The moment we stepped off our sleepless fourteen-hour flight to Beijing and into one of China’s coldest winters on record, Lacey and I began an epic first week here, facing what, at the time, felt like an extra helping of tribulations. Now, to put our struggles to good use, we’ve compiled some suggestions for other travelers and/or for general amusement (mostly the latter). So here they are, the do’s and do not’s of arriving in a foreign country:
1. Do not bring such a mountain of bags that, when you eventually drag it out onto the pavement, normally tourist-hungry cab drivers will wave you away and stare in the other direction.
2. Do not finally get into a cab driven by a man who has been driving it for thirteen hours straight, and who slaps his face and pinches himself to stay awake while darting and weaving through traffic, especially if he slaps and pinches himself so hard that you would actually restrain him for his own protection if your own life didn’t depend on him staying awake.
3. Do not agree to be dropped off across a ten-lane road from the train station, since it will probably mean you have to drag the aforementioned mountain of bags halfway down the block, over an endless pedestrian walkway packed with commuters, back down the walkway, across an equally endless square, into a jam of people hemmed in by police barriers, and through a bursting metal detector before you finally tumble into the cavernous train station.
4. Do not spend two hours waiting in one of at least thirty unfathomably long and snaking outdoor ticket lines for a sleeper train ticket while nighttime temperatures drop into the teens (D.G. Fahrenheit’s variety), especially when not a single one of these Super-Bowl-esque lines appears to move in that entire two hours. Remember that you are in a country of well over a billion people, many of whom are also staring at your girlfriend who is draped across the now-all-too-familiar mountain of bags back inside the packed but only slightly warmer train station.
5. If you do find yourself in this situation, however, do change the plan and drag your mountain of bags back past the metal detector, across the huge square, and over the endless pedestrian walkway, going up the block until you reach the hostel right next to where the taxi originally dropped you off. Check in, climb the stairs and tumble into a warm bedroom, so you can collapse into a bed and think of something else.
6. Once you’ve done this, do return to the train station late at night, so you can experience the exquisite triumph of buying two early-morning train tickets after the long lines have shrunk. Do reward yourself with a trip to Mr. Lee’s fast-food restaurant.
7. The next day, when you arrive at your destination and your contact doesn’t answer repeated phone calls, even after you’ve waited in the train station for two hours and called him repeatedly, do think carefully before you get into a cab. This is because you may be forced to take two cabs, thanks to your ubiquitous mountain of bags. Why is this bad? Because being separated in two cabs will only multiply the confusion when you forget this country’s word for “East,” a word that occupies a prominent place in the street address which, sadly, you’ve only been given in English.
8. When your cabs pull over to the side of an eight-lane road in the middle of an enormous downtown, bare glittering winter skyscrapers arching out over you, do not get out. When your cab driver uses his mobile phone to try calling your university contact and your contact still doesn’t answer, do not get out. When your driver shrugs like he’s done everything he can, sit right where you are.
9. Anytime there is confusion about where to go, do keep waving your hands and pointing like a scared monkey, since this is a good way to communicate to your cab driver that do are not ready to get out yet.
10. When the confusion finally resolves itself and you get dropped off at a university gate, your twenty-four hours of anxiety easing a little despite your persistent mountain of bags and the frigid desolation of campus (see number twelve), do not leave your girlfriend to stand with the bags while you try to figure out where to go next. It might take you a long time, and she will get cold.
11. When asking for directions, do not try too hard to use your Chinese to figure out where to go. Why not? Because if you use your Chinese, people may mistake you for someone who can actually understand it when spoken at a rapid clip, accompanied by vague pointing. Then they are likely to smile and nod over your desperate, stuttered follow-up questions, wave a hasty goodbye and shuffle away in the cold that is becoming increasingly bitter in the late afternoon.
12. Do not arrive at any university campus the day that winter vacation begins. It will probably be cold, empty, and quite lonely.
13. When, after an hour or so, you finally find a university professor friendly enough to help you in his own imperfect English, do accept everything he does for you. He may turn out to be incredibly helpful, become your first local friend, and even deliver a stern lecture to your contact in your department, who will, finally, answer his phone — but only when your new friend calls him from the lobby of the unmarked and long-sought-after building.
Making it to our apartment wasn’t quite the end of the challenges. So if you’re not exhausted yet, read a little further for some more old-fashioned good advice:
12. Do not attempt to use your apartment’s water heater without first asking for instructions on how to use it. This may result in it breaking, leaking water across the roof and outside your window, and leaving you to “shower” with water heated in a kettle on the stove for your first week in your new country.
13. Do ask for suggestions on how to heat your large sixth-floor apartment with no insulation and lots of windows. The ocean views and two balconies will obviously be great come spring, but in the meantime you should solicit advice on staying warm. This is because there may actually be an air-conditioner in your living room that doubles as a weak heater, supplementing the very weak radiators. If you don’t know this, the eight layers of clothing you wear while shut in your bedroom may quickly become smelly enough that you wish you could wash them in the tiny washing machine you have no idea how to use.
14. When you notice the enormous hole in your ceiling covered only by a white-painted piece of plywood (the hole may, hypothetically, lead up to an empty, frigid second floor that has never had stairs built to it), do spend an evening trying to jury-rig insulation over the hole. This insulation could include sleeping bags, mattress covers, and two lengths of rope which you brought for just such a moment. Although the coldest night you will ever spend in an actual apartment may ensue, the benefits will start to accrue the next day when the sun comes out and not quite as much heat escapes through your ceiling.
15. Finally, when you find that you’ve survived your first week, do put your plans to get a residence permit on hold, hop on a plane, and take a vacation in a beautiful southern province.
For more details on number fifteen, check out the Photos section as I begin posting pictures from our travels. And if you ever hit setbacks when arriving in a foreign country, remember that telling your friends funny stories later on is one of the most important reasons you’re here.