Beijing, China: Afro-licious


I decided not to buy these snacks (shrink wrapped chicken parts) before boarding my 22 hour overnight train to Beijing. Unfortunately I bought this (Diet Coke with Lemon) which tastes like a mix of lighter fluid and well…lemon. I really didn’t know what to expect of the train but I was woefully surprised when I realized that in China…they make things to their own physical proportions. So being 1.5 Chinese folks wide and about 3-6 inches taller I was in for a night of pure hell in terms of physical (dis) comfort. I had the last “hard” seat and there were no sleepers available. So I prepared myself for a long night of sitting upright with my legs crammed under a small table and a Chinese guy with the most awesome hair ever tucked up against my side. But here’s what happened:

The train was oversold so there were 13 of us in a space that “normally” would seat 10 people. I was the only American/non-Chinese person in a 200 mile radius. I hadn’t seen any of my SAS compadres in 2 days and I know 3 phrases in Mandarin (Hello, Thank You, You’re Welcome). I questioned the sanity of my solo travelling decision with no prospects for communication or company and a night with no sleep on the agenda. But, I ended up having the most hilarious time in my train car.

The Chinese are not a “warm and fuzzy” people. This at first took me slightly off guard being an over the top southern girl but I realized that if I lived with almost a billion people…I probably wouldn’t smile and say “hello” to anybody either, that’s a lot of grinning and waving. But the night on the train gave me the opportunity to observe the wonderfully warm, collectivist culture of the Chinese via two examples. First, in our car of 100+ people, 15 men didn’t have tickets for seats. So they were standing up, ostensibly for 15 hours. It never occured to me to proffer my seat to any of them but that is exactly what all the other men on the train did. All of the guys sitting in aisle seats would rise after a time and insist that a guy who was standing take his seat. Like they ordered them to sit down. There was no negotiation, no clock watching, no requests for someone to get out of their seats. For 22 hours I watched men who did not know each other, care for one another in the most basic way.

I was as you can probably imagine, quite the curiosity. Most Chinese people haven’t seen many, if any african americans and certainly none that are female, taller/larger than them and sporting an afro and settling into a cross-country train car like she belonged there. I got the normal stares and points and giggles (never mean spirited) that all of us of african american descent have gotten in Asia, but it didn’t bother me. I knew people were interested in my hair (huge afro at this point) and so I would bow and indicate that they could touch it and they did, which would send them and everyone else into a fit of giggles. Fun for them, fun for me. Breaking down cultural barriers one afro at a time (sounds like a t-shirt, no?). Plus, the guy sitting across from me was totally down with me stretching my legs out on either side of his to relieve my agony.

The second example of the warm Chinese spirit occured at dinner time. At about 9pm people started breaking out food from all sorts of places, one guy had drinks, another had some type of beef, someone else bought enough rice for all of us, and people started digging in. I was handed a pair of chopsticks and a spoon and via hand gesture, commanded to join in the food. Being my shy self I thanked them all, tossed in my ginormous bag of pretzels and a pack of gum, thanked the dude for the iced green tea, and joined them in the impromptu potluck. I should mention that only 4 of the 13 of us knew each other (two pairs of friends). So this was a touching moment for me, sap that I am.

After a while it emerged that two guys spoke a little english and a woman in our group of 13 spoke pretty good english. So the three of them served as translators. So while we sat up all night and I watched the guys play cards, someone would tell me the gist of what was going on in the conversations. They invited me to play cards, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the game, so I settled for shuffling and cutting the deck for the guy who was losing. We talked about their culture (what they did and didn’t like), USA culture, movie stars, music, what we did for fun…the usual “getting to know you” stuff with a Mandarin twist.

After 22 hours, awake on a train (no rats this time!) I felt a comraderie with my seatmates and it must have been mutual because:

-Gabriel invited me to a wedding the next day (and followed through with the address, etc via e-mail)
-When it was time to get off the train there were hand clasps and smiles all around and one guy kept saying “they really like you”
-3 of the other 12 wouldn’t leave me until they deposited me at my hotel in Beijing, despite being tired, ready for food and a shower, they escorted me (literally) to my hotel
-I met up with the aforementioned 3 and 3 of their friends the next night to chow down and hang out
-Gabriel continues to e-mail me despite our language barrier, and my inability to attend the wedding (no formal clothes and a pre-booked day tour)

What I did in Beijing

1. After 3 nights of little to no sleep, sketchy hostel sheets and an afro and wardrobe full of cigarette smoke (they can smoke anywhere here in China), I checked myself into the very posh Beijing Hotel and rolled around on the very comfortable featherbed after a long shower.

2. The Great Wall. Amazing, inarticulable. Worth the 3 hour round trip drive but next time I will go to a less popular spot. There were thousands of people. It was like Disneyland on the 4th of July. But the pictures you’ve seen don’t come close to the spectacular hugeness and longness (i know they aren’t words!) of the wall. Its like when you see the Grand Canyon after only seeing pictures your whole life.

