natalie slightly scattered

everything in between

These are The Things

I walked to the White House today. The walk there was blustery and cold, but I was walking with the wind. The walk back was bitter, snow flying forward as it swirled around unfamiliar buildings. I wrapped the scarf around my face and trudged forward, wondering why anyone ever bothered to explore the Antarctic. Then I came home and made dinner for a friend who showed up earlier than expected, and whose appearance I was both grateful for and irritated by. If I’d had no one to come over I would have felt alone; and now that I was with someone, I just wanted them to go home.

I pondered the concept of being alone both to and from the White House, contemplating the unfamiliar feeling of not quite knowing how to just be me, of longing for those things which I have had and will have again. I am normally very content to be alone, to walk along and explore things for no one other than myself. We get along well, myself and I. But today was different. Today I yearned for acknowledgement from any number of passersby, some of whom were together, some of whom were also alone.

Shortly after I came home my friend arrived, making me feel lonelier than before. Being with just anyone is worse than being alone when you just want someone. We made our way through the evening, and the effort had me exhausted. Then the sink clogged and my head hurt, and I announced that I was probably just going to go to bed, which is how we said goodbye.

I looked at the sink, and decided I couldn’t just leave the drain. I texted the landlord, but we’re snowed in. No one can come anytime soon. I decided to attempt to fix the drain myself. Scooping water out of the sink with a pot, I made multiple trips to the bathroom, where I dumped the remnants of our sink down the tub. Then there was the matter of all the dishes I had to wash, which is how I found myself in the bathroom with my sleeves rolled up, washing all of this evening’s dishes in my previously clean tub. It was then that I started to laugh, and came back to myself. Because these are the things I will remember. I might not remember the way I felt today, the minutiae of my fleeting emotions. I will remember that once upon a time I was young, I walked to the White House in the middle of a snowstorm, and that at the end of the day I washed my dishes in the tub.

Act of Contrition

It’s been almost five months since my last confession.

Forgive me Father for I have sinned… apparently we don’t actually have to say that, nor do we start with the Act of Contrition. I forget how to say the Act of Contrition, I inform him. The priest chuckles. “Everyone always wants to start with that,” he says. “But we don’t actually say it until the end.”

The church isn’t crowded, but in the quiet of Adoration every noise is amplified. I’m not sure what to do with my keys, and as I pick them up the sound seems to reverberate throughout the space. How funny. The simple act of tossing my keys, a noise which I almost never register, and here and now it is so loud. The woman on my right “Your keys are making so much noise.” Her child is behind me humming a song and clucking her tongue. I’m annoyed, but I’ve decided I like the woman. I’m not annoyed at her, but at the wait. It’s Thursday night confession. I don’t want to spend my whole evening here. I was here by 7:15. The priest has seen a grand total of three people since I got here, and a fourth is in the confessional right now, over an hour later. I can’t focus.

The Eucharist is prominently displayed in front of me. I try my hand at prayer, “God, please envelop me in your love;” a prayer someone told me I should pray to move on. It goes from insincere lips to ever gracious ears. While the intent itself is true, I’m not into praying at this moment. I am focused on how I have to go to the bathroom. On the fact that I’ve had to wait for over an hour to confess two minutes worth of sins. What the heck did these other people do?

The woman on my left is texting. Her nails are long and blue and chipped. She’s texting someone named Daniel. Wearing a wedding ring. Probably her husband. The man behind me lets out an exasperated sigh at the length of time we have all had to wait. I feel you, man. The little girl making noise is actually quite beautiful, with big brown eyes. Dressed all in pink. Her sneakers are emblazoned with a character from some children’s TV show I don’t know. I sit here and ponder the child’s sneakers, whether or not these glittered purple shoes provide any real support. I imagine her running on the playground. Her mother is not wearing a wedding ring. Because the child is here with her and not at home I wonder if perhaps there is no father in the picture. What happened there? Was the child a “mistake” that she is now eternally grateful for? Is she widowed? If I have children and my husband dies will I one day cease to wear my ring?

She comments on a ring I am wearing, “Where did you get that?”
“It’s a gift from my mother,” I say.
“In my country we have lots of designs like that. I was wondering where it is from.”
“Where is your country?” I ask.
“Paraguay.”

And now I am thinking about “my country,” about how that used to be something I could say. My Country. But I am in my country now. I am American. And presumably this woman is here to stay too. At what point does my country become this country, become our country? Or does it become home but never home?

The exasperated man behind me is young. He’s wearing a wedding ring, a solid band of silver. His hair is long, and his eyebrows slightly overgrown. Most of the people are Latin. There is some Spanish being spoken that I understand. I turn to him. “What time is it?”

“The priest is taking too long,” I say. For surely not all three people before us could have committed grave sins. I think the problem is that he must like to talk. When it is my turn I am going to tell him to hurry up.

And then the door on the other side opens up. Apparently another priest is here. I look around. Everyone else wants to go to the Spanish speaking priest. I hesitantly get up, only for my seat mate to nudge me on, “Go!”

The priest is young. I’m not used to confessing to someone who looks to be my age. It’s interesting. Not in a bad way. I feel like in another life in an alternate universe we could be friends. But I don’t think 33 year old priests typically hang out with 26 year old women.

“Well then why don’t we start,” he says.
“Right so,” I begin. I list the sins quickly. I once heard a joke about the difference between an Irish confession and an Italian confession. An Italian will confess the sins in great detail, making sure not one nuance is left out. The Irish will throw out one word that can encapsulate a multitude of sins. I give an Irish confession. And then I get to the part that is hard. “Someone hurt me,” I say, and my voice gives me away.

I’m having trouble with the Our Father, I tell the priest. I’m stumbling on, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I thought I had forgiven, but the hurt still isn’t gone.

We talk about how we first have to see ourselves as God sees us in order to see others that way. Vanity is something I will spend my life attempting to overcome.

The Priest, “Repeat after me.”

Oh my God
I am heartily sorry for having sinned. 
In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more,
and to avoid the near occasion of sin. 
Amen. 

And just like that I am washed anew. I used to think that confession would lead me to feel a lightening of spirit. I don’t actually feel much of anything. I notice my need for confession by it’s absence. By my willingness to suddenly gossip or make a snide remark, to judge someone.

