A Canadian in Beijing: Reverse Culture Shock

(This will be my last blog for this travel series. See the end of this blog for where to read my blogs in the future.)

I have been back in Canada for just a few days and the music touring has launched in full force. Only two full days at home after three months away is not enough to recover and balance the reverse culture shock – a legitimate phenomenon that I can personally attest to – and even though I am ultimately responsible for deciding my fate, I’m currently shaking my head at my scheduling insanity.

I’m writing this from the Vancouver International airport where I am waiting for our transfer flight to Castlegar, BC where we will be performing at a Peace & Justice Festival called “On Our Way Home Reunion.” We will only be there for less than twelve hours, however, because we are expected in Illinois the next day at the National Women’s Music Festival and no connecting flights would get us there in time. That means that we have to drive all night back to Vancouver (about six hours directly following our performance) in order catch a morning flight to Chicago. This flight will then transfer to Bloomington, IN where we will arrive tomorrow at approximately three p.m. central time to be picked up and driven to Normal, IL. We perform tomorrow night and then drive back to Toronto on Sunday (about 11 hours) and then back to my home in the country on Monday (5 hours).

I am the one who approves or declines performance offers. The main problem is that I do this at least six months in advance of the actual travel time and I often imagine myself capable of anything when it’s so far away! So, here I am wondering what poison I was smoking when I decided that this was a good idea.

I am already exhausted from the twelve-hour, China-Canada jet lag not to mention the emotional adjustment to leaving Beijing and returning to my life here in Canada. Top that off with an early morning of five a.m. to catch my first flight out of Toronto and I’m wondering how we will ever make it back to Vancouver tonight without copious amounts of caffeine and some serious injections of good humour?

And people ask us how we stay healthy on the road…

My answer is usually “by staying home.”

On the flight over here from Ontario, I opened the in-flight magazine and flipped directly to a picture of the entrance to the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s face (top image). My heart nearly stopped when it fell open to that picture. That image feels so far away and here it was, staring at me from the pages of a magazine, smooth under my fingertips.

Just outside the bathrooms in this spacious waiting area in the Vancouver Domestic Airport (I actually miss the squatters!) are the computers that list the flights. I was walking briskly towards relief and then almost tripped over the friction that suddenly gripped my sneakers to the carpet and stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as though my feet read the screen before I did.

Beijing flight. 12:30pm. Air Canada #29.

My stomach, already heavy from the food I’m not used to – french fries and salad and a veggie burger that had too much relish and mustard on it were all squishing in my now non-western stomach – felt like it was going to lose my whole lunch. I’ve been feeling that way for the past two days, actually. I was convinced that it was the kind of wheat that I’ve been eating and I vowed to avoid wheat today. My burger was without the bun, but the nausea persists. And then, just the sight of the word “Beijing” and I felt sure I was going to wretch.

On the plane, I could hear a couple a few rows up speaking Mandarin and I was craving that perfect moment to interrupt, to pass them by and say something – anything – to have just to have another conversation in this beautiful language. I have felt like part of my ears have been plugged since I arrived home because all I can hear is English and French. Where’s the song of Mandarin? Where’s that language that has become like a friend, like music lilting through my head, like the perfect companion for my brain as it’s constantly challenging me, pushing me, waking me up and forcing me to think. There’s something so dull about English and French. Hearing just these languages (and mostly English) just awakes more of the despair at being separated from Mandarin.

For instance, as I was speaking French with my friend from Quebec two nights ago, I felt more and more sad. The words in Mandarin kept coming to me first and I had to translate them into the French words. It just feels like Mandarin is trying to come out and I was keeping it locked up inside, against its will but for its own good, of course.

Because no one understands here.

What a stupid thing to think while sitting in Vancouver, BC! Of all the cities to write that sentence in, this is not one of them. There is a huge Chinese population here…

Only, they’re not sitting across from me in this little café, or sitting beside me on the plane, or standing behind the counters at the cafes waiting for my order. At least, not on this particular path that I’m on towards Castlegar in the interior of this province (here’s a picture of the tiny plane we took to get there) and the festivals that will fill my weekend with music and other challenges.

