It is that quick pause when the airline ground staff takes a breath—the gap between the crackling of the PA system and the sweet voice with calculated intonation, calling on a passenger: “Paging (insert name). You are needed at gate (insert number).”
I am standing inside a store, surrounded by aisles and aisles of eco-friendly school products when I heard a page. I look up at a corner, staring intently at a spot on the ceiling as if the sound is emanating from that point. The soft, sweet voice trained on how to speak English properly, fumbles over a man’s last name—European, with a succession of consonant letters I imagined to be “wczyk.”
The page heard all over Hong Kong International airport is not for me. I sigh in relief.
As a kid, I have been paged many times—in grocery stores, in department stores, even book stores. It begins with the full name of the lost girl or boy followed by the description of clothes—ruffles on a pink blouse paired by a brown skirt or a batman white shirt paired with black pants. Then the distinguishing features: curly hair, a mole on the face, a scar on the arm.
I get bored when my mom lingers at a section I find uninteresting like the vitamins section in a grocery store or the nursing section in a book store. I tell her I want to go off on my own with a promise that I will be at a specific place at a specific time.
She arrives at our meeting place early with bags of items she has deemed necessary. I, on the other hand, is still walking, fighting my way through the crowd, receiving snide comments as I inadvertently step on people’s toes or bump into their bags.
A couple of minutes past the time of our supposed meeting, I hear my name, the clothes I’m wearing, my curly hair and to proceed to a counter where my mother is waiting, for everyone to hear.
I cannot wait an hour for an announcement that the flight is ready for boarding. I cannot wait especially when on the way to the gate, I past by a store of school products—of notebooks bound in leather, pens and pencils wrapped in recycled materials, organizers for clips and clamps, all useful for a student like myself. Besides, I have time and a few Hong Kong dollars left, probably enough for a notebook and a pen.
I ask permission from my mom to explore the airport, or more accurately, check out the stores.
As I gallivant, the ticking from my watch becomes faint. The movement of the second hand that disturbs the air molecules around it causing the vibration or the perceived ticking fades. It is overpowered by the slow and steady drone of the moving walkway and the slamming crash of the cash register’s drawer.
I arrive at the gate a minute or two before I said I would be back. My mom, however, is missing. Our bags are unguarded.
She is talking to the airline ground staff, holding the intercom—about to page me.
I am not late but the line of passengers forming to board the plane suggests otherwise. The high pitch tone of my mom’s voice is close to the frequency that irritates even dogs. I defend myself by pointing at my watch and speaking an octave higher than used in normal conversation. From bits and pieces that register on my frequency, she is saying something about our baggage and running out of room in the overhead compartments. I tune out the rest of the litany, preventing anymore damage to my eardrums.
Ambient noise fills the awkward silence. The buzzing from the airplane as it readies for lift-off becomes comforting. The click of the seatbelt. The thud from the overhead compartment. The giggles and whispers in a language different from my own.
Mandarin is the official language of China. Over 1 billion people all over the world speaks Mandarin. Sadly, my mom and I are not part of the billion.
In an effort to experience as much culture of China as possible in three days, my mom opts for a private tour, with the driver named Han and the tour guide named Mandy, her chosen English name.
“To experience Beijing is to focus on three areas: eyes, mouth and feet” says Mandy, in perfectly rehearsed English complete with actions—pointing at the aforementioned body parts. After the pleasantries of meeting and picking us up from the airport, Mandy goes straight to work.
Every moment is an opportunity for learning about China. In the car, she sits in front, with the driver. Her back to the open road, she foregoes the seatbelt and faces us as she points and identifies landmarks, starting the moment the automatic sliding door opened and welcomed us to Beijing. Whether roads, buildings or trees, each occupied a place in China’s history.
Mandy pauses after every few words, looking down at her notes or swallowing, which makes her English sound broken. Removing the pauses and stitching the words together, her English rivals those of would-be call center agents minus the American accent. She speaks English when with us and Chinese when she takes care of everything else, speaking on our behalf.
