The day I left for China I had to leave my hostel at 7:15 to get to the airport on time. I needed to be at the airport 2 hours before my flight, the bus to the airport takes an hour and a half and I knew it would take me a good 20 minutes to get down the hill of death and across the street to the bus stop, so I left almost four hours before my flight. After triple checking that I had all my things I made my way downstairs (an interesting feat with my luggage), put on my wet boots and made my way to the bus stop. Now, there’s a reason why I call the alleyway hill of my hostel the “hill of death”. Covered in two inches of snow and a good solid layer of ice, I basically slid my way down the hill in my boots with zero traction. I invite you to picture me, in the early morning all bundled up with a 50lb giant suitcase, a huge travel backpack and a small (very heavy) school back pack on my front trying to make my way down this hill covered in snow and ice. I felt like I was doing a pretty good job until I was about 20ft from the bottom. I stepped on a slippery patch and BAM! -fell flat on my back. Thank god I had on that backpack or I might have really hurt myself. The best part is that I wiped out in front of a young Korean girl and literally almost knocked her down with me. She didn’t speak any English and just stood there and stared at me laying on the ground with all of my stuff everywhere, not knowing what to do. I laughed and waved her on. She gave me one last panicked expression and hurried down the hill in front of me. I was a little scraped up and my pants were soaking wet but other than that I was fine.
Eventually I made my way to the street and tried to search the subway stop for an elevator- no luck. So I made my way down the stairs letting my suitcase SLAM on each step. I was afraid someone would yell at me, or better yet, think I had a gun or something, because my 50lb suitcase echoed like a bomb on each step. I made my way under ground to the other side of the street and began my treck up the steps. It was not a very pleasant experience trying to lift over my body weight in luggage up those steps in wet pants with scraped up hands and I had to stop every 10 or so steps. When I was about 2/3 of the way up a woman saw me struggling and ran up the steps and grabbed the bottom of my suitcase and helped me lift it to the top. All I could say was thank you (kamsamnida) literally 800 times. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her. Mysterious subway Korean lady: thank you.
I eventually got to the bus stop RIGHT as the bus was pulling away and I had a minor panic attack, knowing I would have to wait a full half hour before the next bus came. I looked at the sign and apparently there were TWO busses and I had missed the more expensive one: score! The bus eventually came after about 15 minutes and I made my way to the airport. It was an interesting experience sitting on the same bus a week later. The first time on the bus I was exhausted, nervous and I had no idea what to expect. This time I was still exhausted, nervous and had no idea what to expect (with wet pants) but I had a whole new surge of confidence heading into China. If I could brave the hill of death with my suitcases, navigate a country by myself knowing none of the language, stay in a hostel in Korea on my own and make friends with people from all over the world- of course I could handle China! I was nervous about my classes, the people on my program, my new roommate, and if I could live in a new country for six and a half months, but I was happy, and I was excited, and I was ready.
Waiting in the airport for the plane was an interesting experience. I had wifi so I logged onto facebook one last time and sent an email to my parents. Now normally when you line up for the flight they tell you: first class, business class and gold star (etc etc) members please line up now, then they announce what areas of the plane can line up after that. Before they even made the first announcement almost everyone was in line? I got in line with everyone else not knowing what was going on. Then they made the announcement about first and business class etc so I got out of line and sat back down. Boarding the plane was my first major experience with Chinese people’s blatant disregard for lines. All of the people lined up regardless of what was announced and the Korean airline let them board anyway! Eventually all that was left was me and other foreigners… I guess it’s time to get in line.. I half expected them to turn me away because my seat wasn’t called but they let me on..
The plane ride to China was only about 2 hours. It was too short for me to prepare! I tried working on my blog, writing in a notebook, but I almost couldn’t focus. I knew my flight landed about two hours before the other flight and thank GOD Yuanyuan, our Chinese assistant program director, thought to email me and let me know I had to take a shuttle bus to a different terminal, otherwise I would have been completely lost.