I’m clearly flipping between stability and complete meltdown here. Half of my sentences are crying out and the other half are quietly comforting. The overall truth is somewhere in the middle. On the outside, I’m going to be fine. Maybe a little tired, but fine. On the inside, I’m going to be sad. Maybe a little happy too, but sad.

There is such loss and such gain. I have returned to my amazing life: my loved ones, my home, my music, the stage, my band… and I have lost my beloved China (until I return) and Mandarin (until I build more contacts here to keep it alive in my mouth until I return to China) and, last but not least, contact with the loved ones that I had to leave there.

To all of my friends in China: I miss you already. Save me a su baozi for my return.

And to my stomach: get it together. You’re home and you’d better start digesting this food! Head down, and forge ahead.

Keep it down.

And to my overall self: reverse the reverse culture shock. There is no choice in the matter. Eventually, you must arrive home.

Wo lai le 我来了。I have arrived.

It’s okay.


This blog will soon be located in its chronological order at a new location on Gadling entitled “On The Road.

I will continue to blog for Gadling about my North American travel adventures (and beyond), so keep checking the www.gadling.com site and just clicking on my name for new blogs. If there’s a new series, I’ll let you know via my own site‘s main news page, which is also the front page.

Thanks so much for reading this blog and for being so encouraging… and for reminding me that people far away cared enough to check in. I loved writing it and I’m thrilled that I’ll continue to blog for Gadling as I coast from coast to coast in between longterm adventures like this one in China. And, besides, I’ll be back in China before too long.

Of this, I am sure.

A Canadian in Beijing: My Last Day in China

What did I do on my last day in China?

I bought chopsticks.

What can you do in the face of reality? The reality was that I was leaving and the response was to soothe the pain of that reality with retail therapy. And, sad as it sounds, it worked. What’s more, I took home gifts for my loved ones and that felt good. It felt like a bridge between Beijing and Canada somehow.

I guess you could say that I relented and loosened my grip on my desire to be “a local” and promised that desire that I’d revisit it in the future.

Many different markets had been tested in advance of their arrival. I went to The Pearl Markets, the Silk Markets (each offering much more than pearls and silk), the YaXiu Markets and, of course, to the Wudaokou Markets (several times) in search of the cheapest options and best environment for them. . .
My friend Rui suggested the Wholesale Clothing Markets by the Zoo. I had never been there and so we all decided that a new experience for everyone was due. They are geared to Chinese shoppers as opposed to tourists and we were the only foreign faces that I noticed there. With our translating skills, my family was alright, but without any Chinese knowledge these markets would be extremely difficult for a foreign traveller. While they proved to be super cheap, the sizes were also limited, especially for my sister’s fiancé, Steve, who wears size 12 shoe and is over six-feet tall. They also closed early (and I found out that they open at six a.m.!) and so we piled into a cab and headed for more shopping options.

I suggested against the Silk Markets, which I had found to be far too pricey. Even the sign that showed a happy white family turned me off. I mean, how better to tell the tourists that they’re about to get ripped off than to show them smiling pictures of white people pretending they don’t know any better!

The presence of credit card stickers above stalls also proved that these prices were out of control; if they’re willing to accept international credit cards within the stalls themselves, then they had definitely inflated their prices. In fact, I found a shirt there that I had bought at the Wudaokou Market for 30 kuai that was listed at 280 kuai. Just ridiculous. The exact same shirt!

These kinds of “foreigner price inflations” are insulting. In fact, I think “indignant” would be the word I’d use to describe my response. I just couldn’t imagine bringing them there and luckily they were fine with that.

We headed then to Wudaokou first where they found a few things but weren’t quite satisfied. There was still the issue of an impossible task in finding shoes to fit Steve’s feet. Many vendors actually laughed when we told them we were looking for a size 49 or 50 (in Chinese sizes.)

So, we hit the Pearl Markets, this proving to be the most successful location for my sister and Steve. Not only were they able to get the souvenirs they wanted, but also several people could speak to them in English and they were able to operate without me as their sidekick the whole time. They found clothes that fit and had already become quite skilled at bargaining by this point. They came away smiling and laden with clothes and gifts and shoes and knickknacks. It was a successful mission.

The Pearl Markets were probably the best choice for lots of reasons. Not only were the prices better and less insulting, but the environment just outside of the markets was very western with a café (that looked suspiciously like a Starbucks knockoff) equipped with outdoor seating and tables with sun umbrellas. It’s the kind of décor that I rarely see in China and see everywhere in North America.

