Sunrise, sunset.

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
Trip End Jul 02, 2012

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, July 2, 2012

In an attempt to calibrate my sleep
cycle, I tried sleeping in as late as possible. I failed, ending up
wide awake at 10AM. That could have worked out better. However, I
woke up with clear sinuses for a change, within the course of a day
whatever I was sniffling has turned into a chest-based cough. I want
to mark this off as a chest-cold, but seeing as it gets worse
whenever I'm breathing outdoors and I'm not seeming to cough anything
out, it looks like I have the infamous 'Beijing Cough'. This occurs
in travelers who aren't used to the pollution in the air and develop
various problems ranging from allergy symptoms to this Darth Vader
cough of mine. Looking in the mirror this morning, I'm starting to
wonder if the last two weeks have been a bit too drastic for me
physically. I'm not sure how how many pounds I've actually lost, the
intense sun and air quality has changed the tint of my hair, and now
I'm growling like Clint Eastwood whenever I speak thanks to the smog
settled in my chest. I should add an eye patch just to kick things up
a notch.

Gathering for lunch in the lobby, we
all decided to head back for one last shopping trip back at the Silk
Market. I still had a couple last-second things to buy which would be
easily found there, so this worked out great. As much as we miss
Watermelon, we're now quite competent in public transportation and
got around pretty easily through the bus system. Walking into the
marketplace again, we were now armed with exact prices, tricks on how
to turn the heat up in negotiations, and the knowledge that this is
our last day in China and we all intended to board the plane having
spent every yuan we had.

For lunch, we needed Western. This was
a transition day where we had to start adjusting ourselves for the
States, and...quite honestly we just can't eat any more Chinese food.
If you think you feel that way ordering takeout during finals, you
have no idea. We finally gave in and tried McDonalds, which surprised
us all by being very high-quality, very easy to order using a picture
menu, and not horribly expensive. Yes, it's all horribly unhealthy
and an insult to the fine art of cooking...We were starving, and it
was this, or rice. McDonalds really does taste the same in every
country, give them that much credit.

Once we started shopping in the market
itself, I expected to take about an hour to find my items and
haggle...But ten minutes later I walked back to our group holding a
bag with everything I needed. They asked about the price and were
amazed that I managed to nail such low prices within minutes. Only
took me the entire half-month in Beijing, but I spent my last few
yuan with bargaining skills that would put a Jedi Knight to shame.
Just in time to head home where you pay sticker price every time and
bargaining is worthless...Yay.

...Six hours later...

Did I mention this group loves to shop?
Well, ehh...It's our last day out here, so we kicked it into
overdrive and spent almost the entire day in the market haggling and
filling our bags with every last item we could possibly fit into our
suitcases. There's always room for more silk. Always. My suitcase is
so stuffed with silk I can rest my head on it and fall right to

Dinner took place at a KFC,
which...again, tasted the same, albeit the customer service was
horrendously impersonal and seemed inefficient. You heard me,
inefficient fast oxymoron, right? Inefficient fast food is
a result of traditional Chinese organization, where each employee is
specifically trained in one precise task. They all work in unison as
a large machine, completing their exact task without knowing the
other roles or improvising or changing the rhythm at all. Unless
every single employee is at peak performance, this complicates things
and tends to slow down service if workers get confused or get bogged
down with too many customers. You can't have some one jump on a
register, everyone is accounted for with an exact position and no
other training. American employees, meanwhile, cross-train in various
positions no matter what pay-grade we're in. I worked for years at a
movie theater and moved between various positions freely as I was
needed each day, even though we were minimum wage punks we could
arrange ourselves to handle various situations fluidly. If a huge
theater needed cleaning badly, cashiers can grab brooms and help out.
If the registers get mobbed, ushers put on aprons and start serving
popcorn. This is just daily existence for most employees in the
United States. But this concept of employee versatility is nowhere to
be found in a society based on exact order and strict categorization.

For the last time, China makes it clear
that everyone has their place. Good luck with that, we still get our
fries faster.