The only time my mom and I are left to fend for ourselves is when we walked to a convenience store to pick up a few things. I approached the counter carrying chips, water, tissue and upon seeing my big round brown eyes, the lady at the register becomes speechless. A while ago she was shouting at a helper, I assumed she was scolding him but her face is smiling. Both of us mute, what transpired at the counter amounted to pointing at the price, handing of the bills and change, and a quick smile.
There is no smile at my mom’s face. The three hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing has started on a bad note. I have things to say, stories to tell, but I am left silent. She sits next tome but the only reminder of her presence is the sound of air entering and escaping through her nose and the rise and fall of her chest I see from the corner of my eye.
Disembarking from the plane, a man walks past wearing a suit and a hospital mask. One after another, men and women, all seemingly healthy are wearing masks.
Unlike people protecting themselves from pollution during their daily commute, there is something sinister about the prevalence of these masked individuals.
Stunned. Paranoid. I find reasons to cover my nose, scratching it one minute, pinching it the next.
They converge at a bottleneck a few feet away from the gate, where airport officials point a handheld device at passengers deplaning. On a plasma screen, images in blue, green, yellow, orange and red are displayed.
It is 2009. The scare from the bird flu and SARS are still being monitored in Beijing when my mom and I arrived—blue, green, and yellow on the thermal scanner.
The next feast of colors comes from a one-hour Acrobatic show in the Chaoyang District, equated with Makati in the Philippines. As part of the tour, Mandy and Han are tasked to drive us around. Around is the accurate term as the roads in Beijing are called Ring Roads also known as beltway or roads that encircle the central business district.
There are seven Ring Roads. Most are recently built or completed as part of the $1.2 trillion public works program launched by China in the 1990s. Unlike the Elliptical Road that surrounds Quezon Memorial Circle, or the Academic Oval in University of the Philippines, the Ring Roads in Beijing are wider and longer. Sometimes, it does not even feel like a ring since we never complete one revolution.
We arrive at a two-storey building, plain and dull except for the huge Chinese characters at the top and multicolored vertical banners featuring acrobats and gymnasts. The building can accommodate 800 people. The venue, according to Mandy is always packed, one of the must-see tourist attraction suggested by hotels. I look around at the people around me, fellow tourists comprising the bulk of the audience. Americans and Europeans are easy to pick out from the crowd, their heads a good deal higher than their Asian counterpart.
My mom sits beside me, holding a camera, anticipating the start of the show. Her cheeks are red, not in anger anymore but due to the cold weather. With only me as her companion, we try to get along. I take her picture. She takes mine.
The light slowly dims, then a barrage of laser neon lights in green and red direct attention to the stage. It is a series of performances, each act not lasting more than five minutes. I am assaulted by the performer’s flexibility, their skill, their discipline. Their faces are painted. They are wearing spandex costumes in bright colors. They use a variety of props: ropes, bikes, hoops, balls, wine glasses, chairs, stairs, plates, discs, and sticks.
I watched in awe as performers my age, literally jump through hoops, balance object after object, lift and carry one another as if weight does not exist. My mom flinches at some of the acts, unable to stomach a fully-grown man balancing himself on seven chairs piled on top of another.
In another act, twelve girls are dressed in yellow-green spandex adorned with beads and a headdress that resembles antennas on a grasshopper. They start off with six bicycles, two girls on each bike, standing up, lying down, upside down, every position possible and impossible on the bikes. Then one by one, the bikes disappear until twelve girls are arranged like the palm of our hand on the bike, spread out from left to right, one on top of another.
On a different night, a different show, my mom and I are driven to the Red Theater, a name worthy of the red facility. The lattice work façade of the structure dupes the eye into thinking the vision is blurry. I blink a couple of times and the neon signs in Chinese characters and the lighting on the wall greets me. The tone of the performance is set just by the building alone—there will bloodshed, hurt, war but there will also be passion.
