July 31 - Aug. 1, 2014
I was confused. Our plane was only a few thousand feet above one of the world's largest cities, yet I barely saw any lights. Beijing's international airport is located far from downtown, but I still was expecting the city to look brighter from above. As we neared the ground, a thick haze blanketed us. Visibility was less than half a mile in all directions. We landed at 10 p.m. and the pilot announced that the temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29C).
Luckily, the airport was nearly empty. Katie and I loaded our luggage onto two carts and breezed through customs. Ryan, a teacher from BIBA, where Katie will be working, met us at the entrance and led us outside to a taxi. As soon as we left the confines of the air-conditioned building, I was drenched in sweat.
“What is that haze?” I asked Ryan, even though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer.
“Pollution,” he answered. “Some days are better than this, but others are far worse.”
I could still breath normally, but the immediate issue with the pollution was a mental one – not being able to see more than a few hundred feet made me feel constricted, like I was locked in a giant cage. It would take me a while to adjust.
But the pollution wasn't the only reason the city looked so dark. As we drove away from the airport and into our neighborhood of Houshayu, I noted that there were few street lights, and the buildings were dimly lit. It brought back memories of Latin America, where many large cities are equally dark at night.
There was little traffic, so we made it to the gate of our new home within fifteen minutes. We loaded our luggage onto a flatbed scooter, which a security guard drove toward our apartment while we walked. Ryan shined his flashlight on the dark buildings and noted that one was the high school, and another was the elementary school. At this point, Katie and I suddenly realized that we would be living on her school's campus – we had been expecting to live several miles away. We also noticed that the ground was quite muddy, and at least a dozen people were doing construction work. Apparently, the school was still being built.
We were relieved to see that our apartment was spacious, and nice. It had two large bedrooms, and the bathroom had a flush toilet and a tub. The television, couch and beds were new, and there was central air conditioning. In fact the entire building had just been completed. Katie wasn't sure if having a two-minute walking commute would be a good thing, but otherwise we had lucked out.
We said goodnight to Ryan, unpacked a few things and went to bed. After having stayed awake for most of the flight, I figured I would have no problem sleeping until late the following morning.
I was wrong. At about 4 a.m., I was wide awake. I had never traveled so far from home in a single day. This was my first real experience with jet lag. I also noticed how firm the mattress was. My hips were already sore, as if I had been sleeping on a tile floor all night. I blew up my air mattress and lay on it, still wide awake. A thought popped into my head: at China's equivalent of REI, the “camping mattresses” must be sheets of plywood. I tried in vain to fall asleep and was reminded of Bill Murry, lying awake in his hotel room in Lost in Translation.
When the sun came up, Katie and I took a walk around campus. It was already hot and humid; my fresh change of clothes quickly became soaked in sweat. Showering in this heat was pointless. The high school was a new five-story building, and its courtyard was full of mud and bricks. The rest of the grounds were similarly under construction. There were now at least fifty workers laying bricks, mixing cement, welding girders and preparing sod. The noise of their machinery and shouts followed us wherever we walked. A tarp was hanging next to a plot of mud the size of a tennis court. Underneath the tarp, mosquito nets and sleeping bags were set up – the workers were sleeping here. The first day of school was two weeks away. It looked like the construction would come down to the wire.
We met a teacher named Peter at the school's gate. The street leading up to the school was lined with willow trees, all of which had trunks painted white and leaves cut to an identical length. The sound of cicadas screeching in the trees was overwhelming. We took a taxi to an upscale shopping area called Pinnacle Plaza and ate lunch at a Thai restaurant. (I found out there were no Chinese restaurants in the area. Go figure.) While walking out of the restaurant, a red Ferrari drove past us.
Next we went to the subway station and bought public transportation cards. The subway only costs thirty-three cents, and the bus is only seven cents. But even though transportation would be cheap, it wouldn't be fast. We learned that it takes over two hours to get downtown from our apartment. In fact, even though there are fifteen-story highrise apartments all over Houshayu, the neighborhood is still considered “the middle of nowhere.”
For our first supper in China, we returned to Pinnacle Plaza and met some of the other new teachers at a pizza restaurant. The teachers seemed like a really nice bunch, and I felt lucky to have gotten involved with such a cool community. It was a really long day, and I was exhausted by 10 p.m. I started to nod off during our taxi ride home.
I didn't experience any major culture shock on our first day. In fact, I found our neighborhood to be quiet and friendly. The biggest shock was that I made it through my first day in China without eating any Chinese food. Katie still had a lot of questions about the school, and with the construction, everything seemed up in the air. But after surviving our first day in the country, we figured everything would work itself out soon enough.