Climbing That Other Great Wall: 北京 (Pt. II)

As strange as it is to say, my disposition toward Anne’s relatives was almost viscerally familiar—one that had evolved after years of careful study with my own extended family. This is fitting given Anne’s own background as a quarter Chinese, and also explains why she has relatives living in Beijing. Each conversation began the same way: her great aunt posed a question, and I, as the dutiful and polite guest, was naturally expected to respond. Her husband, like most older males in my mother’s family, preferred to stay reticent, but I could tell she herself was excited. Here I was, another part-Chinese, her kind, the kind of person she could joke around with and not worry about offending. She wore a face I knew well—beady eyes, a wide grin, the kind of head nod that will egg you on despite reservation. And almost reflexively, I was all but ready to deliver the culmination of my childhood knowledge of Cantonese—the perfected smile-and-nod routine—until I realized that I could understand her. Or, perhaps—more accurately—that I should have been able to.

For she was not speaking Cantonese, the bane of my childhood insecurities, but the very language I had been studying for over a year. Not only that, but she was speaking the most standardized regional dialect. And still, there was nothing. My head registered sounds but no meaning—a garble of tones and nonsensical word pairings. I managed to half-register a reply before sinking back down in my chair. For a time, a few short exchanges were all it took to shatter any hopes I had hindered on my study of Mandarin. It was such a debilitating feeling to have to disappoint someone—and to do so in their native country, no less—not for lack of effort, but out of sheer ineptitude. As she began to realize what transpired, I saw the familiar sag of the face, the smile drawn downwards, air blown out from between her lips, as if to say, “just another American in China, and he can’t speak Chinese.” It was particularly hard looking like her; all the familiar marks of a Chinese but without the means to communicate.

It’s difficult for American-born Chinese who can’t speak their familial tongue. It is like an entire life spent being perceived one way and constantly underperforming those expectations. In practice, it’s not nearly that dramatic, but it certainly feels it at times. I’m perhaps luckier in that I don’t always look Chinese, at least to many people here. It’s only when I am a little more explicit that it seems to register. And as proud as I am of my heritage, it’s sometimes easier to pass simply as American—with no hopes latched on my presumed knowledge of Chinese language, custom, and mannerism. In this way, no one has to get hurt.

The Great Wall, as seen through one of its watchtowers.

After dinner, the five of us went back to Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s apartment. This too was like entering a parallel universe. Anne’s relatives, like my own, speak Chinese—this time a different dialect—but I still could not understand them. They live in an apartment, strikingly similar to my aunt’s house in Queens—but in Beijing. I’ve come to the conclusion that older Chinese people must actually share a similar lifestyle, in the same way that classic older white suburbanites do. Trading in the sticky plastic coverings that overlie couches and the slightly dingy, off-color window draping, older Chinese couples might superimpose excessively large pieces of furniture in cramped quarters, and year’s worth of boxed belongings, stacked floor to ceiling behind long pieces of fabric. I am no stranger to this lifestyle. I remember well the tiny outdoor porch where my aunt used to hang clothes and store bulky appliances, the living room that smelled of carpeting and stale air, and her kids’ bedrooms, which, after long years without use (her kids are now grown-up with families of their own), had become part-time capsule and part-storage closet. I remember how every inch of space was monopolized, and the way each saved item functioned like a comforting reminder of the past. Living through the Cultural Revolution seemed to make Chinese perpetual pack rats in the same way it did for Americans who were alive during the Great Depression.

At Anne’s great aunt’s apartment in Beijing, I was guilty of a little snooping. I had to prove whether or not my theory was correct. And indeed, there was something of the familiar—her great uncle’s study, where I stayed for the duration of the trip, had tables and bookshelves bursting with old magazines, newspaper clippings, and expired advertisements. There, too, were the same antique lamps, the coarse wool blankets slumped over the bed and chair, and the crinkly old wallpaper that hung ominously like a too-big coat. We wore slippers in the house, ate communally at a makeshift dinner table in the living room, and always tried to look busy. On my first night, we went shopping in the local area and stumbled upon a cheap retail store that was selling two pairs of jeans for a 100 yuan (about $15). Anne, Lynn, and I each bought a pair before stocking up on snack supplies and water at a convenience store. We would need some fuel for our trip to the Great Wall with a couple of Anne’s Oberlin friends the next day.

Despite the infamous Beijing smog, the Great Wall was still a sight to behold.

