When I was having one of my lonely days in our first few months of living in China, I would amuse myself by imagining I was walking through the streets with a friend. What would he or she see? What would be surprising? It was a way to have an imaginary friend keep me company and a way to train myself to see things with as fresh an eye as possible.
You think you’ll never get jaded about experiencing the kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds, smells, and textures that is Beijing in 2012, but there are plenty of days when – if I do venture outside the door – I want to keep my head down and focus on not killing myself by stepping into big holes in the pavement, looking up only when a car or scooter is bearing down on me.
And then we had real friends visit. Our first group was our traveling buddies Anne, Caleb, and Cynthia. We’ve slogged through the mud in the Auvergne region of France with them, making up silly songs and nearly getting run over by a loose bull. We’ve drunk so much wine in the Mendoza region of Argentina that I thought my head was going to explode inside our charming cabin in the eco-resort. We’ve done the Walk of the Gods at the peak of the Amalfi coastline, traipsing across stones from the Roman Empire and rewarding ourselves with magnificent feasts in Positano afterwards. We’ve celebrated Anne’s birthday in Miami, in a chilly January where outdoor heaters allowed us to be as rowdy as we wanted without disturbing (too much) other guests. We’ve celebrated (with Dagmar too) the end of my radiation treatments at the Inn at Little Washington, where balloons dotted the ceiling of our little space. We’ve hiked the hills around Boulder, eating in restaurants that served five different kinds of salt and imagining that we could all live there one day on a senior hippie compound.
And now it was China’s turn. And even though China is the kind of place where you really really don’t want to order wine with dinner or where finding a place to get a real gin and tonic became a nearly futile quest, we still had a great time. And my real friends did exactly what I imagined my imaginary friends doing. They marveled at the daring it takes to cross a road. They squealed with delight at the bizarro treats available in the Wu Mart, our local Chinese grocery store, wanting to buy everything in sight. Anne stopped at every round-faced cherub she encountered, succeeding in making nearly every baby she came across in China burst into tears at the vision of this blonde-haired, extremely enthusiastic laowai who was in their face.
Not long after they left, Susan and Rachael graced us with a visit, and it was the same kind of thing again. Susan could not believe our luck in being able to take what we call the carbon-monoxide mobiles, these metal-enclosed three-wheeled vehicles that serve as a backup plan when taxis are not available. She marveled at the buildings, at the smells, at the sounds. Walking through a crowded train station – Beijing West – on the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival was an experience unlike any other. Rachael, on a visit from South Africa, had an equally delighted reaction to the expat grocery store, Jenny Lou’s, where she bought potato chips, Snapple, M&Ms, and Sweet-Tarts.
Thanks to our friends, we were able to refresh ourselves and see China through their eyes. I enjoyed taking their hands as they crossed the streets with me, watching out for speeding objects that could come from any direction.
There are certain requirements for visiting, of course: You need to be able to handle a squat toilet. You can’t expect to order wine with dinner. You may sleep on a bed that feels like sheet rock. You may ask, “what is the difference between this fish and that one?” and get the answer, “yes.” But it’s worth it for the adventure. And even though I’m perfectly content to continue to enjoy my imaginary friends and how they would see various sites in the future, the real thing is pretty special too.