My sister and Steve wanted to hang out here for awhile and I can see why: it’s familiar. So, for the first time in three months I had an afternoon beer in the hot sun while shaded by the patio umbrellas. I could easily have been in Toronto in that activity. The rest of the seats were all sat in by non-Chinese shoppers. Whoever had thought of this café here was thinking about the tourists, that’s for sure.

Besides, it was good to rest now that the list had been (mostly) crossed off. Everyone was smiling.

I have to admit, though, that I was also peaking about leaving. Smiling on the outside and crying on the inside. Sound dramatic? Yeah, that’s me. Hidden drama at the best of times.

We headed back to the hotel then to get ready for dinner. I put them up (and also stayed) at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. This hotel is one of the oldest in Beijing and used to be the only place where foreigners were allowed to stay in Beijing. Since then, this has changed, but this hotel still holds its grandeur and scope. It is a huge site with several different buildings.

Staying in a hotel at the end of my trip really did solidify the feeling of being a tourist once again. I know that China is not my home, but it had begun to feel that way before I moved into the hotel for four nights. I really hope to regain that feeling in the future – that feeling of China being home – but it wasn’t meant to last this time around.

When we headed for the airport the next day, the drop in my gut seemed like an endless black hole. I kept gulping back tears and nausea and just tried to keep breathing the reality of my leaving in, as though it was a necessary medicine and that I would recover. Recover from the pain of separating from this amazing country, yes, and also recover from the intensity of this tourist marathon.

I’m still working on both recoveries.

I know that I will return to China. I will go back sooner than later, I believe. I just can’t stay away. My language skills were just starting to feel smooth, just starting to whisper the potential of future fluency.

I will definitely return.

Wo ken ding zai lai 我肯定再来。

China, I miss you already.

A Canadian in Beijing: The Forbidden Tian’anmen

The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square (situated right next to each other) are the two principal tourist destinations in Beijing. When people come to this city, they usually stop here for these two major sites and then take in The Great Wall before moving on to other parts of China. I mean, these are the bare minimum.

Tourist requirements.

I had already been to Tian’anmen Square a few times and I have walked the outer courtyards of The Forbidden City once before. I have also seen the outer gardens and surrounding moat and quite enjoyed this perspective. I hadn’t yet gone inside, though, and so the arrival of my sister and her fiancé Steve to Bejing meant that I could catch some last-minute tourist sites before heading back to Canada.

I must say, though, that it was all starting to feel a bit strange. My last four days in this beautiful place and I felt like my whole Beijing identity was morphing before my eyes. I was about to leave my new love (China) cloaked once again in tourist garb. I had worn this outfit once before (at the beginning of my trip) and slowly (happily) had changed into local clothes throughout my stay. The arrival of my family meant that I had to revert once again into this tourist attire.

I wasn’t sure it all fit me anymore.

Since I wore those clothes last, I’ve put on some local knowledge.

But, the agenda plowed ahead with no time for philosophical meanderings. I rolled out of bed at 7:00 Saturday morning ready to tackle another tourist day with my family. We were meeting in the lobby at 8:00 and taking transit down to Tian’anmen’s southernmost gate: Qian Men, which literally means “first gate.”

This time, I thought it best to hire a guide. The woman who walked us around had lots of information about the sites, historically, but offered almost nothing politically. I’m not sure why I was disappointed because I had no real expectation for anything but. It’s just that there is a vibration to the square that is undeniable whether unspoken or not. By this, I mean the history here – the massacre or uprising (depending on where you stand geographically, the noun used to describe 1989’s events is different) – sits in the stone and pavement and it comes up through the soles of my shoes. When our guide was asked what she knew about it, she fumbled and became uncomfortable and responded that many powerful events have taken place there and she hastily began to explain the significance of a nearby statue.

What is it about real history that China has trouble with? Something terrible happened here and silence doesn’t erase the vibration of that truth.

Even my Chinese friends don’t talk about it. They don’t want to. What’s more, they don’t know to. It’s just not talked about here (except by the foreigners), or so I’ve found. What’s more, much of the information about such events is blocked on the internet while you’re in China. It’s nicknamed “The Great Firewall of China.” (For instance, the link I placed above on the words “history here” will not be viewable from within China unless someone has found a way around the firewall.)