I leave, glad to go home. I get in the door, “You’ll never believe how long confession took,” I announce. And I am reminded of how perfectly human I am.

 

heart torn in two

I’m sitting here listening to a song by Peter Bradley Adams, The Longer I Run. This song has a certain significance for me. Right before I moved to China, my dear friend Courtney gave me a mixed CD, and this was the fourth or fifth track. I brought that CD with me, and I played it endlessly my first few months, especially during the cold of February and March. I vividly remember being at my friends’ apartment one evening, drinking tea, and contemplating the lyrics of this song.

When my blood runs warm with an old red wine,
I miss the life that I left behind.
But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry,
I know I left in the nick of time.

Well this road I’m on is gonna turn to sand,
Leave me lost in a far-off land.
So let me ride the wind till I don’t look back,
Forget the life that I almost had.

If I wander till I die,
May I know who’s hand I’m in.
If my home I never find,
Let me live again.

The longer I run then the less that I find,
Selling my soul for a nickel and dime,
Breaking my heart to keep singing these rhymes,
Losing again.

Tell my brother please not to look for me,
I ain’t the man that I used to be.
But if my savior comes could you let him know,
I’ve gone away for to save my soul.

The longer I run then the less that I find…

I had just three weeks earlier packed all of my things into two suitcases and moved across the world for exactly what I wasn’t sure. The song resonated with me, the melody haunting. In a twist of fate I am about to move again, and I just came across the CD for the first time since China. I had left it in an old computer. My dad went to give the computer away and he called, “Do you want this CD, it’s called Natalie and Courtney’s Friendship CD?” I picked it up when I was home last week. I haven’t listened to this CD in years, but the songs right now are perfect for me.

The similarities and differences between the two times in my life are striking. At one point in time I was 23, about to turn 24. I had just moved across the world, and I was full of hope and the promise of what could become. I am now 26, about to be 27. I have had my heart broken. I am moving, but this time it is without the hope for the promise of tomorrow. I have to find my own way and make my own happiness again. This time I feel like the pinnacle of happiness has already been reached, and that I can’t ever quite get there again. Three years ago I felt as if I had everything life could offer ready for me to discover. I cannot believe it has been three years. Every passing day brings me further from that moment in time of who and where I want to be. I am weary, right now. For the first time in my life I feel old, a feeling that is foreign, and that I don’t like at all. I don’t think age has anything to do with years lived. I think age is correlated to sorrow. I’ve cried so many tears.

I want once again to be in a foreign land, to wander, to forget the life I almost had. I think more than anything that lyric is what resonated with me the first time. Choosing to go to China had been a bit of a struggle. I knew I wanted to go, but then I let doubt creep in. I really had to pray and discern, and in my quiet moments the answer came to me. I was to go. But when I went I was very conscious of the life I was leaving behind. I felt as if I only had everything to gain, and not much to lose, but I knew things would be different.

This time I have nowhere to run. I am meant to be here, and I am resentful. I wake dreaming of a foreign land. I again prayed, I discerned. And again the answer came to me. You are not to go this time, you are meant to stay. But this time it is not the answer I wanted. And so I am fighting what I know is right, unable to let go of what I had, and what I want. This time forgetting the life I almost had has a whole other connotation. This time I thought I had found the life I wanted, I didn’t willfully choose to leave a life I almost had. That life left me. Losing your dreams is far more painful than discovering them.

It is as I am contemplating all these things that I came across some of my old writing. Reading my own writing is strange. It’s like having a conversation with two versions of myself. My writing is like a snapshot in time. It’s familiar and comforting, this former self. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Tonight it made me cry.

This is what it’s like coming back to China. The smell is the first thing to hit me when I exit the airport. A friend once told me that China smells like pennies. If pennies smell like sulfur than I understand what she meant. The smell is so different, so distinct, that it completely disorients me. I had lost my sensitivity to it, forgotten it existed, that I had previously experienced it, and it vividly brought back the memories of my first time landing in China. I was trapped between two different experiences, suddenly unable to separate the two; the smell so overpowering my other senses and bringing with it a sense of uncertainty, of unknowing, without the adrenaline that carried me through last year. The smell had the power to well up the emotions I had experienced a year ago, and I forgot that I had built a life here. Everything felt foreign once again, in this place where just a month ago I had felt completely at ease. Being home had reinforced that I am American, that I belong to a country with a culture in which I identify; I had regained my American identity, and lost my Chinese self, the version who knows how to operate here.

Then this morning I look out the window, and across the street I see 喜喜, double happiness. One of my neighbors has gotten married, the sign in their window proclaiming it for all to see. And suddenly, so suddenly, she comes back to me, this other girl that I now have within me. One who can speak in Chinese, not only survive but thrive here. One who when she sees 喜喜, knows what it means.

The Long Forgotten Buddhist Geek

I found this while cleaning out my room Monday evening. It was written during my last year of college, and I have decided to leave it as is, without any editing. I wrote it while sitting at a Starbucks on campus as it was happening.

I can see you through the glass rocking your mustard yellow jeans. Hipster. I appreciate it. And then apparently you see me, in my white tee and hiking boots. Not a rather sexy look, but apparently it’s working for you, because you just waltzed in and sat down at my table. And then BAM! The first thing you decide to tell me about yourself is you’re a Buddhist. Not any kind of Buddhist. A Buddhist Geek. Stop. Get up and leave. I am not interested. But instead of conveying that, I start to speak. With an accent. It came out of nowhere, I swear, but I can’t stop. It’s so weird you’ve noticed. And what do I blame it on when you ask me? “Oh, I’ve lived kind’ve all of over.” This is a lie. Except for four years of my life, I have lived in New Jersey, and I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, which is what I’m pretty sure this accent is evocative of. I’ve decided to ignore you, because you’re not going away, mustard man.

Packing 101

I had been planning to move down Virginia on Monday morning, which is how I found myself just beginning to pack at 4:30 on Monday afternoon. I am horrendous at packing. I abhor it. And yet I find myself participating in this activity quite often. One would think that by now I’ve learned the art. Or at least figured out how long it takes me. I always approach packing with the notion that it will take me two hours, and am always shocked when it doesn’t.

