by Jen H
A story about feeling bewildered by the cultural differences in China.
| Traffic in China was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It defied not only traffic laws, but also common sense. In walking the streets of Beijing, I realized that stoplights are there, not to aid with traffic flow, but simply because the Chinese love blinky colored lights. Their function is purely aesthetic. The stoplight may seem to be saying, “You may now cross safely,” but the truth is, “Keep looking both ways and run for your life.” If a driver sees a window of opportunity, he will go for it. Red lights are inconsequential.
My husband Gaz and I were on a bus, heading high into the mountains outside Beijing. Our driver completed a highly unorthodox maneuver while ascending a bend in the road carved out of the mountain. The driver of the small white truck in front of us started to pass the little blue car chugging away up the hill. Our bus driver decided both the truck and car were too lethargic for his liking, and so on this big curve on the road, decided to overtake the truck overtaking the car. This placed us fully in the wrong lane and partially in the dirt shoulder. I ruminated his complete lack of visibility, and decided it would be better not to think about it.
Despite fearing for my life on an occasional basis, I forced myself to relax and enjoy the excursion. It was an overcast day, but that didn’t detract from the beautiful view. We passed tiny farming villages, nestled in the valleys of the rolling green hills. Farmers rode rickety donkey carts up the highway, past little roadside fruit stands. Modest homes had heaps of corn cobs laid out on their roofs, drying in the sun. It was a pleasant scene, but also sad to see how hard most Chinese worked for a meager existence.
The bus climbed higher, and we noticed a sheer, razorback ridge to the left. It was daunting. As we rounded the bend and the trees parted, Gaz and I noticed on top of the intimidating precipice lay the Great Wall of China. I gasped and teared up a little. It’s amazing how something you have seen millions of pictures of can still astonish and impress you the first time you see it with your own eyes.
Upon arrival at The Wall, we were faced with a decision. Walk (up a massive hill) to the wall, or take the skylift. Deep in my gut, I didn’t want to endorse the cheesy touristyness of the lift. However, we didn’t have much time before we had to catch the bus back to Beijing and I didn’t want to spend all of it trying to get up to the wall itself.
Upon arriving at the top, we acquired two new Chinese friends without even trying. Looking around, every other tourist had at least one. As we rambled up and down the stairs of the crumbling brick wall, trying to take in the view and embrace the experience, these two tiny Chinese women were hot on our heels. To be honest, I was perturbed. I had four very precious hours on that wall, and spending it being tracked by two souvenir vendors was not how I wanted to spend that time. We hiked faster, but they were astonishingly fit. Eventually we figured there was no avoiding it. So we embraced the situation, and made friends.
The forty and fifty-year-old petite black haired women were from Simatai, the village at the base of this part of the Wall. They hiked the Wall twice a day, skipping up the steps like nimble mountain goats while I hyperventilated the whole way. As a lover of language, I taught the younger woman how to count to ten in English, and she returned the favor for me in her language. She also taught me the strange Chinese hand gestures for each number. (For example, they don’t just stick up seven fingers to mean “seven”. They make a pinching motion with the thumb and fingers of one hand. Somehow, this signifies “seven”).
Later, the older one shared some unfamiliar hard orange berries with me I am sure she had just plucked off a nearby shrub. Gaz was not about to eat wild mystery berries, but I took my chances, and they were both delicious and non-toxic.
Our new friends took our arms as we made our way down the crumbly stone steps. We bonded, despite the language barrier. They ended up being sweet and fun, and the memory of them is not at all invalidated by the fact we spent $12 on postcards and a book at the end of our time together. The book came with a prestigious certificate proclaiming, “I climbed the wall at Mutianyu.” The reality that we were, actually, at Simatai made the award no less special. Rather than feel scammed we paid more for these items than it cost for the whole bus trip there, we thought of it as a good deed and a donation to two incredible, hard working women.
They set off on their way; no doubt our time with them had expired and they were off to make new friends. We trekked up and down the undulating wall, and I took it all in. The cloudy day made the wall and mountains seem even more ancient and mystical. I couldn’t believe I was there, touching those rocks. The whole experience was amazing in and of itself, but as I reflected on the day’s events, I realized visiting The Great Wall was a lesson in acceptance. Even after centuries of building a barrier to keep out the Mongols, the Chinese had to accept The Wall never served its purpose. They invaded, regardless. For me, trying to relax on that maniacal bus ride, and deciding to make friends with the souvenir sellers taught me to acquiesce to the uncontrollable. Everything is different in China- it is a bewildering place to be. There, on my first full day in the People’s Republic, I started a long hard journey in acknowledging that.