I always feel shaky near Tian’anmen, almost speechless with the lump that comes into my throat and the ache in my jaw. I haven’t written about it throughout the whole three months despite the fact that I have visited it three times and have felt the same sadness each time. I haven’t known what to really say.

One interesting thing the guide did show us were the public “squatters” that were disguised as sidewalk grates. Apparently at large assemblies, these are opened up to provide the thousands of people a place to relieve themselves. Without this information, I would have thought they were just sewer grates. I guess, in a way, they are just that. I wonder if they provide privacy to each “stall” in those times? The guide said she learned this from her parents who were here during a large assembly that that there haven’t been these kinds of massive events as long as she’s been aware.

Not since 1989, I thought. Of course not.

Being there with my sister and her fiance made it easier. They did not want to linger on the square and marched on ahead to The Forbidden City where it promptly began to rain. We trudged through courtyard after courtyard imagining over three thousand concubines and nearly the equivalent in Eunuchs working and living there, trapped inside the palace walls that both kept intruders at bay and servants hostage.

The place is seriously HUGE. I had no idea.

The rain got worse and the guide asked in her sweet English if this would the appropriate time to describe the weather as “raining cats and dogs.” I laughed out loud. I confirmed that it would be a perfect time to describe it like that and the laughter momentarily relieved both my irritation at the incomplete history lessons as well as the chill that had attached itself to my bones as a result of wearing shorts on such a rainy day.

Two hours later, we emerged on the other side of The Forbidden City, out the North gates. We paid and said goodbye to our guide and then had a brief sidewalk conference about what was next.

I was shivering and hungry (having not thought about breakfast and finding nothing vegan in this tourist area) and there wasn’t a cab to be found. On rainy days in Beijing, if you’re far from a subway it means that you’d better just walk until luck turns your way. The only thing on my mind was a hot shower and a change of clothes and so I put my head down and led the way westward where the streets got busier and the chance at hailing a taxi (I thought) would be greater.

Twenty minutes later we still had no taxi and I had lost my ability to speak. Hunger, fatigue, cold, and the familiar emotional siphoning of a Tian’anmen visit – it was all combining together to silence me. My sister wanted to go and get food at a restaurant and I encouraged her choice if it was to be on their own, but I was adamant about mine. I simply had to return to a hot shower. I knew that I would catch what my Grandmother describes as a “chill” if I didn’t. I know myself. She, of course, wasn’t comfortable going to a restaurant on her own and so when a taxi finally pulled over to let people out where we were standing (what luck!), everyone piled in for the hotel. I had them over a barrel with my language skills and their lack of language skills, and I knew that. But, I also had my physical limits and so I quietly insisted.

The quiet insistence is the most powerful.

Back at the hotel, showered and fed and much happier, I emerged again about an hour later and I was re-energized to be host and tour guide.

Everyone was smiling. The rain had stopped.

Time for more shopping…

(That’s my sister, Temple, and I)

A Canadian in Beijing: Performing at The 4th Annual Olympic Cultural Festival

About a month ago, I introduced you to my friend Chairman George, a performer and musician from Canada who tours his music in China once a year. (Well, at least once a year.) I met him in May and then we said goodbye. Fortunately, George came back at the end of June before I had to leave Beijing and I had a chance to connect with him again.

This time on the stage.

George does quite a bit in association with the Olympics here in Beijing. In 2004, he was a volunteer for China at the Athens Olympic games. It made perfect sense since he has a Chinese profile (and speaks the language), is Greek by descent (and speaks the language) and is Canadian (always a neutral nationality that puts people at ease!) He was actually a torch bearer and told some colourful stories about his time in Athens. I listened to each intently.

As a result of this experience, George does a lot of performing for various Olympic committee events or conferences in Beijing. . .

On the 24th of June, he asked me to perform with him at Renmin Daxue 人民大学 at an Olympic Conference performance and it was a great success. I sang backup on one of his songs and even a short excerpt from a famous Chinese song that I’ve been singing lately: 月亮代表我的心 “Yue Liang Daibiao Wode Xin.” The response was fantastic and so he asked me if I wanted to be part of another Olympics performance the following night.

