Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Trip to Beijing, China

August, 2013
The smoggy view of Beijing I'm used to, taken from my hotel
Before going to bed I checked the computer. I was number 2 for a 4 day trip and there was 1 on the board- to Beijing. I think I rolled my eyes. I’ve been trying to get to Beijing for over 5 years. It’s been at least 9 since the last time I was there. It’s a neat city to visit, I wanted to return to the Great Wall and do some shopping. But it’s the most senior trip in the system and continually eludes me. I was so close. So yes, I rolled my eyes; so typical, the rotten luck! I hoped that something would happen; maybe another 4 day trip would pop up overnight and the flight attendant in front of me would get that, leaving me in line for Beijing.
      My phone rang at 0600hrs. I knew who it was by the ring-tone. The crew desk advised me they had a trip for me. As soon as she read the trip ID number, I recognized it…Beijing! I remained calm as I wrote down the information, thanked the scheduler, hung up and closed my eyes with my head dropping and a smile upon my face, full of joy. Finally, I would return for my 3rd visit.

A child's ride outside the local grocery store.

      Unable to sleep, I simply got up. I grabbed my Chinese money, packed, had breakfast and left for SFO. There would be no tardiness for me today. I felt on top of the world as I drove to work. Traffic was light and I caught all the lights green; fortune shown upon me. Did I hear singing? Some angelic choir, perhaps?
      Trips to China can be difficult to work. I love how some of the passengers say hello during boarding, but then later in flight, when told to be seated because the seat belt sign has come on, suddenly, don’t speak English! It seems like most passengers don’t like staying in their seat. They roam around the plane, visit friends and congregate. They go to the jump seat windows, raise the blind and look out, often taking photos. We’re over the Pacific Ocean. What are you taking photos of? When the chime sounds and the pilot comes on the PA to ask everyone to be seated is when many decide to get up. They ring the call bell to ask us for another customs form when they make a minor mistake, not understanding that at least when coming to the US, it’s all right to cross it out and make the correction on the form. And perhaps most irritating is how so many don’t put their tray down for us. It’s like a shock to them that we are asking what they want to drink or eat. Why do you think I’m pushing this heavy cart down the aisle…my health? You see the cart coming, start thinking of what you want to drink and have your tray ready!
     And the trip home was especially difficult for me, as I’ve never seen more passengers on our flights who didn’t speak any English. It was frustrating asking what they wanted to drink to have them point at the cart, full of sodas, teas, coffee, water, juice, milk and beer. What are you pointing at? All right, don’t learn how to say tea, orange juice or water. Maybe have someone make you a card with both English and Mandarin so you can show me what you wish to order, since showing you the menu with drink logos doesn’t seem to work either. I thought the Coca Cola brand logo was international. A mechanical issue delayed our takeoff nearly two hours, yet one yahoo rang the bell to ask me if we’d be landing on time. Yes. Yes we are landing on time because Santa is our pilot, and you know, he tends to fly fast! It was trying at times, to say the least. “Where are we?” another passenger asked. We all laughed out loud. Um, I don’t know…Boston? I’ve not looked out the window in 6 hours. I have no idea!
      The crew was great to work with. Everyone got along and worked very well as a team. There was much humor and I enjoyed my time with them. Asian crews are different from other crews I work with. They have unique culinary needs that they remedy themselves. It’s not unusual to see them bring soups, hot wings, steaks, legs of lamb, citrus and one time they even baked a cake on the flight. Many are bringing things difficult to fine in Asia. I’m always fascinated watching the culinary skills of Asian crews.
     Not having been to the Chinese capital for such a long time, the crewmembers were a wealth of information about the new hotel, where to find good deals on the products I wanted to shop for, and who to seek out for a great massage. These are the things important to a flight attendant. This trip, I decided was about shopping more than sightseeing. I had just picked up a trip to Beijing for the following week (when it rains it pours; 9 years without a trip to Beijing and now 2 trips in as many weeks) and I would put off a visit to the Great Wall for then.
My hotel room with glass bathroom walls.
      China is a great place for massages, as they are so cheap. In Beijing, an hour massage with tip costs about $25. They aren’t always the best massage. The first one I had on this trip was a petite woman with pink toenails who basically just wanted to rub the same 4 spots on my back for 20 minutes each. I had to ask her to start on my arms and legs and when she was finished, I asked for my hands to be done. She balked, but I told her I’d tip her for it. The massage felt very good at the time, but the next day I was sore on those 4 spots she had rubbed so vigorously.
      Shopping can be a pain in China. Fortunately, there are places frequented by airline crew, and these places aren’t as annoying as others. After all, they have to keep us happy or we all leave and find a new place. But in the markets, as you walk past the stalls full of wares, the workers stand at the entrance and call out to you, “Hey, you look. You want glasses? You need watch? I have purse! Come look, you buy!” No. No. No. As much as a glance into a shop turns these Chinese merchants into a bunch of seagulls and you have a nice big piece of shrimp on your forehead!