My problem Monday afternoon stemmed from the fact that I had not yet fully unpacked from China. I brought two suitcases home with me. One contained all of my clothing. The other contained everything else. Everything else, it turns out, is not that essential to my life, as I was able to ignore its existence for six weeks until I needed the suitcase.

Since I decided that everything else was probably non-essential, I figured I probably was keeping some other non-essential items in my room, which is how I spent the better part of Monday evening organizing instead of packing. Mind you, I’d had six weeks to accomplish this task. I decided to approach my belongings from the viewpoint of this New York Times article from a few weeks back, in which the main premise is ditching anything that does not “spark joy.” I had a long conversation with myself over the Charter of the United Nations & Statute of the International Court booklet I’ve held onto for years, which ultimately landed it in the trash. I’ve always figured it was good to have, and that I should know the things within. Alas, I’ve never actually read it, and I’m pretty sure even if I kept it for another five years I never would.

A few other things that suffered a similar fate to the Charter:

  • A four inch thick pile of card stock (from when I was learning Arabic and would use it to create sturdy study sheets).
  • A card from a boy I once liked, with whom I have a long history that I always thought would culminate in marriage. It was time to fully let go of that fantasy.
  • Stickers that I’m sure one day I could use, but I can’t see that day approaching anytime soon.
  • Four recipe booklets. This doesn’t even begin to touch on my problem with hoarding recipes.
  • Chinese coins. I kept a few. I feel like someone someday is going to ask to see one, but that day hasn’t happened yet.

I kept:

  • A sealed note to myself that says, “Pay as soon as I have a job, N.B. Parking Ticket Dodge Ram,” which is another story entirely.
  • Papers from when I was in high school that explain the function of each of the separate bodies of the U.N. Some part of me finds a working knowledge of the United Nations crucial to my life, despite evidence to the contrary.

 

Homegrown Nostalgia

Kid Street

I remember eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new park. Donations were honored by featuring the families names on wooden planks comprising the fence.  The day the ribbon was cut and we were allowed to enter, everyone went running off to find their name.

My brother found our plank first, on a stretch between the tire swing and the ropes course. In my memories, the park is a seemingly vast and endless place. We played there many times, until we moved away. When we moved back we were too old for children’s parks. I drove to the park once when I was in high school, and marveled at how big it is not. It was hard to equate my memory as a child with the reality before me, and so I have allowed the memory to live as it is, and do not try to correct my childhood eyes.

My brother and I are both now gone from this place. In fact, the town that houses the park is not even where we went to high school. When we moved back to this state we moved one town over, and spent little time going around the places that are so familiar to me. My brother is very much from the town where our parents now live; I am not. I always feel at home once I am driving the streets of my childhood, the roads that lead to the park. By the time I have children my parents will have likely moved on, and the last thing tying me to this place will be gone.

But the park remains. I experienced this last week, while watching the children of a family from church. Their whole world is comprised of a few places spanning about four to five miles from home. They go to the same preschool I attended as a child, where over twenty years later not even the color of the paint on the walls has changed. They love the park. To them it is an immense and wondrous place, and for a few hours last week I was able to see it again through their eyes. Our journey started off in the car when I was driving them there, and tried to go a way that was familiar to me. A chorus of protest, “That’s not how mommy goes!” rose from the back of the car, and I quickly turned around, counseled by the four-year-olds, “Miss Natalie we’ll tell you when to turn.” The past and present collided as I took a new route to my old park. I drove past the houses of former classmates that had marked my bus stops, time bearing evidence in the form of new doors and updated siding.

When we got to the park the children took off, me chasing from behind. We climbed the pirate ship, and slid down the slide. I pushed them on the tire swing, and held them on the ropes course. After awhile I told them I had to find something, and we looked for my plank. Within a few minutes I found it, the green of my name a little faded, the plank less brilliant and weathered by time.

My brother and I have both gone, but our plank remains, a testament to a moment when this park, this place, was mine.

An Incomplete End

Six weeks ago I moved home unexpectedly. I had been planning to stay in China until December. Coming home three months early doesn’t sound like all that big of a deal, but it threw my world off kilter. The decision came after weeks of not feeling well, where I was existing but not really living. Next week I am going to move down to Washington D.C. to live with family while I look for work there. Some friends don’t even know I’m back in the state, and by Monday I will no longer be a resident here. One can never say for sure, but I likely never will be again.

Leaving China went by in a blur. A life that I had taken a year and a half to establish was unraveled over a few days and packed into two suitcases over the course of one. I cried the Tuesday it was suggested, the Wednesday it was mulled over, and the Thursday it was decided. There were so many people I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to. The teachers with whom I had spent over a year establishing a relationship couldn’t know I was leaving. I was at work on Monday and then they never saw me again. The family who provided my first real introduction into Chinese culture was treated to a hasty goodbye. I had spent every Wednesday evening at their home, tutoring their daughter and then eating dinner. The parents didn’t speak English, and were the foundation to my Chinese, practicing and teaching me during the twenty minute ride home. They wanted to take me out to dinner, but there was no time.

After booking my ticket on Thursday I existed in a false reality, aware that I was leaving but pretending it wasn’t really happening. I didn’t cry again until Monday, when I went to say goodbye to my family, the people who had anchored my time in China. I spent hours in their apartment, playing with their son and holding the baby while grandma cooked dinner. I called her grandma too, an endearment they might have at first found strange but later accepted. I simply called her what the children did, because I didn’t know enough Chinese to know how else to address her. By the time I learned, calling her lăolao had already stuck. Lăolao wasn’t there the day I left; neither was the baby. Our time together that evening was the same as always and yet marked by the knowledge that I was leaving. I had been with this family on nights when both babies were crying, evenings spent making play dough Iron Men only to have them crushed by the baby. When I got into the elevator that night is when the tears came. The real, hurtful tears, the ones that acknowledge something you have held dear and cherished is ending, is in that moment over.

A Sense of Should

I didn’t intend to be here. I intended to still be in China. Until the air pollution became such an irritant that I became chronically ill and had to come home. My last month in China I spent the majority of my time in bed, ordering take-out from the Italian restaurant  with the speedy delivery service.

No one goes to China to lie sick in bed and eat pizza.

