Since Tibet was out as our next destination, where to next? Mongolia? Train tickets were sold out for the entire week. Xinjiang? Tickets also sold out (and thank goodness we didn’t go because the deadly protests in Urumqi broke out a few days later). Here’s how we decided on our next stop: we consulted Weather Underground and looked for the coolest temps in Eastern China. Qingdao it is! Hey, we went to Malaysia for a good bowl of curry, why NOT choose a place based on the climate, especially after the heat in Beijing and Xian made us cry “uncle.”
Qingdao is a former German settlement in Eastern China known for its beach and its beer (which you may know by its Wade-Giles spelling, Tsingtao). It rained pretty heavily while we were there, but honestly, we didn’t care. As long as the the mercury didn’t climb above 90°, we were happy campers.
Both German architecture and Chinese people on the beach are novel sights in China, which makes Qingdao a rare place indeed. But the brewery! Totally worth it, even though they were stingy with the free samples (a mere half pint!). The majority of the self-guided tour is pretty standard fare: the history of Tsingtao, different advertising campaigns, bla bla. What made the tour interesting is the actual, functioning bottling plant. I swear Jeremy and I stayed there for half an hour watching them bottle and can the Tsingtao brew. We’re nerds like that.
The other highlight of the Tsingtao brewery tour was the Drunk Room. Basically, it was a room where the floor was slanted. Simple but surprisingly effective! We totally felt drunk (it was BEFORE the tasting room, I swear)!
I can’t say we loved our time in Qingdao…the city itself is really spread out, and beyond the brewery there isn’t much to do besides wander around the parks (which, I have to admit, are pretty nice), or try to find some German food to eat (surprisingly difficult in Qingdao! We only know of one place: Monnemer Eck, which is was dead empty when we dined there. Good food though!).
But there is one reason why this Chinese city will always stick out in my mind: I had a total meltdown trying to leave Qingdao. Are you ready for this?
We decided on our next destination (Taishan), and learned that there was both a bus and a train that could get us there. The express train left at 6AM, but only took 3 hours. The bus took 6 hours, left several times a day, and was cheaper than the train ticket. So J and I decided on the bus. Only thing is, NOBODY seemed to have any idea what time the bus left. There was no telephone number you could call, no schedule, and the bus station was about 15km north of the city center, so it wasn’t really convenient for us to hop over and ask. Whatever, we’ll just show up at the bus station the next morning, right?
So that’s exactly what we did. We got there around 9:30AM only to find that the next bus leaves at 12:30PM. Not wanting to wait 3 hours in the station, I call the train station and find out that there’s a non-express train leaving at 11AM. We hop in a taxi to the train station and wait in this line for tickets:
By the time I get to the front of the line, train tickets are sold out. Great! Back to the bus we go.
Over at the bus station, the saleslady tells me that tickets for the 12:30PM bus are sold out; next bus is at 3PM. Double great! We have little choice at this point but to wait 4 hours for the next bus. At least there were funny Chinglish signs there to keep us amused.
At around 2:30PM, I start gathering my things. But hold on a minute…something seems fishy. Why isn’t there a bus at our gate? I examine the ticket (which is all in Chinese), I see the numbers “12:30,” and I start to panic. Did our bus leave at 12:30? Why did the woman at the window tell me 3PM?!? It is possible I misunderstood, but the words for “3:00″ and “12:30″ sound REALLY different in Chinese. So i run up to the information desk, frantic.
Hope: Can you tell me if this ticket is for the 12:30 bus to Taishan? The woman at the window told me it was a 3PM bus!
Information Lady: We don’t have a bus at 3PM to Taishan. This bus left two hours ago.
H: But…but…the woman told me 3PM!
IL: Didn’t you hear them announce that your bus was leaving?
H: I wasn’t listening! I’m not from here!
IL: Well, there are no more buses, you have to leave in the morning.
H: [Almost in tears at this point, and not being coherent] I’m not from here!
IL: [Clearly disturbed by the weird Chinese American girl freaking out] It’s OK, I understand. Here, I can refund your ticket.*
*In retrospect, it was almost unbelievable that she so readily gave us a refund. But I was too distraught to recognize this at the time.
I can’t tell you why I wigged out so badly…the back-and-forth from the bus station to the train station and back again definitely kicked it off, but I think the bulk of it had to do with my growing suspicion that being a Chinese American traveling in China was not an asset, but in some ways a burden. Sure, there are times when it has been awfully convenient to be able to communicate. But there are other times I feel it is easier to have Jeremy’s face in China than my own. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this misunderstanding NEVER would have happened if Jeremy and I were two Western-looking people…they would have tried to find someone who spoke English, or they would have pointed out the time on the ticket.
And maybe that’s why I melted down—because the country to which I have attached my ethnic identity wants almost nothing to do with me. Nobody is trying to take their picture with me (whereas Jeremy’s face must be imprinted on hundreds of memory cards and hard drives around the country). Nobody wants to help me—in fact, sometimes they laugh in my face when I make a “weird” request (like, “can you put some vegetables in my soup?”—what a FREAK!) Or if I don’t understand the phrase they used, they talk about me like I’m not in the room, as if all of a sudden can’t understand anything they are saying. Heck, we even got scammed by my “people.” Do you think a Chinese person would laugh in Jeremy’s face if he mispronounced a word in Mandarin? Doubt it. They’d probably be too busy falling over themselves with adoration.
As a Chinese girl growing up in the USA, I spoke Mandarin at home, went to Chinese school on the weekends, and ate hot pot on Thanksgiving. I thought I was Chinese. Only now, after traveling through the countries of my ancestors, do I find that the truth is much more complicated than that. I find myself grossed out by all the spitting, annoyed with the crowds, irritated by the constant noise, disgusted by the bathrooms…and yet simultaneously, I want to defend this country to the Westerners who complain about the exact same things. I want to explain that Chinese people spit on the floor because they think blowing your nose in a tissue is disgusting. I want to challenge them to live in a country with 1.3 billion people and see what their public bathrooms look like. I want to tell them: just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Oh, the confidence that is inspired by that singular viewpoint!: To always look from west to east and not back in the other direction. Don’t get me wrong—there are many, many gifts that I was bestowed because of my ethnic heritage: a multilingual tongue, respect for my elders, a hair-free body. But that confidence is not one of them.
That day in Qingdao was the only time on the trip I just wanted to click the heels on my ruby slippers and go back home. You know, somewhere I felt like I belonged. Now if I only I knew where that could be…