In contrast to the building, the lack of color pervades the interior as my mother and I arrived a few minutes before the first act. Wearing numerous layers of shirts, sweaters and jacket, I am unprepared for the coldness inside the theater. I shiver as I watched the Legend of Kung Fu.
It is a one hour and a half show detailing the journey of a young boy, battling temptations as he embarks on becoming a Kung Fu master and finding Enlightenment. I am once again in awe with the fusion of the modern choreography and the traditional art of Kung Fu. There is no dialogue in the performance but the message is transmitted through elaborate fighting scenes and acrobatics. Boys perform cartwheels as if armless, using only their head. I cringe while touching and rubbing my neck. The performers break boards, lie on a bed of nails, wield swords and spears.
On the foyer, after both shows are done, there is an opportunity for taking a photo with the cast. Tourists push and shove one another to get close to the Kung Fu master posing in front of a huge gong. Surrounded by kids with shaved heads and red dots on their foreheads, my mom takes a picture of me, I take a picture of her. The ushers are shouting products available for purchase—a $10 DVD of the performance, to bring back to our land.
On the drive back to the hotel, on the nth Ring Road, I imagine if Han can protect us from masked villains, if Mandy can bend and balance objects, if everyone in China knows Kung Fu and acrobatics.
In a span of three days, my interaction from Chinese people are from the driver and the tour guide, and the lady who taught us how to eat Peking duck.
For three days, I literally ate nothing but Chinese food. In restaurants, I am not even given any menu, which I assume to be written in Chinese characters. Helpless, I do not bother to ask for menus or attempt to gesture at wanting a menu. Like a sheep, I meekly follow as I am directed to my seat and wait as food automatically comes, pre-arranged by the tour.
A few minutes trying to decipher if the foreigners in the restaurant are the same people I watched the Acrobat and Kung Fu shows with, the lady arrives with the famous Peking duck, crispy and brown, along with plum sauce, onion leaves, cucumber and the crepe-like pancake wrapper.
Beijing roast duck is another milestone when touring China. Roast duck is traced back to Yuan Dynasty, listed as an imperial dish in 1330 by Hu Sihui, the imperial kitchen inspector. There are special farms that raise ducks destined to become roasted. These chosen ducks are placed in small cages that restrain movement thereby preventing exercise. They are also fed four times a day to fatten them up faster. When a duck is ready to be prepared, only the finest ingredients touch its skin, with selected sesame oil and sugar, as well as peaches and pears to give its distinct fragrance.
Speaking as little as possible, communicating through action, the lady demonstrates the proper way of eating a Peking duck. It is usually the chef who comes out and presents the whole duck before slicing it into thin pieces. The chef is probably tired and sends out an assistant in his place. A platter of the thin slices of duck are brought as well as two more platters: one, with the cucumbers and onion leaves and the other for the pancake wrapper. The duck is first dipped in the plum sauce, then placed on the wrapper. The same is done with the onions and cucumbers. The wrapper is then folded, placed in the mouth, and chewed. Repeat procedure until full.
My mom documents the procedure with her camera, tugging on my sweater every now and then, coaxing me to join the picture. Hungry, I wish the lady would hurry up so I can eat.
More flavorful than the regular chicken, the Peking duck is a blending of salty and sweet, tender and crunchy, a party of contradictions where not one flavor dominates.
They say eating Peking duck is a combination of experiences: the ambience and the food itself. The room is loud. The tables are close to one another, I can hear other people’s conversation I just could not understand them. It is a high-end eatery, with Chinese people as servers. Though the duck is great, half of the experience is missing. My mom and I are like peasants eating a dish for royalty.
To wash down the Peking duck, a visit to Dr. Tea, a tea store with a demonstration on how to drink tea, make tea, and appreciate tea is also devised by the tour. A pamphlet that lists the basic types of tea simplifies the whole experience.