Sleep was in short supply as all three of us were out of bed well before 5:30 and on a taxi on our way to the youth hostel where Anne’s friend Anna and her boyfriend Sam were staying on the other side of Beijing. We were lucky that their hostel had trips running out to the Great Wall on a nearly daily basis and we just happened to pick a good day to join up with them. The whole ordeal was a little pricey, but it included all of the necessary admission tickets for the wall (they charge you at junctures spaced somewhat arbitrarily throughout) and the roundtrip bus ride, which took just about three hours each way. It was great to be able to “talk Oberlin,” even though it was with alums who I had not known previously while at school, simply because the shared experiences that bond Obies are enough to fill tomes of their own.

Before I delve any further into my actual account of the Great Wall, though, I thought I’d start with a small disclaimer. I often feel like most accounts of Westerners describing the majesty of a foreign, daresay “exotic,” place are met with no small degree of orientalism and essentialism. I was somewhat conscious of it when I was in Japan, but even more so here. It is so easy to write off the most surreal experiences with phrases that heighten the value of a sight as a result of its foreignness, or perhaps in this case, its Asian-ness. Not to mention that after a time, every temple and palace begins to take on the same aesthetic. As such, I will try to refrain from using the kind of language that might be indicative of such sights, though, in all fairness, it is hard to talk about the Great Wall without paying homage, at least in some part, to China itself.

Not knowing the specifics of the Beijing itinerary before packing, I was somewhat at a loss for proper hiking attire. More than that, I figured a weekend rendezvous in posh Beijing would be the perfect place to break in the new shoes I had bought just one day before leaving the states, and which I still had never worn. Needless to say, the 8 km tour of the Great Wall put a small dent in that plan. But shoes aside, the trek was great. For those of you who have also scaled at least part of the manmade behemoth, we went from Jinshanling to Simatai, a stretch of over 30 watchtowers that the tour books touted as one of the “least touristy” sections of the Wall. And for all intents and purposes, they were right—the only other foreigners we saw for the entirety of the four-hour jaunt were those that accompanied us on the bus trip up there. It was hard not to marvel at the incredible scale and majesty of it all. The walk was surprisingly exhausting, and consisted of numerous breaks from the climbs and descents that characterized each tower. The snacks we brought proved incredibly fruitful, and included crackers, dried fruit, nuts, beef jerky (famous in Pingyao), and, of course, plenty of water.

One of the only drawbacks to the entire experience, however, was the rampant number of vendors pushing their wares on various passersby. As foreigners, it makes sense that we look like huge dollar signs, but it was so discouraging to have scores of old women follow us for literally minutes, making small talk and complimenting our Chinese, before eventually asking us to buy their things and the five of us reluctantly having to turn them down—one at a time. This whole process became exhausting quickly—we could hardly go an entire watchtower without running into another vendor, selling everything from food to postcards to incredibly kitschy “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts, available in a myriad of colors. There was one particular juncture that was slightly harrowing to traverse—the Wall basically let off at a window that was about ten feet off the ground without much of a landing save for a small platform located a few body lengths to the right. It was at this precise location that a very prudent saleswoman set up shop, essentially “saving” tourists by grabbing their arms and swinging them over to safety, and in the process, guilting those same tourists into opening up their wallets. We left with a couple American dollars worth of overpriced water and postcards. After all, how, ethically, could we refuse?

Nearing the end of our hike, there were quite a few sections of the Wall that were being outfitted with new bricks and cement as a result of erosion.

Another three-hour bus ride and a quick dinner later, I got back to Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s place that night feeling like my feet were on fire. I kicked off my shoes, slid on a pair of slippers, and waited for my turn in the shower. It was then that I began to understand some of the differences between this apartment and my aunt’s house in Queens. As Americans, no matter how hard we may try to avoid it, the agents of Westernization plague our everyday lives, from where we eat to how we use the toilet. Though not the case with regard to most everything else, in the case of the latter, China has in large part been able to bypass the globalization bug. China is notorious for its public squat toilets, especially where I live in the countryside, where all manner of refuse are contained atop a raised basin before being sloshed down to a hole in the ground. In many ways, it is more hygienic—never making direct contact with a seat saves countless millions of germs from being spread—but the regular lack of sinks and toilet paper seems to compensate for that pretty well.

And so, even despite knowing this, it still managed to shock me that instead of a traditional Western shower, I found myself standing in a bathtub almost comically small for my size, holding a bucket of luke-warm water in one hand and a fussy showerhead in the other. In that instant, the comforts of American hygiene fell away, and I had to laugh at myself just a little, squinting through the screen of an open window that surely someone across the street was having a fun time admiring. I managed to hose myself down without making too much of a mess, and with no small degree of grace, hoisted myself out of the tub and back to bed, where I slept as soundly as I could have hoped—all things considered.