3. The Summer Palace. Set on a man made lake, it was a great way to cool off from clambering around the Great Wall and the architecture is amazing. The history had me totally engaged and wanting more.

4. Tianamen Square. Impressive in size but after 5 minutes you realize its just a piece of outside with an intriguing and important historical moment attached to it. It is framed by 4 important buildings though. 3 of which we couldn’t get into because they are renovating in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

5. The Forbidden City. Large pictures of Chairman Mao and amazingly interesting history of this home to 3 Chinese dynasties. Over 9000 rooms, lots of Feng Shui and architectural elements and also about a million people visiting on the same day.

6. The Jade Factory. I didn’t like the fact that tour guides pretty much have to take you here in an attempt to get a captive audience to buy something. It reminded me of the rickshaw drivers in India. But I learned all about the different types of Jade, how to tell real from fake, how it is carved and polished and what they are used for, etc. Totally nerdtastic which you know I love. Then I said thanks and figured if they didn’t mind wasting my time without my permission, I shouldn’t feel bad about not buying something I didn’t want. Plus the cheapest thing in the place was $25 US for some knick knack crap. I still enjoyed it though.

7. The Pearl Factory. Same concept, same method of captive audience but again I loved learning all about the pearls, oysters, harvesting, real vs. fake, and I even got two tiny pearls for free!

15 thoughts on “Beijing, China: Afro-licious”

  1. I lvoe your non-words:
    isnt a word either…

    So why quibble over hugeness and longness

  2. Everyone is facinated by hair.

    A small Af/Am child from 1967, or so, was facinated by my son, Danny’s red hair and he by a much small afro than the one that you say you have now.
    I too love your non-words and great descriptions.

  3. So, now I have to preread the entries before I let my students read them and make sure to explain to them that you do know how to write and speak proper english, you have just earned the right not to sometimes.
    “Do as I say, not as I do” in full effect!!!
    Can’t wait till one of them tries to use hugeness or longness in their own writing.

  4. Hi there! Sounds great – I’m glad you were able to sleep!! I want an updated afro pic!!
    SG and I are headed to Tim’s parents to help take care of his dad for awhile – long story, but all should come out fine. I should have internet.
    Miss you and love you!!
    Beth Anne

  5. I know this is probably too deep for a blog comment, but I think you are an excellent example of what African Americans represent to the world at large outside of America..recently back here at stateside a huge debate in the african american community is taking place over hip hop and the use of the “n” word and what should be done about it..they really are making it a big deal (oprah did a two part special on the topic)! Its been my experience that African American travellers are the only REAL African American people they will see and we HAVE to breakdown the cultural barriers and show them that we are NOT all gangsters, rappers (although they still want us to sing Snoop Dogg with them), movie stars, and video chics and all the other negative images they are exposed to through media! Thank you for that, through out this whole trip, for being an ambassador and a messenger…I couldnt help but feel saddened upon my return from travel that more African Americans do not have the opportunity to see how the rest of the world views us as a community and culture, maybe then we’d be more careful about the music, videos, and movies we make and what we call ourselves!

  6. argh. i’m behind on my blog readings… been busy starting fires. muahahah…can’t wait to see you!!!

  7. My dear afro-sporting sista:

    Please, please make a tee and I promise I’ll buy one! This must be done sooner than later as I am debating to lock it up! GULP!!! This was a very beautiful post. Totally love your going out there alone… I hear so much about the Chinese not necessarily diggin’ black folks, but it sounds like you made some friends, had some good food and sweet times. I’ve not been all crazy to go to China, but this one was fun and makes me want to consider it one day after the other 100 places on the list. 🙂


  8. I have just spent a glorious Sunday afternoon reading the story of your travels. You’re moving fast! My last real read you were on the southern tip of Africa, and now you’re already in Beijing. (I loved the Summer Palace, Great Wall, & Forbidden City, too).

    As you know, I also have a dream to do some long term travel yet feel the tension of it being an utterly selfish pursuit. Your perspective on travel as a pursuit that is ultimately about the self…at the same time selfish and leading to selflessness…is beautiful. Two things, I think, make your own journey not ultimately selfish. First, you are doing more than sightseeing; your journey is considered and explored beyond the surface. Second, you are taking others with you literally (natives and SAS travelers) and through your writings. Much love & God’s traveling mercies to you. I’m looking forward to more from Asia!

  9. China Whooo hoow KNEEE HOW!!

    I see you are doing fine, travelling Dia style! I love it. I’m thinking about doing semester at sea. for the the fall. need to move quickly, however. Can you put in a good word for me?

    I am going back to South Africa at the end of the Month and then to Switzerland for two weeks! I will try to channel some of that free travel spirit that you are working with!



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