Eventually I disembarked, very nervous but also very excited. I made my way to customs and I was a little scared! I was expecting the man to ask me a bunch of questions like they do when you go to countries in Europe (mainly England comes to mind- what are you doing, where are you staying, etc) but with no questions asked, I was ushered through! Thankfully my luggage arrived safe and sound and I made my way to the shuttle bus which would take me to the main international terminal. As I boarded the bus I lifted my 50lb suitcase into the luggage rack and took my seat. This adorable, quirky Chinese girl who couldn’t stop smiling immediately stood up and gestured to change seats with me so I could sit next to my suitcase- very nice of her! For the rest of the shuttle ride she couldn’t stop staring at me and smiling. A little unnerving but very welcoming! On the shuttle ride to the international terminal I looked out the window, comparing what I saw to everything I had read. The sky was bright blue and the air looked fresh and clean! I could even see the moon out in the middle of the day! People seemed to be roughly observing traffic laws.. China isn’t so bad! I was pleasantly surprised but also a little confused. Where was the pollution, where was the traffic? We’ll see- I thought.
We finally arrived at the international terminal and it was beautiful! We pulled up and the nice, quirky Chinese girl grabbed my suitcase (which probably weighed more than her) and carried it down for me! Great first impression of China! When I made it to the airport I found my way to the international arrivals so that I knew where I would be meeting everyone. Since I had about two hours to kill I decided to find the China Construction bank and get some money. I made my way to information and waited patiently. When it was my turn I walked forward and immediately a man cut right in front of me and asked his question. JERK! I knew that Chinese people don’t respect lines but it’s quite an experience when someone blatantly cuts you in line for the first time, and it’s totally socially acceptable. So far, line cutting is the only thing that really bothers me! Spitting-sure, kids pooping in the street- okay, slurping- no problem, but if you cut me in line be prepared for me to glare holes into the back of your head.
Eventually I was able to ask my question. I said “qing wen, Chia Construction Bank ATM zai nar?”- excuse me, where is the China Construction bank. I guess my tones were pretty good because she went OFF in Chinese, giving me detailed directions. I stared at her in a look of panic, and she switched to English, telling me I had to go upstairs. I made my way to the elevator and attempted to get up to the second floor. The airport elevator was my first major experience with Chinese crowds. I politely pushed my way on with my ridiculous amount of luggage (if there is such a thing as politely pushing) and rode my way to the top floor, found the atm and thankfully there was an English option. I got my money and smushed my way on the elevator to go back down. I didn’t really know where to go, so I sat on a bench and worked on my Korea blog posts. I was really nervous about meeting my group so writing was definitely a good distraction.
Eventually it was time for me to meet my group so I slowly made my way to where my fellow tongxue (classmates) would be exiting. After rolling around for a few minutes I saw the Alliance sign! There were two adult men and a few people who had come in on different flights waiting. I have to say I was honestly surprised when I discovered that our program director was a black man named Marketus from Chicago. I was definitely expecting a Chinese guy. I met Sam (Samantha) who had arrived early that morning and had already seen her room and wandered around the campus and Alexis who had flown in from Ireland, visiting a friend, and had already studied in Shanghai for a semester. Eventually the group flight arrived and we all introduced ourselves in a loud hectic swarm. Most of the 15 of us on the Beijing program were there and two out of the five Xian students were there too. It was scary meeting all of these people, not knowing wether or not we would all get along. Eventually we all climbed on a charter bus and made our way into the city!
I was so nervous on the bus, looking around at everyone. It reminded me of bid day with my sorority, when all of the new members met in the grand ballroom to make our way to University Yard to be welcomed by our sororities. I was looking around at all of these girls not knowing wether or not we would be friends, trying to imagine me hanging out with all of these new people. On the bus ride there we passed by the Birds Nest and Water Cube from the Olympics and Marketus described Beijing to us, and informed us of our itinerary.