One of the worst days I had in China was about two weeks before I made the decision to come home. I had gotten to work that morning and taken Benedryl, to no effect. I was sneezing uncontrollably, my eyes were itchy and watery; I have no idea how I got through the day. It was raining and cold, despite the fact that it was only the beginning of September. I decided to take a taxi home, even though the rain makes driving conditions horrendous. Going by subway and bus my commute took 45 minutes to an hour on a good day. The rain pretty much guaranteed that it would take me an hour and a half. I grabbed a cab and started directing him towards my apartment. I was so tired and worn out that simple Chinese I had mastered over a year ago was coming out in a jumbled mess of words, my tones flat and inconsistent. I managed to get out a duì bu qĭ, sorry, while resorting to hand motions to get me home.

When it rains in Beijing the streets become grid-locked. Traffic ceases to move. I’m not sure why. Even the slightest drizzle guarantees an hour delay. A city that regularly experiences roadblocks does not need any further obstruction to the flow of traffic. We took the exit off of a major highway onto a road leading into my neighborhood and were sitting still, when we were hit from behind. The good thing about getting into an accident in Beijing is that you are never going fast enough to get seriously injured. The bad thing is that you can get left on the side of the road in the pouring rain. I was standing on an exit ramp, where it is almost impossible to be picked up, attempting to talk  myself into resilience. I was a good 25 minute walk from my apartment, something I routinely did when the weather was fine and I felt better.

I believe there are moments in life where the cosmos realize you need a break. You can call it dumb luck, but I’ve spent enough time waiting for taxis in China to realize that they rarely come when you need them to. Before I had ventured ten feet, a taxi driver put his blinker on and came over to pick me up. I could have cried, I was so grateful.

One of my favorite things about Chinese is the expression “yīng gāi de” which translates to should, but we do not use it in the same sense in English. If I thank you for something you have done for me in English, the common response is “You’re welcome.” In China, a country where a deep sense of duty pervades the cultural landscape, you can also be treated to the refrain, “yīng gāi de” which means, “It is what I should do because I can do it;  it is my duty to do so.” We do not as much have this concept in the west, where the word duty is seldom mentioned and we do not explain our actions as the result of an inherent responsibility to do them because we can. Instead we color our experiences as they relate to the self; I did this because I am a good person, or because I am a person who goes out of their way, not because, “I am a person who does this because it is what I should do.” Thank a Chinese person and they may seem baffled by you. Thank them profusely (as we tend to do in western culture) and it will be off-putting. “Why do you westerners constantly say “Thank you,” is a common question I received. It’s a cultural difference, I would explain, and indeed it is, but one that I do not believe can be explained as simply as that. Cultural differences abound, but the need to express thanks and gratitude the way we do in the west as opposed to the east is a deeply ingrained cultural identity as to what is meant by someone’s sense of duty.

As I sat in that taxi in the pouring rain, only a short distance from home, I kept saying “xièxie nĭ, xièxie nĭ,” thank you, thank you, only to have this acknowledged with a smile and a flip of the hand, “yīng gāi de, yīng gāi de,” this is what I should do.

Because You are Who I Call When I Flush Men’s Numbers Down the Toilet

She was the girl with the really cool shirt and the amazing hair. That was how I knew her in eighth grade. I was the girl who got her onto the JV soccer team and talked obsessively about her gerbils. That was how she knew me in ninth. We sat next to each other in Honors English. That was how we became friends in tenth.

But first, back to soccer. To this day I know I’m the reason she made the JV team while the rest of us were stuck on the freshman squad. We were paired against each other during the one-on-one part of try outs, and while my view towards soccer was always, “If you really want the ball, take the ball,” Courtney’s attitude was more along the lines of a mother bear guarding her cubs, “Nothing you can do will make me give you this ball.” I distinctly remember the JV coach watching us (Courtney had her eye on the ball). When she made JV, I knew why.

And now, back to Honors English, which is where it really all began (though the foundation had been laid – only true friends know about the gerbils, as, alas, I don’t talk about them anymore – naysayers, it’s been at least three years). Our English classroom was supposed to be in Room 104, but at the last moment was switched to the upper classmen campus, and as fate would have it, neither Courtney nor I received the memo and wound up outside Room 104 at the same time. We walked to the correct classroom and took seats next to one another.

Since I couldn’t remember if we hated the class or our teacher (I remember hating something) Courtney refreshed me:

“I distinctly remember hating all of the books (like every single one) and only enjoying the discussions because you and I just liked to be difficult and play devil’s advocate. So I think we liked DeLisle, in the sense that we liked giving him a hard time. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end, we make a formidable team.”

Oh yes, it was the books we hated. No one should ever have to suffer the injustice of Beowulf, GrendelTo Kill a Mockingbird, or The Catcher in the Rye all in the span of five months. Though I have since become a devoted fan of the classic by Salinger, I think we should leave Beowulf to the Brits. I have also forever been scarred since the reading of Bananafish. DeLisle was out to corrupt our innocence.

Somewhere between reading great literary classics and coming to loathe old English, Courtney decided I was funny (or maybe I just provide numerous opportunities for people to laugh at me) and we realized that we both like to bake.

My memory seems to be failing me, so once more I prompted Courtney, “Do you remember the first time we hung out?” and received the reply, “And you told me about the death of your hamster? Or was it a gerbil?”

Gerbils, Courtney. As in plural. That’s why it was so traumatic. That was why I still talked about it.

That and I had apparently missed out on the acquisition of some essential social skills most kids gain between the fifth and ninth grade (I caught up, but it was a few years later). Courtney loved me through it.

Since the second time we hung out was almost as bad as the first, it was a miracle we made it to a third, but neither of us can recall what exactly we did, because we most likely did some variation of what we have done ever since. Paint our nails, listen to music, bake, go for a walk, plan our lives together (Fuggliners) and eat.

We really like to eat.

Courtney is one of my solid rocks. She is an absolute inspiration to me, and though she may not know it, one of the people who inspires and drives me. I admire her strength and determination. Once she’s decided she is going to do something, it gets done.