      I went to the Pearl Market with 4 other flight attendants on my crew. It was about 20 minutes from our hotel via taxi in the heavy morning traffic. I found that in the 9 years since my last visit, drivers seem to be catching on. Last time I was here, lanes were merely suggestions. Riding in a taxi was a horror, or a thrill if you are into such things. And I was always juniored into the worst place- next to the driver. Most motorists now do a very good job at keeping in their lane. And there were much fewer bikes on the roads, weaving in and out and playing Tetris at the lights, squeezing past stopped cars.
Shopping in Beijing; photo not mine.
      I’ve found the weather in Beijing to be oppressive on my past summer visits. Between the heat, humidity and smog, it’s not a great place for a picnic. I couldn’t get over how clear it was as the plane neared the airport and the city spread its complex carpet of buildings, parks, roads and entertainment complexes below. The skies were uncommonly blue and the weather was very nice; only slightly muggy and quite comfortable at night. The next day was slightly warmer, but still very manageable. The day we left, however, some 44 hours after touching down, the smog was a bit more noticeable.
      My shopping was a success, but Vaughn, Kitt and Sandy were ready to return to the hotel before I was. Vaughn asked if I had plans for dinner. Since I didn’t, I asked if he would like to join me. He said yes and Marianne and I continued our shopping pursuits for another couple of hours. We then returned to the hotel, where I set out to find a good foot massage. The woman I was told gave wonderful massages had moved and I had the old information, so finding her was a fail. I returned to my hotel and found another woman who would come to my room. My feet were sore, but not as much as my right ankle and left knee. Between the long flight the day before and all the walking I’d done in Beijing, my dogs were barking, and you know how I don’t like barking dogs!
      My foot massage (which in China includes the back, arms and legs) was the kind where you close your eyes and they constantly roll back. Your inner dialogue repeats, "Oh, my gods." Every now and then she'd hit a sweet spot and I'd think, "Fudge." Only not fudge, but the full-on F-word. After all, it's just my inner dialogue. Even if she could hear it, she doesn't “speakul the Englais” and she really does know how to give a sweet massage! I had her go easy on the sore spots that still resided in my back muscles. The part where she got to my feet and legs was bliss.
      She finished just in time for me to change clothes and meet Vaughn for dinner. In the lobby, he told me Kitt would be joining us. Good news; the more the merrier! With none of us knowing the area, we took the advice of another crew member and went to the food court in the mall across the street. Food courts in China are so much more interesting than those in the states; not full of mass-produced meals from national conglomerates.
     After ordering an oyster pancake and some dim sum, I found Kitt and Vaughn and took my seat at the smallish table with silver metal chairs. Kitt, wanting beef, had gone across the hall to McDonalds for a Big Mac and fries. I know, right? Who goes to Beijing and eats at McDonalds? I could tell his was a foreign value meal; the soda cup was the size of a can of soda and not the huge monstrosities served in the US.
      Vaughn, wanting vegetables and rice, had gotten a variety-pack meal from the food court; rice, soup, diced chicken and some vegies. He said it was good, although he seemed a bit uneasy with the whole deal and only finished half of what was on his tray. It was his first time in Beijing, and perhaps his first time in a Chinese mall food court, where one purchases a debit card for each station; no money changes hands. There were all sorts of great looking Chinese dishes. There were soups, dim sum, dumplings, noodles and all sorts of foreign oddities to delight the palate of those bold enough to try something new.
Gyoza and dim sum at the food court.