I agreed.

This, too, was a great success. It was outdoors and filled with excited people, television cameras, several famous Chinese vocalists and performers, big screens broadcasting the stage to the filled audience, etc. It was quite remarkable, honestly. (I’ve included some pictures of this night from both the daytime sound check and the evening performance.)

Well, another opportunity rolled around for yet another of these gigs on Friday night of last week. Both of the latter shows were part of the 4th Annual “Beijing 2008” Olympic Cultural Festival events. They were open-air concerts and were packed with attendees and enthusiasm.

As you know, my sister was in Beijing with her fiancé and I was conscious that they had already crossed off the “see Ember perform in China” item from their list (the night before). So, I wasn’t sure if they’d be interested in attending such an event. I spoke to them about it and the mention of the 2008 Olympics piqued their interest instantly. They agreed to attend and so I put on my fancy red dress once again and headed to meet George.

We made our way down to the 世界艺术馆 or The World Art Museum. I still haven’t seen inside this museum (save the backstage area) but it’s in a dense section of town and the building was immense and looked a bit like a spaceship. They had set up a huge outdoor stage behind the building and it was lit up like a stadium with lights and action everywhere. The audience had all been given these large blow-up plastic toys like pool toys and they were waving them and bouncing them up and down. Each performer was greeted with cheers and their performances were applauded vigorously. It was the kind of audience you dream about; the audience that wants you to succeed and so your performance is successful before it has even begun.

I paused before going backstage to take it all in. The movement of the plastic toys was like a wave of colour across the audience. The dry ice was blowing onto the stage in big bursts capturing the stage lights in all their rainbow glory and the excitement grabbed the hairs on my forearm and made them stand up, alert and ready. This image reminded me of candy, somehow, and I smiled at my inner child and the simple association my brain had just made.

I hadn’t been there even an hour before it was time to get on stage. George entered the audience in his official Olympic outfit, slowly carrying a torch and jogging up and down the aisles to screaming cheers. He arrived on stage and played his first song solo (in Chinese, of course) before inviting me up with him. The audience welcomed me with a roar and when he started the chords for the famous Chinese song I was about to sing, the love was sealed. They sang along and gave me only joy. It was impossible to lose.

Afterwards, I signed autographs for many sweet young girls before the security personnel insisted we break away and head backstage once again.

Only an hour after the show ended the place was deserted. I am always amazed by how quickly events start up and close down here in China. All of the plastic toys had been collected in large plastic bags and were being put back in storage. The cameras were long gone. They wanted to shut off the building’s lights and lock the door and they were urging us to leave. We were ushered out with a smile.

My spirit felt full. I was thrilled to get the opportunity – the spontaneous opportunity – to perform one last time and in such a unique environment. My sister and Steve were also smiling from ear to ear. They had had a great time and were just as charmed by the whole event as I was.

Thanks George!

The night came to a late close over drinks in Hou Hai. The day had been intense and it was only the end of the first full day as a tour guide for my family. (Don’t forget that the day started with The Great Wall of China and then shopping at two different markets (more on that soon!) and then this concert!) I have a new-found respect for the travel and guiding industry!

I fell into a deep sleep that night, prepping my body for day number two of their visit and my second last day in my beloved China.

I dreamed sweet dreams filled with candy and colours and laughter.

And music.

Don’t forget the music.

A Canadian in Beijing: Simatai, The Great Wall: Take 3

My sister and her fiance Steve arrived in Beijing on a Thursday afternoon and they hit the ground running. Before the sun had fully set, they had checked into their hotel, eaten a traditional hot pot meal and were in attendance at my last and final performance in Beijing. That night was a late but great one, and it was wonderful to have them there.

Six o’clock the next morning rolled around far too quickly.

We were scheduled to depart for Simatai Friday morning, the most beautiful tourist section of the Great Wall. A car was waiting for us just outside the hotel lobby, thanks to my wonderful friend Stuart who works for a travel company (Intrepid Travel) and who has excellent connections with things like this. He set it up for us and I was thrilled to not have to navigate public transportation with my family after such a late night. I was already bleary-eyed and poised to nap on the two and a half hour trip out of town.