I have been blessed in life to have many good friendships, but Courtney knows me in a way my other friends do not. There is a candor and frankness in our friendship that I have been hard pressed to find with other people. Whenever we are together, we just laugh. Before I moved to China, Courtney was the friend who took the time to write me a letter to open upon my arrival, because she knew exactly what I would need to hear at that moment:

My dearest Natalie,
Breathe.

She has been giving me some variation of that advice ever since (and before, if we’re being honest). Courtney is who I call / email / text if I ever need advice regarding a boy (meaning, if I say hi to one, I call Courtney). She has been the recipient of many (well, not that many) drunk texts and emails, the former usually going something like, “Courtneeeey, I’m drunk!” because I was the last of my friends to drink and was always rather proud of it when I reached a state of inebriation. The latter, “This is a venting email after a few shots.”

She is who I call when I need my own advice repeated back to me, “What you really should do is be just as busy,” or when I need advice in general.

She is the friend who came over the night before I moved to China and rearranged my suitcases so that everything I wanted to pack would fit. The one who bought me chapstick because she knew I wouldn’t remember any yet cannot live without it.

The one who, when I emailed, “I tore his business card up and flushed it down the toilet, because, you know, friends do that,” responded with, “Tearing up his business card was definitely the most logical thing to do. And the toilet? Nice touch.”

The friend who has acquired half of my closet. The one who loves me despite the fact that I announced that the purple dress she was wearing made her ass look fantastic. In front of her entire extended family. On Thanksgiving.

The one I was so happy to see I tackled on the lawn when she came to play a Frisbee tournament at my university during college.

The friend with whom I exchange letters.

The friend who woke up early to meet me at Starbucks at 7 AM so that we would have a half hour together before I had to get to work.

The first person I told about my first kiss.

The one who was there the night I got my second.

One of six people who attended the only house party I ever threw.

Who worked with me at the restaurant, and who I taught how to waitress.

The person to witness my adverse reaction to Benadryl when her cats nearly killed me.

The friend with whom I went on a quest for Mason jars and spent one Christmas season baking endless amounts of peppermint bark.

The friend who has known since the age of sixteen that she will one day be my bridesmaid.

With whom I aspire to own neighboring houses built into the side of a mountain, a bed and breakfast, and a cow named Betsy.

The friend who understands when I am being irrational and who talks me through it.

The friend I always meet at Polar Cub.

The one I cannot imagine my life without.

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{Photo older than original sin}

How to Not Get a Massage or Take a Taxi in Beijing

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We met in the bathroom on a retreat, during the fall semester of my senior year. She liked my hair, I adored her style – it was the start of a friendship destined to last. Ours is a foundation built on random encounters at Mass, mutual affirmation, and one failed attempt to go to a Sugarland concert. Despite the fact that we never managed to hang out, I had no hesitation in saying yes when we ran into each other before I left for China, and she asked if she could come visit.

Liz could not have come at a better moment. Anyone who has lived abroad knows that there comes a point where you almost begin to forget that you had a life back home. You miss your family and friends, but you’ve spent so much time and energy creating a life in your new location that the life you left behind starts to feel like a distant memory. Liz’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of everything at home that’s waiting for me upon my return. A reality check that it’s OK to not fully stock my kitchen here, because I won’t be here forever. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being around people from home until I laughed more in one week with Liz than I have in five months. Liz’s visit reminded me that China is not permanent, and that I came here with a purpose. She gave me the motivation to work towards achieving the goals I had set, and to remember that my time here has a deadline attached.

Beijing is a fast moving, international city; it can suck you in, and as the common story goes, before you even know it you’ve been here three years. So many people I meet tell me that they came here for a year, but just couldn’t seem to “get out.” The longer I have been abroad the more I have come to realize – I am not a wanderer. I have roots, they are firmly planted, and while I always want to grow, I cannot be torn away from what’s important to me. That can be hard to remember when you’re adrift in a sea of transplants, people who have moved and put down the most fragile of roots as a manner of survival. It is hard to ever truly feel settled in a place where a common topic of conversation is how long you want to stay.

I don’t yet have the answer to that question, and I’m not sure that I ever really will. I think I will just wake up one day and realize it’s time to go home, that this chapter is over and I am ready for the next phase of my life to begin. That time is not now, and I constantly debate with myself when it will come. For the moment all I can do is live my life here to the fullest, taking advantage of every opportunity, and remembering that once I leave I may never return. It’s a life of Resident Limbo; because while I am not a tourist, I am not a citizen either.

I Am Not a Tourist is a complex that happens to people living in Resident Limbo. A few examples:

I Am Not a Tourist

…I know how to barter with the illegal black cabs, as I know the approximate cost of a legitimate cab ride to almost anywhere I want to go.

…I know how to get to the grocery store!

…I understand the value of the currency, and can bargain well at the market instead of converting everything to dollars in my head and declaring it cheap.

Unfortunately Liz did not fly all this way to go to the grocery store, which meant that for a week I was resigned to playing the part of tourist, albeit one who at least understands the subway system. As it turned out, I didn’t know much about being a tourist in this city where I have come to reside, because being a tourist is so very different from figuring out where to buy forks and knives. Apart from knowing where we should go, I didn’t know much about how to get there, because I am resident enough that I don’t usually frequent those places. I know where I like to go, and I know how to get there. I don’t spend my days wandering through places like Tian’anmen Square; I have to do laundry.

Being with Liz gave me a chance to really explore Beijing. Sure, I know a noodle shop that would make Anthony Bourdain jealous, but I haven’t necessarily taken advantage of the sights that are within my reach, because I live here. On Saturday afternoons I’m more likely to be meeting up with friends for coffee and then off to dinner somewhere than I am to be exploring the Forbidden City (though really, if you ever do go, I would not recommend making your visit on a Saturday). Liz’s visit gave me some badly needed perspective, and helped me to go from Resident Limbo to Resident Tourist, a whole other category indeed.

The following is the complete itinerary of our tour through Beijing, as promised to you, Elizabeth Rooney.

Sunday

I took Liz out for her first meal in China, a crucial make-it-or-break-it moment, as traditional Chinese food is unlike anything most Westerners have ever seen. We went to my favorite restaurant, which my roommate and I refer to as “Our Place,” because we cannot read the Chinese character’s that denote its name. Here I introduced Liz to some of my favorite dishes in China.