International fast food debates aside,
this is indeed the last dinner we'll be eating together before we
head home. We spent it laughing, watching the crowds go by, and
simply had that natural high you get when you've shopped all day and
come out on top. We've done it all, seen it all, spent it all, and
have meshed together pretty well throughout it all. All we had left
to do was catch the bus back, head back to our rooms and pack. I was
already packed, so I headed out to the lobby with my laptop. To take
my sleep cycle by the horns, I decided to pull an all-nighter so I
can sleep on the plane during a time slot remotely similar to the one
back in Chicago time. So, here I am.

In Beijing, it's 2:40 AM.Monday.  The glass
doors are dark, the usually crowded couches are empty except for a long-haired gremlin wearing old jeans and a black shirt, his feet gripping the table through shoes with toes. He occasionally turns from his small laptop to cough dryly off to the side. The road and sidewalks outside seem bizarrely empty, not
covered in people and speeding vehicles. The flatscreen TV that
constantly plays the same tourist commercials and scrolls local news
is finally silent. The bar in the corner is darkened, the Western
restaurant in the back has stopped playing American pop songs. The
guard in his gray uniform is sitting on the steps staring off into
the city lights and smoking a cigarette. Two of the desk attendants
in their pink high-collared jackets are fast asleep at their post,
their heads resting on their crossed arms. The doorman we've gotten
friendly with is clicking sporadically on the desk computer. The
phone rings, the clerk wakes up and answers in a perfectly awake and
rehearsed voice. She answers a quick question in a sighing voice,
then settles back onto the desk to try and get back to sleep in this
brightly lit, glistening hotel lobby. The neon signs keep scrolling
the time, weather, and currency exchange rates in both languages.
Over, and over, and over again. Down the hall behind a locked door with a defective lock, my roommate is asleep on the left bed. On the right bed sits a packed suitcase and a satchel with a stuffed panda peeking out of it mischievously. Across the suitcase sits a fleece jacket with a plane ticket in the left pocket. On the pillow sits an old hat laying upside-down, inside it is a pair of sunglasses and a necklace with a silver pendant. 

In DeKalb, it's 1:47 PM. Sunday. The
diner is full of older couples who just came from church. The campus
is closed, empty except for an occasional jogger braving the mid-day
heat. The baseball team is practicing before their night game in a
few hours. The residence halls I've called home and my workplace for
years are almost empty and being painted, repaired, or sealed for the
summer. A handful of quiet students scattered throughout the tower I
lived in for quite a few years in the most Northwest corner of
campus, the rest of them will be driving back from their hometowns
later tonight. My roommate is probably home for the weekend or out at
a concert, the apartment is empty with sunlight streaming through the
blinds. Behind a closed but unlocked door, my room sits in the dark
with a futon pad on the floor to use as a makeshift bed, toolboxes
lining the walls, and a line of stuffed animals carefully arranged
along the side guarding the domain until their master returns. Locked
away in the toolbox is the pocketknife I always carried, sitting on
top of my student ID with the picture of me in a buzzcut from so long
ago. Somewhere deep in cyberspace, Facebook has become a peaceful
place free of that one guy who keeps whining and ranting on it all
the time. The sun is going to slowly drift down past the forest
preserve. People will spend the night out on their porches or in
their yards, eventually all will be quiet except for an occasional
late driver. The sky over the lagoon will turn blue, then orange,
then blue again as the sun rises over campus. The shadows will walk
their paths as the sun goes back to hiding behind the forest
preserve, the campus will wait in the dark as police cars and service
vehicles wander through the night. A small van will rattle its way up
to a dark-windowed building with a cobblestone porch and a picnic
table. It stops, and a little man in a funny hat will step out of it
and look around at it all like he hasn't seen it in a long time.
He'll then shrug on a satchel, pull out the handle on his suitcase,
and walk off into the night by himself.

I don't have an amazing life waiting
for me back in DeKalb. But it's still my life, and I've truly missed
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