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

by Natalie

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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.