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The airplane itself served as a kind of cramped limbo: hours of “Desperate Housewives” on the TV screens, food meant for paper dolls and a constant stream of semi-interesting information – pages of books we no longer felt like reading and chit-chat with strangers about each other’s unconnected lives.
The trip really began when we stepped up to the booth at immigration, handed the man our passports and arrival cards, and tried to thank him in Mandarin after he stamped the page next to our visas. At least for me, that’s when I really knew I was in China – green chile and all other comfort foods and zones abandoned way, way on the other side of the International Date Line.
*********Beijing smells like Manhattan********** (italics), I thought once we made it outside. People smell the same everywhere, like old wrappers and dirty skin. The sky reminded me of cigarettes, of smokers’ fingers. These sad first impressions didn’t dampen the thrill. I grinned at Michael and then at the city I had been aching to see for so long that the physical reality of it seemed impossible.
I had prepared myself, mentally, for Beijing. I expected to feel out of place. I knew my digestive tract might not react well to the blitz of Chinese spices. I correctly predicted that I would stare up at the buildings like an unabashed tourist and pay too much for cheap souvenirs. But I had no idea I would feel like a child.
I had never traveled this far from home before – “home” no longer referring to my parents’ home, which I left a long time ago, but to the United States, which I had never even thought of before as a single place.
I had never identified myself with anything larger than a single state, and even then, only conversationally. I have lived in Buffalo, Rochester and Attica, N.Y.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Boston, Mass., and in Silver City, Santa Fe and Los Alamos, N.M. Each place felt distinct: New York was gray and full of cows. I never liked it. Michigan appealed to the part of me that likes to skateboard and paint psychedelic pumpkins. Massachusetts made me strive, and New Mexico lets me sleep when I need to.
With each move, and with other states I’ve visited, I went through a period of discomfort. I didn’t know where the library was, the grocery store, the theater, ballet classes. I didn’t always have family or friends nearby. Sometimes, I wouldn’t feel safe by myself, which really bugged me because I like a little solitude in the evening, some streetlights and maybe a dog to walk with.
But the uneasiness of being in a new town is wildly amplified in another country. Anywhere I go in America, I can at least assume a few minor facts about its residents – basic things, like that we speak the same language, are generally familiar with the same TV shows and know, for the most part, what is illegal to do.
In China, I didn’t know how to check into the hotel, which, luckily, our tour guide had done for us. That evening, I wanted to see the gym and pool facilities in order to decide whether I’d want to use them the next day. But when the attendant – whom I was surprised to see – asked me something pool-related, doing a front-crawl stroke with her arms, I didn’t know how to tell her, “Yes, I’d like to swim, but not right now.” I kept nodding my head and saying “later,” totally confusing her.
In the morning, after telling an elliptical machine I weighed more than 100 kilograms, I didn’t know whether to eat the white, pasty stuff with the fruit next to it on the breakfast buffet or to eat it by itself, like a soup.
My uncertainty infected even that which was not Chinese: where to place my suitcase in the tiny hotel room, and whether I wanted to sit on the balcony or on the chair by the bed. Beginning that very first night in Beijing, not only did I feel like a little kid, needing everything done for me and explained to me, but worse, I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t make jokes, I didn’t laugh and I certainly didn’t feel like a confident, intelligent, appealing person.
Although still excited and determined to enjoy every minute, I felt awful. The jetlag – which meant I had to go to bed at the “time” I would normally wake up – probably exaggerated my self-critic as well.
First-time world-travelers be warned: Because so many parts of traveling are truly great, awesome, just totally amazing, no one talks much about identity loss.
You might hear the phrase “culture shock,” but you, like I did, might imagine this as having more to do with small surprises. I was quite startled when our bus turned left during a red-yellow light, which follows a red light, preceding green. The squat toilet I discovered in a public restroom stall also threw me. I actually thought it was a urinal – what else could it be? – before, after seeing other women in the room, realizing urinals were not holes in the floor.
But the shock runs deeper, even, than toilets. You become just as unfamiliar to yourself as everything around you. And eventually, you realize that’s what you flew halfway around the world to do. It’s the difference between your own photos and someone else's.
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