China Series

A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.

Crossing the Ocean to Cross the Street

I was excited and optimistic on deplaning at Beijing International. I knew the new apartment would not be ready, but fully expected Otto, our contact person, to greet us soon after our feet touched Chinese soil. He had said he would head a delegation and bring a van for our luggage.

The lobby at the gate was huge by comparison to western standards. We went from one large room to another without being greeted. I was surprised more than disappointed. Since the Foreign Affairs College is part of the communist government, I expected its representative would meet us before Customs to reduce the red tape.

When we reached the Customs lines, they were moving quickly. Each station had two officials although they only processed one individual at a time. The people at the stations routinely stamped each passport as we waited in line. Soon, we were directed, in crisp Chinese, to the next available station. One of the individuals took our passports.

He did not stamp them. He looked at his colleague. We waited. Suddenly, the fact that he wore a red-army uniform took on unusual significance. Where was Otto? Then the man picked up the phone and called. His computer was off line. In a few minutes he stamped our passports and we were officially in China.

Now, certainly, I thought, Otto would be waiting when we entered the baggage area. He was not. A young, neatly dressed, person asked if he could help. We told him we were waiting for someone. He informed us, as we walked toward the long conveyer belts, that only passengers were permitted in this area.

Another young person asked if he could help as we watched for our luggage. Sara remarked that we needed a cart. The person walked with us to where the carts were neatly arranged. We saw no place to insert money and quickly realized their use was free. Two more young people helped us to load our trunks on the wagon. Sara said, "I could get to like this place!"

Otto greeted us with a full-dimpled smile adding a definite charm to his Tibetan good looks. With him was a driver and a small car. It took them several minutes to conclude that either we could all fit into the car or our luggage could, but not both. Otto and we rode to the college and the old apartment in a taxi.

As we drove along the freeway, one of the four "outer roads" that currently circle Beijing, we could have been in any large city. When we reached the mutli-laned, multi-vehicled streets near the college, it became obvious we were in Beijing.

Crossing these streets has been our most consistent challenge. Besides normal four lanes for motorized traffic, there are turning lanes for all directions and lanes for bikes going in all directions.

In our first mission to buy food, later that day, we waited at the intersection for the crossing light. I had thought, "at least, the traffic flows in the correct direction. Unlike London, we don't have to adjust our normal pattern of looking first to the left." When the light changed, we avoided the bikes that did not stop for the light, crossed in front of two waiting lines of cars, stopped in the middle of the street while left turning cars drove in front of us, crossed another lane to wait while the right turning cars whisked past, crossed the final car/truck/bus lane, and watched as the remaining right turning bikes peddled by.

Then, I said, "we can go now!"

"Watch out!" Sara shouted. A bike was coming directly at me from the opposite direction.

The "we can go now-watch out!" refrain has become one of our many survival metaphors.