The Ladybug Chronicles, part I

One of my goals during our trip to China to fetch the Ladybug was to post pictures to Flickr and to update the site with stories from the Far East. Unfortunately, I neglected to remember the fact that I can’t remember to do anything on time, and so I didn’t. Nevertheless, I’d still like to document the voyage (no matter how late) simply for myself, so that I can remember all the interesting details when I tell the story to the Ladybug years down the road. So, I present The Ladybug Chronicles.

Day 0: The trip to Beijing

Confucius said that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but the Chinese philosopher neglected to mention that the taking of a single step is preceded by the packing of a thousand things. Per person. Per day. Now, packing two weeks of clothes and medicines for two adults isn’t a problem, but this task was complicated by the fact that we also needed to pack two weeks of clothes, medicines, and toys for a kid whose dimensions and personality we knew only in Chinese (and hence, not at all), a problem solvable only by simply packing everything thrice over in various different sizes. To add to the challenge, China allows only one checked bag per person (Damn you, Asiatic binariphobes!) with a maximum weight allowance of a paltry 42 pounds (Damn you, metric system!). Consequently, from the minute the Ladybug’s referral packet arrived, the Queen B spent the following four weeks figuring out how to feng shui the hell out of our two suitcases, cramming in all the needed goods without exceeding the weight limit while maintaining a sense of aesthetic balance so desperately needed in checked baggage these days.

I should also note that in addition to packing the suitcases, the Queen B lovingly decorated them as ladybugs, drawing big black spots on them in permanent marking. She did this partly to commemorate the ladybug mythology in Chinese adoption and partly to make the bags easy to spot at a baggage claim, but mostly because the fumes from the markers made her high as a kite, which is possibly the only way to pack suitcases under China’s rules and maintain a modicum of sanity.

We finally left for China the afternoon of Tuesday, November 7, 2006. Our eventual destination was Beijing, China, but due to vagaries of international air travel, we were forced to do this by way of Rapid City to Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to to Guangzhou to Beijing, with stops in the Twilight Zone and the Ninth Ring of the Hell. Fortunately, three of the Ladybug’s soon-to-be grandparents — my mom, Nana Shoo, and the Queen B’s folks, the Nana and Papa ┬áB — met up with us at LAX to join us for the trip. We were of course thrilled that they would be able to share with us this experience: the majesty of the Far East, the first formative moments of our fledgling family, and of course the never-ending call of diaper duty.

I was particularly leary of the flight to China, mostly due to the fact that while we left the United States at 11:50 PM on Tuesday the 7th, we didn’t arrive in Guangzhou until 6:50 AM on Thursday, and the prospect of a thirty-one-hour flight is only slightly less unappealing to me than having my genitals gnawed off by a school of hungry piranhas. Consequently, I forked over the extra cash to upgrade our seats from “Steerage” to something called “Business Premium,” which might be better described as “Low Brow First Class:” large seats with knee room (knee room!), fully articulated headrests, a personal kit of toiletries, felt slippers, even personal televisions that could be retracted from the armrests. If that wasn’t enough, the attendants served us hot meals (hot!) with real silverware (real!), preceded with hot wash cloths and followed by tasty nightcaps. Even better, it took only 16 hours to arrive in China at the pre-specified time, indicating a perk I’d never dreamed up: warping the fabric of the space-time continuum. Neat! I can only imagine what true “First Class” must be like, although I assume it must include either either carnal fantasies or papal absolutions, or both (and preferably in that order).

Of course, the highlight of the trip to Beijing was the three hour layover in Guangzhou, China, during which we needed to do only two things: (1) pass through customs and (2) go from the international terminal to the domestic one to catch our connecting flight. This being our first time in China, a land whose language, alphabet, and customs were completely alien to us, we decided to take it slow. The first of these tasks was easy enough: we simply collected our bags and ambled from one kiosk to another kiosk, each time handing over one of the thirty-seven-odd travel documents we filled out on the plane just prior to landing to be stamped by yet another customs agent.