      The conversation came easily between the three of us. Vaughn was full of questions for both of us and Kitt was very outgoing. I enjoyed the conversation as much as my dinner companions obviously did, as we sat there for about 90 minutes- long after we had finished eating.
      People watching was fun as the conversation meandered around our lives and interests. Suddenly, I became very much aware of how great my life was. Here I was with two people I had not known before the previous day half way around the globe. Vaughn and I had worked together a few years prior going to Sydney, but we had not spent any time together. I love that I get to meet new people all the time with my job. I love that we bond over our jobs and sharing a city and new experiences. I love that in a short amount of time, I get to learn so much about people, and chances are, I won’t see these guys after this trip for months. Maybe years!
      Kitt is Swedish, hailing from a small town almost an hour north of Stockholm. He left for New Jersey at 17, although I didn’t ask why he moved. His parents still live in Sweden and he goes home once a year, although it’s been 2 since his last visit.
      I was amazed when he met us that morning to go shopping. He wore a grey tee shirt and jeans with the legs rolled up to the middle of his calves, very European. I had to comment to him at how well his uniform had hidden his muscles. I could tell he was in good shape, but now one could see just how well developed, and large, his muscles were. So large, in fact, that his veins sat above them, restrained by skin, looking like a map of German roads. Obviously, a guy who spends a ton of time in the gym.
      When I first met Kitt, I couldn’t tell he was gay. He did look German, with facial features typical of such, and blond hair with a hint of wave in the front. During the whole flight, it was hard to tell if his demeanor was slightly effeminate or just European. But when he spoke now, out of uniform, he definitely sounded gay. He began to speak of his partner, who he had married 14 years ago. I asked if he was a body builder as well. He is, but Kitt says he’s not as big. Well, If he were half as muscled as Kitt, he’d still be ripped.
      His partner owns a car dealership in the Denver area that specializes in luxury cars. They drive a used Bentley that was originally over $200.000, but they got it for “cheap”; a measly $50K! I looked at Vaughn, who looked at me, and said, “Obviously one person’s cheap…” Vaughn finished the sentence for me.
A street near our hotel.
      Vaughn is a larger black guy who lives outside Vancouver with his wife and daughter. He has two boys, as well, both in college. He normally only flies to Sydney, but has decided to start flying Beijing trips to do what so many other flight attendants do; sell inexpensive Chinese merchandise in the US. He told us of his plans to build a customer base through a web site to sell iPhone charge packs. But after he saw the quality of small Bluetooth-enabled speakers, he’s’ now convinced he can make over $900 in just 4 months.
      When asked about his plans for his first trip to Beijing before we left San Francisco, he told us that other than shopping, he was only going to stay in his room. He had no interest in seeing the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City. I was actually a bit surprised he was open to have dinner with me, thinking maybe he’d stay hidden in his hotel room that evening.
      He comes across as a shy, quiet type, who doesn’t like adventure or risk. In fact, he admitted as much at dinner. We started talking about cruises (Kitt has been on over 30) and he mentioned his fear of being at sea. “I can go all around the world and have no problem walking in bad parts of town, but being on the water in the middle of the sea…”
      Vaughn was very inquisitive and often kept the conversation going with a line of questions – what’s a luxury car to tell someone to stay away from? What’s your favorite city? What do you like most about going on a cruise? I could have sat there another hour, but when Kitt suggested we head back, we all just got up. I was eager to hit the gym, sauna and soak in the pool on the 27th floor of the Renaissance Hotel with a grand view of the moon rising over the ancient and now modern looking capital city. That was sort of surreal; being in a pool with such a view.
The pool at the Renaissance Hotel. Great views.
      As I clung to the side of the pool, I thought about dinner. It was very much like dinners I’ve had before in cities like Sydney, Seoul, London, Frankfurt or even New York, Miami and Chicago, getting to know crew members for a short time. I love my job and how I get to peek into the lives of so many interesting people while seeing so many wonderful places.
      After my soak, I returned to my room and opened a beer. My view from the 17th floor was the same as from the pool, only ten floors lower. The moon was rising. The buildings flashed images of children jumping rope. The Chinese do love flashing buildings at night! Tomorrow would be breakfast, packing and taking the bus back to the airport for my flight home. I can’t wait to return. Next time, I will go to the Great Wall of China. They say you can see the wall from space, but did you know you can see space from the wall? Lots and lots of space.

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