When sleepy, must sleep. That’s my body’s motto.

The driver was very nice and we smoothly exited the city in nearly absentee traffic and quickly found ourselves in the morning mist of the outlying Beijing area. I slipped back to sleep in the front seat while my sister and Steve chatted about the scenery and the different energy of China compared to Canada. I tried to stay awake to act as the translator and tour guide, but it was for naught.

I woke up when we turned the final corner towards Simatai. Off of the highway, this last twenty minutes took us through several small and quaint countryside villages where we could see small-scale farming and country life up close, sometimes just a few feet from the windows of the car.

We all exclaimed at the brilliant greens and natural beauty that is in such contrast with the grey cement of Beijing. I reminded them that there is a lot of green hidden between buildings in the city, but it takes awhile to find it and celebrate it. I hoped I would get a chance to take them to some beautiful places in the city as well. We only had a few days together, and the density of the “intended” schedule was already apparent.

This tourist site is the section of The Great Wall that is farthest away from Beijing. Its beauty took my breath away. The misty mountains, the water below as you climb the several hundred feet up to the wall, the parts of the wall not fully renovated and so still breathing some of the crumbling history into the soles of our shoes – all of it was incredible! Even though this wasn’t the wild wall, it was part of the story. I am continually inspired by this snaking stone wonder that covers this part of China. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of laying my eyes upon it as it weaves its way along the skyline.

All told, seeing this part of the wall completed the cycle between the first section of the wall that I saw (Mutianyu, which was extremely renovated and almost pristine in its square edges) against the extreme rustic beauty of the wild wall that I saw when I went hiking in early June. Here was the middle ground between the two and it felt like the missing link in the chain of historical events.

We climbed the few kilometres up taking many rests in the heavy humidity. At one point, we came upon a group of women lounging along the wall’s edge. They all had sacs and were dressed in the same deep navy blue pants and shirts. I thought they may be workers, but it turned out that they were all vendors and were all selling the same items.

Three of these women greeted us and began to walk with us. When they realized I spoke Mandarin, they got even more excited and the conversation took off. Eventually, I realized that they were planning to accompany us (as though official guides) and I stopped walking. So too did my sister and Steve and I rounded off the conversation. I then gently requested that we be left alone to walk separately. I thanked them for their kindness but explained that we wanted to have some space just the three of us. They responded in kind and then trailed us by about fifty feet as we climbed the wall, always keeping us in view.

Finally, closer to the top, they inched nearer again and began to offer some interesting historical information about what we were seeing. I’m a sucker for history and so I didn’t discourage it and I listened and translated for my sister and Steve who were also interested in what they were saying. Eventually, they pulled out their tour books and asked us to once again consider buying their wares.

My sister wanted a book. They started the price at 180 kuai. I laughed outright at such an inflated price and told my sister to not pay more than 20 or 25 kuai. She eventually paid 50, which we learned was the starting price for the same books down at the base of the mountain where the rest of the vendors were. Oh well, I suppose my instincts were correct in terms of price, but my sister felt their ascent, historical information and overall persistence was worth the extra cash. She has a heart, after all.

We didn’t go right to the very highest point, but instead took the trail towards the cable cars. They wanted to take the easy route down and I relented and agreed. I wasn’t tired but it was threatening rain and I figured being in a covered cable car in the rain was better than getting wet while making our descent. In the end, the cable car ride was about ten or fifteen minutes of peace. I rode alone and they rode together and I took the time to just watch the scenery slowly roll out beneath me – such a carefully and meticulously landscaped valley – and the wall fade into the mist of the mountains behind me. I shut off my brain and let the colours soothe.

It was all very storybook-like. It was lovely.

Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom. We piled in and ate the picnic lunch I had brought while we made our way back to the city. Due to the midday traffic, the trip back was much longer than the trip there, but it was still interesting. The driver and I had a great chat about historical sites in and around Beijing and I fared relatively well in Chinese throughout it all. He was complimentary and taught me some interesting new words.

When we got back to the hotel, I was ready for a nap but happy to have seen the Great Wall of China one last time before I had to go home.

I fell asleep in my hotel room conscious of my great fortune and privilege in being in Beijing for so long. I have seen the Great Wall three times now! Some people – most people – never get to see it even once.

Life is great.