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Moving clockwise, and starting at the bottom left, are as follows:  cucumbers with garlic in vinegar, peanuts in vinegar with garlic & cilantro, dry chip potatoes, dry fried green beans, kung pao chicken, and fried rice.

Monday

I was absolutely adamant that Liz have Beijing style noodles, but it turns out that I don’t know where to get them, which was how we ended up walking around Sanlitun for an hour in search of an elusive noodle house, only to wind up eating at Yashow Market. The dining options at the markets are the Chinese equivalent to a shopping mall food court. Having not lost any of my snobbish tendencies towards food while in China, I like these establishments about as much as I enjoy eating at a food court in America, which is to say, not at all. When Liz finally admitted that she was really hungry I gave in to defeat, and it was there that she had a bowl of noodles with cucumber slices, bean sprouts, and a dollop of bean curd (better than it sounds / looks – the bowl on the left).

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From there we spent the afternoon shopping around Yashow, an absolute must for any tourist who is looking to score a fake handbag, the latest Chinese fashion, or some cool China trinkets. After shopping we went to The Bookworm, Beijing’s resident hipster / coffee shop hangout.???????????????????????????????

For dinner I took Liz to “Tony’s,” another local spot of mine. Tony’s is obviously not the name of a restaurant in the heart of Beijing, but is instead my own moniker, because the owner introduced himself as Tony when we first met, and furthermore, he speaks English, the main reason for my faithful patronage. There I introduced Liz to a number of things that I would not have ordered five months ago. Liz bravely tried a century egg, a Chinese delicacy where an egg is boiled and then buried underground until the yolk turns black and the white becomes a gelatinous brown substance, which is about as appealing as it sounds.

Her favorite dish was the pork, which is served in strips over a bed of Chinese onion, then wrapped in thin sheets of tofu, which I was first introduced to by Chinese friends of mine. It’s important while in China to go out with people who know the cuisine, because ordering by sight recognition won’t get you very far, and you’ll miss out on some of the tastier dishes.

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Tuesday

Noodles for breakfast!

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I took Liz to the noodle bar right outside my apartment, where we dined with the locals and garnered many odd looks. It’s not a place that foreigners usually (if ever) frequent. You quickly get over Western cleanliness standards if you want to eat the best food in China. My survival tip is this:  if a long line of Chinese people are always waiting to eat somewhere it probably won’t kill me, even if the dishes are washed through a rather dubious looking method. The noodles are made on the spot, and served in a piping hot broth garnished with cilantro and meat shavings.

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From there we went to the Lama Temple, where the air is perfumed with incense as worshippers come to pray and pay homage to Buddha. The main tourist attraction is the 75 foot tall Buddha in the last hall. Carved from one piece of sandalwood, it has to be seen to be believed (so most of you will have to take my word on this – it’s awe-inspiring).

The rain ruined the rest of our plans for the afternoon, so we improvised with Starbucks and Cold Stone, then headed back to Yashow Market for foot massages.

Tip:  Go to a real massage parlor, the ones in the market are not all that great, nor are they any cheaper.

We rounded out the evening with dinner at a famous dumpling house in Sanyuanqiao, where Liz was less than impressed with some of Beijing’s best dumplings.

Wednesday

Decidedly over Chinese food for breakfast (as well as lunch and dinner) and wondering how I manage to do it (I made the conscious decision to move to China, so it was part of the deal) Liz was really excited when we went to the ever popular Tavalin Bagels for breakfast.

The forecast was still calling for rain, but we decided to hope for the best, ditched our umbrellas, and headed to The Forbidden City, also known as The Imperial Palace, where it started to downpour before we’d even gotten through the main gate. Here Liz was a tourist attraction in her own right, being tall and blonde. Most of the Chinese that are at the Forbidden City any day of the week are not Beijingers; they are tourists from the rest of China, and when you get outside the main cities, foreigners become about as rare as pandas, meaning you’re likely to get a lot of looks, stares, and requests for photographs.

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Hot Facts:  “The Forbidden City is the largest palace in the world, as well as the best preserved, and offers the most complete collection of imperial architecture in China” (Fodor’s).

It didn’t just rain while we were at The Forbidden City, it down poured. We were quickly drenched, which at first made for some great photo opportunities, but after an hour we looked like we had taken showers with our clothes on. The Chinese, who apparently pay attention to the weather forecast, were all extremely confused by our lack of umbrellas, and kept pointing to theirs, as if this was any help to us. Yes, I KNOW I’M WET. I don’t know exactly how to say that, but I was able to convey that it had not escaped my notice that we were soaked. Since we had little other option we embraced our predicament, and decided that touring an ancient palace in the rain is the way to do it.

Tip:  Watch out for pairs of women who approach you and are very friendly (almost too much so). They will speak English, ask where you are going, and perhaps suggest that you go for traditional “Chinese tea.” DO NOT DO THIS. It is called tea housing, and is a very popular tourist gimmick. I know people who have had it happen to them. They will take you to a tea house, pretend to be your best friend, rack up a ¥2,000 bill, and leave you to pay. Liz and I were approached by three separate pairs of women.

After leaving the palace we walked back to the subway, then it was on to the Pearl Market, another one of Beijing’s famous shopping complexes. This market is famous for electronics and jewelry. Definitely haggle here. The rule of thumb is that if you are a foreigner they will raise the price by as much as six times the normal cost. Bargain bargain bargain! Someone tried to sell me shoes for ¥750 a few weeks ago (which I bought for ¥90, and even then I think I could have haggled a little more).

Tip:  If you do buy pearls, make sure the vender scratches it to prove that it is legitimate (real pearls don’t scratch).

As previously mentioned, Liz was over Chinese food, and a tad distrustful in my taste after the dumpling fiasco the evening before, which was why she was less than enthusiastic when I insisted that we go for hot pot.

Beixingqiao, also known as Ghost Street, is an absolute must for any visitor to Beijing, and it’s one of my favorite areas. The entire strip is lit by lanterns strung between the buildings and the trees, and you can get any manner of Chinese food you crave. Here the vendors all speak enough English to hawk their wares, and will try to tempt you inside the doors of their establishment. “Hello! English menu!” is a common refrain. I knew what I was looking for, and didn’t find it until almost the very end of the strip, at which point I’m pretty sure Liz thought I was crazy, but she soon became a convert.

