn Chinese, study the culture, read about the history and one day I will sit here and totally get it.” A more sensible voice in my head says: “No Elen! you can’t learn every language, study every culture, you are in a foreign country, it’s fine that it went over your head. Let it rest.” I think travel is too dangerous for me.
Everything in China is on a mega scale. I have walked into restaurants the size of a football field with an army of waiters fretting about. The Starbucks is the most massive Starbucks I have ever beheld. The buildings, streets and city squares are bigger, grander and more imposing. Vancouver seems like a dinky little village in comparison. I feel like a tiny insignificant ant as I navigate this country. Here I am at the great wall of China. Feels befitting that this culture would produce the only human made structure visible from outer space. This trip China is a humbling experience.
You might think:”I am standing at a cross walk and the walking man is flashing green, it should be safe to walk across to the other side in a straight line.” But you would be very wrong. There is still a slew of a bicycles, mopeds and cars coming at you. Hesitate too long and you won’t be able to cross. Go ahead and you might be hit by something. There is this thing the locals do, a dance, take one step forwards, two steps to the side, speed up, slow down three steps in the other direction until they get to the other side. They do this instinctively, without even thinking about it. They are probably not even aware they are doing it. A type of road crossing kung fu. So if you are a foreigner who hasn’t had a chance to connect with your inner Bruce Lee for road crossing, you have two choices. You either walk right behind somebody else and mimic every step, movement and gesture until you get to the other side. Or you take a deep breath, say a prayer and cross the road like a headless chicken hoping nothing hits you.
“You must try the Peking Duck” said everybody ever since we arrived to Beijing. “O we had some duck in Chengdu” I replied once …. I learned very quickly that was the wrong thing to say. “No! that was Chengdu duck, you can only have Peking Duck in Beijing.” Our friend seemed offended by my duck ignorance. People in this city are very proud of their duck and absolutely determined that we must try it. So we went to the original restaurant that invented Peking Duck a few hundreds of years ago. First a waiter wheels in the duck on trolley like a patient about to undergo a surgery. Then he produced an array of sharp knives. And proceeded to slice paper thin slices of duck meat which he placed on our table in installments ceremoniously. This was served with thin slices of bread that looked like tortillas and a dipping sauce. You are supposed to place three of four slices of meat into the bread, wrap it and eat it. It was pretty good, but not as great as I thought it would be. The meal was concluded by presenting us with an authenticity duck certificate. We had consumed duck # 228564.
But I did learn a valuable lesson. The trick with Peking Duck is in the carving action. Over 20 years ago I purchased a whole Peking Duck from china town in Vancouver thinking that we would eat it for dinner like a roasted chicken. We didn’t know how to eat it. On my table it was a bony greasy mess and I ended throwing it out.
Because of my husbands connections through work we kept getting invited to banquets by his colleagues during my trip to China. The food was phenomenal. I wish I came to China while I was writing Spoonful Chronicles. The experience would have added inspiration into the writing process. I used to think that Arabs were masters in the art of overdoing food, but this trip has made me change my mind.
Towards the end of my trip to China I had a chance to visit The Lama Temple in Beijing. My guide for the day said that the temple is particularly effective for granting wishes. I faced a dilemma. What wish do I make to maximize this unique opportunity? As I thought about it I realized that most of the things others around me were wishing for I already had. Good luck has always come my way easily and effortlessly. I didn’t even have to pray for it. I have been lucky in love. Lucky with mostly good health. My life has been blessed with three children. I have had my fair share of adventure. Countless other blessings have showered over my head. As such I decided to wish to become the type of person who is worthy of all the good luck that she already has. As I walked around the vast temple, in one little corner I spotted a woman portioning rice out of a large canvas bag into smaller plastic bags. Through my guide I was able to discern that this rice had received the blessings and prayers of a monk for seven days. “Eating it would be very lucky” I was informed. Needless to say, I managed to snag one small portion of lucky rice for myself.
Here I am, towards the end of my trip to China, I feel happy and full hearted again. Something inside me feels restored by the experience. Can’t wait to get my lucky rice back home, cook it and eat it too. I spent lots of time reflecting on why does tourism have this effect on people. When even crossing the road is an exciting adventure, you are too involved in what is happening right in front of you to be busy thinking about the past and worrying about the future. Perhaps the trick to happiness is to pretend to be a tourist on a daily basis. Sometimes you need to be fish out of water in order to jump back in and swim more energetically. I come back to Vancouver determined to apply the lessons China taught me on a daily basis.