Unfortunately, the ease of customs was offset by the mind-numbingly slow pace at which it moved, and by the time we were out of it, we had just under thirty minutes to find our new terminal and catch our flight. We hastily rechecked our bags and desperately secured directions to the terminal, which the staff politely explained in broken English was just a quick, thirty-minute walk away. Eventually one of the ticket agents suggested that we pay for a “car” that would take us there. I assumed he meant an airport shuttle, but the vehicle to which he was referring was a small but super-charged golf cart. The cart driver carefully loaded all our carry-ons onto the bumper of the cart and packed the Queen B and the three grandparents sardine-style into its two rows of seats before inviting me to climb on the back and secure the carry-ons by doing my best impression of a bungee cord. Apparently, this is a common packing technique in China: simply continue piling on crap until the gravitational field formed by its own mass is sufficiently strong to hold it together:

The following five-minute ride, as we zipped through the airport at breakneck speed, was perhaps the scariest moment of my life, although it did prepare me for the vehicular nightmare that is Chinese traffic (see below). It did, however, get us to our flight on time, and after a further uneventful three hours, we finally landing in Beijing. We were promptly greeted by our tour guide for the next few days, a spritely twenty-something with curled brown hair and an infectious smile named Mei, who escorted us to a shuttle and took us to our hotel. During the half-hour van trip into central Beijing, Mei outlined our itinerary for the next three days and explained some of the workings of Beijing, but I did my best to simply absorb the experience that was Beijing around me.

Beijing is an amazing city, a massive metropolis that in many ways reflects China as a whole. The city of Beijing, like the country of China, grapples with the horns of a dilemma, torn between preserving an epic history that stretches back several millennia and embracing a technological future whose only tradition is the guarantee of omnipresent obsolescence. It is a land where massive ancient relics and monuments, hundreds (even thousands!) of years old, stand side-by-side with state-of-the-art skyscrapers housing cutting-edge technologies and powerful corporations. Beijing itself is a checkerboard of tightly organized blocks of boxy towering apartment complexes and sleek skyscrapers, shining with steel and neon, and shapeless seas of ancient single story buildings, faded a dirty gray with time and tradition.

While Beijing, and China in general, is simply another world compared to the United States, I think that the main differences between the Chinese and Americans can be summed up in two important things.

First: There is no concept of “Personal space” in China. This is certainly a consequence of having so many people packed into such little space, and also a result of deep sense of family and history the Chinese feel, but it feels claustrophobic and alien to us Americans, a people for whom “personal space” is so holy a concept that we actually think the Hummer H3 is a tad on the cramped side. On the one hand, this means that anywhere you go in China seems packed with thirteen million people milling about shoulder-to-shoulder, which is particularly disconcerting the first time all thirteen million of them cram in with you inside an elevator. On the other hand, this trait also means that the Chinese are immediately friendly and welcoming, greeting complete strangers with a smile and a Ni hao. Every day people would walk up to us and strike up conversations, even if neither they nor we can understand even a smidge of what the other was saying. This unabashed friendliness is so profoundly un-American that I initially found myself simply hoping someone would scowl at me outright so I could feel better about the universe.

And second: Chinese traffic is fucking insane. At first blush, Beijing traffic is nothing but chaos and anarchy. Imagine any bumper-car rink you’ve ever been in, but moving at 80 miles an hour. Vehicles weave in and out of traffic without regard to lane lines, traffic signals, or indeed other vehicles, while motorcycles, bicyclists, and pedestrians simultaneously weave in and out of the cars. Vehicles careen by in every conceivable direction, whizzing past each other with nothing but a few centimeters of space between them (Hi, metric system!) and a suicidal case of indifference. It turns out, though, that the apparent randomness of Chinese driving is in fact governed by exactly three rules of the road: (1) Lane lines and traffic signals are merely suggested courses of actions, not directives; (2) If there is sufficient blacktop for you car to squeeze in, then you’d better squeeze in before someone else does; and (3) The right-of-way is yielded to any vehicle bigger than yours. That being said, however, I should also note that in the entire two weeks I was in China, I only saw one auto accident, and that was within two blocks of the American Consulate, so something must be working right there.

After digesting all this information in the thirty minute van ride from the airport to our hotel, my brain short circuited, and I promptly crashed in my hotel room and slept through the rest of the day, dreaming fleets of suicidal Chinese drivers with no fear of violating my territorial bubble.

More…

You can check out more pictures from our trip to Beijing over at Flickr.

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