Eventually we arrived at the International Student’s dorm and were given the keys to our room on the 12th floor. My roomamte’s name is Windsor and she’s from Chicago and goes to the University of Illinois. She is very nice and outgoing and has a huge family back home. My first impression of my room was very comical. There is definitely enough space for the two of us, but the rooms are very long and skinny (like Potomac for those of you who know of my freshman room). The room came with a tv (which we still have yet to use), a mini fridge, a water boiler and two desk lamps. We don’t really have a closet, but more like wardrobes with a bunch of shelves and a tiny area to hang clothes. Our bathroom is very interesting though. While it’s nice to only share a bathroom with one other person we don’t have a real shower. We have a shower head on one of the walls of the bathroom and a shower curtain that splits the bathroom in half. Basically, whenever we take a shower the whole bathroom completely floods so we have to wear our complementary bathroom slippers. It was very comical- exploring this bathroom, and, in my opinion, it is a very creative use of space. One major unfortunate realization was our bed situation. I was expecting a hard bed- I had hard beds in Korea. But our bed doesn’t have a mattress. Like actually- no mattress. We sleep on wood with a teeny, tiny, hard cork pad and probably half an inch of padding on top of it. I sat down on my bed to take a rest and it hurt! I was not expecting the clunk of wood. So now when people come to my room I say “please, have a seat on my bench” while motioning to my “bed”.
After getting settled in and unpacking my (surprisingly- considering the weight) very limited supply of clothing. We met downstairs and headed to a restaurant called the two little pigs. It was nice to have a chance to really talk to the people at my table. I have to say I was very intimidated by Anthony and Yoko, who were both from the same school in Minnesota and spoke pretty much only Chinese at the table to the assistant director Yuanyuan. I felt like I should be speaking Chinese with everyone but everyone else seemed to be speaking English so I went with the flow. The food was very good, a lot more like the Chinese food you get in nice Chinese restaurants in the US than I was expecting. I had always heard that the Chinese food you eat in American Chinese restaurants is not real Chinese food but we had sweet and sour chicken, beef and broccoli, and some other familiar things. We also had Peeking Duck which was very good!
After dinner we walked to the grocery store near campus which is in the basement of the U-Center, a mall-like complex near campus. As we were walking there all of a sudden this siren went off and a woman on a loudspeaker started screaming in Chinese. WHAT IS GOING ON? ARE WE BEING BOMBED? Everyone was running in different directions and I couldn’t understand what the lady was screaming. Of course all of us were afraid for our lives. Marketus yelled that the bullet train was coming so we had to wait for it to pass through. As he explained this electric gates jutted out into the road, scattering the few that were brave enough to try to run to the other side. It was quite a shock for me. In my hometown we have trains that go through, and they merely inform you with a red light and the electric barriers block the road. Here a recording of a woman SCREAMING in Chinese blares over loudspeakers, informing pedestrians and cars that they better either wait or run across before the gates block the road. I felt like I was in London during a WWII blitzkrieg!
Eventually we made our way to the grocery store where we purchased some essentials. I decided to get a large tube of toothpaste since I only had a small travel-sized tube. I made my way to the toothpaste isle and there were so many options! The toothpaste in English was about twice the price of Chinese toothpaste so I decided to go the Chinese route. I wanted real toothpaste so I decided to go with a safe brand like Crest or Colgate. However, I also didn’t want a weird flavor. Some of the flavors I’m pretty sure were citrus, vanilla and green tea (excuse me while I throw up). I went with a safe, minty-looking one and called it a day.
It’s funny, in retrospect, going back to that grocery store, because I remember all of the feelings I felt that first time I was there. I had no idea where I was in relation to my dorm, I was nervous- freaking out about my language placement test coming up, unsure about my program and everyone on it, and unsure if I could even survive in Beijing! As long as I don’t get mauled by a train or hit by a car, I think I’ll be fine.