Hot pot is a fantastic style of dining from the Sichuan province of China, and is traditionally very spicy. I wasn’t a huge fan of spice before coming to China, but I now notice its absence whenever I eat anything where it is lacking. Hot pot can come either spicy or plain, and I recommend that you get the spicy broth, it’s nothing that the average palate can’t handle, and the plain broth is rather bland. The Chinese order any number of things to cook in hot pot (duck stomach, anyone?) but I usually stick to the more traditional options. Lamb, sweet potato, mushrooms, and tofu are some of my favorite things to eat this way. I’m not a huge fan of tofu, but it is absolutely delicious in hot pot. My favorite part of the whole thing is probably the sesame sauce which you dunk everything in after it’s been cooked. As Liz aptly put it, hot pot is more of an experience than just a meal. Chinese friends told me that if you invite someone to your home for hot pot then that person is a true friend, because you will only serve hot pot to the people who are closest to you.

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After dinner I insisted that we walk to Nanlouguxiang, a preserved hutong that has been turned into a happening nightlife area. Hutongs are an endangered cultural relic as the government continues to tear them down in favor of new high rises. Epicenters of culture, they are emblems of real Chinese culture amid the hustle and bustle of this ever ambitious city. Traditionally places of residence, a few of the hutongs have been turned into hot spots with bars and shops, such as Nanlouguxiang. This spot is cool, however, because it doesn’t cater just to foreigners, but to local Chinese as well. Whereas Sanlitun is more a mix of clubs, high-end bars and fancy restaurants, Nanlouguxiang is for all of Beijing’s displaced hipsters.

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We got there late in the evening on a Wednesday, so things had died down, but Liz was still able to buy a tea pot and haunt all of the funky little shops selling any number of oddities.

Thursday

We started the morning off with coffee (Starbucks, how I adore thee) then headed off to Tian’anmen Square to hang out for a bit.

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Tian’anmen, as most people know, is where absolutely nothing happened in June of 1989. At least that’s the official story over here, but security is still very strict and heavily enforced within the square (by which I mean guards are posted at intervals throughout, and it’s not odd to see a group of men in uniform marching past).

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Here we were once again a tourist attraction of our own, and pretty much invited attention by sitting down on a ledge. After about an hour of photographs with random passerby’s we decided to call it quits, and headed to Wangfujing to see the Catholic Church and grab lunch.

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The evening was spent at the home of the eleven year old girl I tutor, where Liz was able to enjoy an authentic meal with a Chinese family. Thankfully they didn’t serve her anything completely wacky, a special treat which they seem to reserve for me each week.

Friday

Liz was able to get a taste of being a kindergarten teacher in China, which is to say that she absolutely fell in love with the kids. They are the cutest things ever. We had unintentionally coordinated so that we were wearing the colors of the American flag, but it somehow seemed fitting as we taught them such classics as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” which they all call “The Eensey Weensy Spider” despite my best efforts. I blame their former English teacher.

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That little munchkin pictured is Edwin, who I previously referred to as Harry, until he told last week that he prefers Edwin. I tried to explain that Harry is a better name than Edwin (or at least more modern) but he would have none of it, so Edwin it is. He’s four, and really clever. One day I was asking everyone in his class their Chinese name, and he stood up and said, “Wo de zhong wen ming zi shi xi gua.” Or, “My Chinese name is watermelon.” Needless to say, I lost control of the class at that point.

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Outside the gate at my school.

Friday afternoon we went to Houhai, a very popular destination in Beijing. Comprised of a lake and the surrounding hutongs and restaurants, Houhai is a happening area at night. Here Liz was finally able to get her ride in a rickshaw, something she had been hoping to do all week. The driver originally wanted ¥180 per person for what ended up being about a fifteen minute ride, but we were able to negotiate it down to ¥50 for the both of us.

Tip:  When bargaining, just walk away if the price is not what you want. Do not stand there and argue. State your price, look at them for a minute, and if they refuse to drop theirs start walking. If their price is too high they will immediately shout after you (and in some instances, chase you) and you can usually agree on a price that leaves both parties satisfied.

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Our driver was phenomenal.

Along the way we stopped to tour a 700 year old hutong courtyard house.

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The entrance to the house.

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The courtyard.

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The lake that gives the area its name, Houhai (literally Rear Sea).

Saturday

THE GREAT WALL

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Not wanting to spend our Saturday on the Great Wall with a thousand other tourists, Liz and I opted go with the Beijing Hikers, an excellent company that provides guided tours to some of Beijing’s remote locations. A big bonus is that they keep the group size relatively small and take you to places that won’t be swarming with hoards of tourists. We signed up with a lovely chap named Thomas, with whom my conversation went something like this:

Thomas:  “Beijing Hikers.”

Me:  “Hi, my friend and I are interested in hiking the Great Wall tomorrow, do you have a tour going?”

Thomas:  “Sure do!”

Me:  “Awesome, what’s the day entail?”

Thomas:  “We’ll meet at the Lido Hotel at eight, and from there take a bus two hours to the mountains, where we will hike to an unrestored section of the wall. From there we’ll hike to a village, and finish the day with a lunch prepared by locals.”

Me:  “Sounds good. Is there anything we should bring?”

Thomas:  Sunblock, a long sleeve shirt, pants… We’ll provide you with a chocolate bar, a banana, and all the water you can drink.

Me:  “A banana!”

Thomas:  “You sound really excited about that banana.”

Me:  “My friend really likes bananas. What kind of shoes, do we need hiking boots?”

Thomas:  “Those are great.”

Me:  “We only have sneakers. But don’t worry, we won’t hold the group up. We’re in shape.”

Did Thomas need to know that we are in shape? Was it in any way relevant to sneakers? No. I have no recollection of what Thomas said because Liz was laughing so hard that I had to get off the phone before I lost it. We wore sneakers, and we were absolutely fine. However, one of us did manage to hold the group up…

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The first person to scoot their butt down the Great Wall. Steeper than it looks.

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Gazing out of a watchtower. The hike up was tough, the view was worth it.

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On top of the watchtower.

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One of the watchtowers.

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It was really foggy the day we went (fog, not smog) but it added an ethereal quality.

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The village.

We finished with lunch, where true to Chinese custom our hosts provided more than we could have ever hoped to eat.  Out of a table of all boys except for the two of us, Liz and I did America proud by eating the most. After we got back from the hike we decided to chill for a bit, then it was onto Sanlitun for dinner, where we rounded out the day with Mexican food at Cantina Agave.

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We didn’t mean to coordinate, but it happened, and we were OK with it. Girls actually coordinate here all the time, except by that I mean they were the EXACT same outfit. It’s like Twin Day from when you were in elementary school, except real life. A little odd the first time you see it done.

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If you ever get to Beijing and are jonesing for Mexican (stranger things have happened) this is the place.

Sunday

By our last day together we could not believe that the week had gone by so fast. It was almost complete, except that I had yet to take Liz for a massage, something she had been asking to do since Monday. Having pretty much completely given up on Chinese food, we went to Tavalin Bagels again for breakfast, then spent a few hours shopping around Yashow and grabbing last minute gifts. Then we headed to Wangfujing for Mass at the Wangfujing Cathedral, alternatively known as St. Joseph’s and the East Church. Mass was a little hard to understand, because, bless the priest, his accent was so thick that we caught maybe every other word.

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After Mass we headed over to the strip where vendors sell every edible oddity that you could possibly imagine. Scorpions? Sheep testicles? This vendor knows only one word in English, and he gleefully shouts, “Testicles!” whenever any woman walks past. We took the safe route, and had dumplings, which were pretty good, but the food here is not the best, in my “I live in China and am not a tourist” opinion. However, it’s a lot of fun and definitely should not be missed. I like going just for the atmosphere, as well as the sugar glazed fruit on a stick, which you can get any time of year here, but which is traditionally only sold in the winter.

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Liz loved the pineapple, which is also my favorite.

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Dumplings.

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That would be starfish, sea urchin, shark (not sure exactly how one would go about eating that on a stick) squid, and on the bottom here, tarantula, centipede, and snake, among other things.

After we were finished we went and got ice cream at McDonalds, something I eat far too often here. Then it was onto the last thing on our list:  massages. While Liz was excited at the prospect, I was less than thrilled with the idea of some stranger rubbing their hands all over my body, but I decided that I would chalk it up to experience and take one for the team. I had no idea where to go, but luckily some friends of mine did, which was how we wound up at Dongfangliang Massage in Sanlitun. They don’t speak English at Dongfangliang. We don’t speak Chinese. After they communicated that it would be two men performing the massages, and checking to make sure that we were OK with that, they left us in the room with a garment akin to what you wear when you go to the dermatologist. After looking at it for five minutes, Liz and I decided that we didn’t want to put it on, but at this point we were already in various stages of undress. We opened the door a crack and showed them the garment while trying our best to look confused. A minute later the masseuse came back with another garment, but this time it was a shorts set. Still convinced that this wasn’t what one is supposed to wear for a massage, Liz and I opened the door once more, now genuinely confused. At this point, everyone was confused. The masseuse returned yet again, this time with blankets, which Liz and I assumed he meant for us to wrap ourselves in. So we disrobed and swaddled. We would have done many a maternity ward nurse proud we were wrapped so tight. No way a masseuse was getting his hands in there! Come and see if you can find my shoulder, boys!

I should mention that this process, which probably takes the normal person about two minutes, took us twenty. After finally lying down on the beds the men came in, and this was where we all learned that Liz is exceptionally ticklish. To the point where her massage had to stop intermittently, and I was told to tell her to calm down and relax. They had figured out I speak a little Chinese, probably from my attempts at small talk, because I found it crucial that we know the names and ages of our masseuses. I’m not sure my attempts at communication made the situation any better, however, because at random intervals we both kept bursting out laughing and they had to stop. At times we were all laughing, communication barrier be damned, wasn’t this funny, these two white girls are nuts! We’re convinced that’s what they were thinking.

After finally getting through the body massage we had the foot massage, which went much smoother, except for the fact that Liz is also ticklish on her feet. I’m pretty sure we were all relieved when the massages were done, and not in the general way that people normally feel after a massage.

After beating it out of there (our masseuses waited by the door to wave us off) we went for dinner, after which it started to downpour. Taxis are exceptionally hard to come by in the rain in Beijing, so we started walking in a direction where I was fairly confident taxis congregate. We managed to find one, but it was a black cab, which are notoriously expensive and usually unwilling to negotiate, especially in the rain. Luckily this guy was young and bored, and after bargaining with him for a few minutes I got him to agree to my price by telling him in Chinese, “We’re pretty.”

We were in his cab for about five minutes when I remarked to Liz that he had a nice car, and all of a sudden he said, “Thank you.” He spoke English! I always find this very exciting, so I started to pepper him with questions.

“Where do you work? Why are you driving a cab at night?” At this point I should mention that the last black cab I took, the driver was working weekends and holidays to make extra money because his wife was pregnant. So naturally I decided that all men who are driving black cabs must have pregnant wives at home, prompting me to remark, “You must have a woman in your life!”

Well, turned out that no, he didn’t. Not really sure where to go from there, I told him that I liked the music he was playing on the radio, and asked if he normally listens to American music.

Cab Driver:  “I really American music.”

Me:  “Me too! So do you live around here?”

Cab Driver:  “Right up the street.”

Me:  “Oh, we’re practically neighbors! Do you like the restaurants in this area?”

At this point he had a grin on his face and was shooting looks back to Liz, and I realized, a bit too late, I was hitting on the cab driver. However unintentionally, that is absolutely how it was coming across. I couldn’t wait till we got up the street. I don’t remember what else I said, but it didn’t get much better. Needless to say, I was quite relieved when we finally got to my apartment, where we pretty much went to bed so we could get up early the next morning and get Liz to the airport.

If you’ve read it all this way, congratulations. I wasn’t aware that I would have so much to write, but that week had to have been one of the best of my life. I don’t remember many other times when I have laughed so hard or so much, and it was incredible to spend the week with someone who I know will be a lifelong friend. Here’s to you, Liz, and the many memories we are going to make.