There are six basic tea types that are presented. White tea is recommended for drinkers and smokers because it is able to quell the effects of alcohol and nicotine. Golden green tea or wild puer tea is recommended for those who want to lose weight and also for those who want to regulate blood pressure and cholesterol. Of the rest, puer tea is decaffeinated. Puer, as explained by another lady, must be drunk after a meal because taken before, it has a tendency to increase appetite. Oriental beauty or king of Oolong tea is good for the skin and blood circulation. Jasmine tea can improve eyesight and relieve headache. Litchi tea or black tea is good for digestion. Lastly, ginseng oolong tea restores energy.
We are in a small room with other tourists. There is one rectangular table with comfortable chairs. The lady is standing over a portable stove, boiling water in a glass teapot. Each presentation of tea comes with a taste test. The colors of the tea slightly changes, from brownish to pale yellow. The smell varies from fragrant to no smell. The taste however, is consistently bitter.
My mom’s eyes meet mine, our eyes toasting one another. She is beaming with each sip, her forehead scrunched like a connoisseur deciding if it is good while I manage to keep a straight face and not utter a “pweh” out loud.
At the end of the tea tasting, my mother and I left with a $100 worth of tea or 8 boxes of wild puer tea, a free tin can of Jasmine, as well as a tea set that changes color when it contains hot liquid.
Puer is the most expensive tea of the bunch. It is the oldest and has the most health benefits. It is packaged in a yellow box, the size of a 3×5 index card. It is compacted and shaped like a chocolate bar, one inch thick. One pinch is all it takes to make several pots of tea and can last up to three days. With the purchase of puer tea comes a tea certificate. If ever my mom and I are back in Beijing, we just have to show the certificate, the empty box and we get a free refill.
The tour devotes one whole day for visiting shops that feature China’s primary products like silk, jade and tea. Suddenly feeling healthy and powerful with a paper bag of purchased tea, the day ends with a trip to a Chinese herbal store.
Posters of the human body with lines going in and out probably acupuncture sites, containers filled with dried leaves and one I can identify as dried seahorse are the decorations as we waited for the “doctor” to see us. An old man, wearing a lab coat appears with an interpreter by his side. The interpreter asks which one is going to be examined. After losing a staring contest with my mom, I approach the doctor.
He asks a few questions, examines my hand, my pulse, and gives a diagnosis that my monthly period is irregular. If by irregular he means I have it every month then I guess I am irregular? He takes out a pad that lists medications in the store and points to an herbal medicine to make my period regular.
My mom is compassionate. In one of her visits to the Philippines, I told her about a man I saw with huge tumor in the neck begging for money at the MRT North EDSA station. She saw the man and interviewed him. After about a week of convincing a family friend who works at PGH, she had finally arranged for the man to be looked at and operated on. He gave the good news to the man along with the name and number of the doctor to contact.
I do not want to tell my mom that he never went. I still see him sometimes begging for money at the MRT station, sometimes on the winding overpass just outside SM North.
My mom does not like seeing old people work. Even though she only has limited cash for shopping, she pays $45 for a bottle of my menstrual medications.
I open the bottle. I expected it to smell pungent like dried pee or worst and I was surprised that it smelled like nothing. There are 600 pills with room for more. Each pill is small and circular like a miniature version of dog food only grainy.
It is how I imagined sand to taste like—all texture but no flavors to speak of. It is like drinking air with the inconvenience of having small pellets being pushed down my throat.
After being disappointed that we did not buy anything from the silk store and the jade store, Mandy is giddy at seeing us leave the herbal store with a bag.
On the drive back to the hotel, I am reminded of an Amazing Race episode near the Bird’s Nest or the Beijing National Stadium where participants are tasked to eat fried scorpions and starfish. Sad at not having experienced eating wild street food, I settle with drinking my medication of ten tablets, twice a day, for 30 days.
A visit to China would be incomplete without a little walking.
Straight from the airport, a quick stop at a bank to exchange US dollars to Chinese Yuan and Mandy is able to resume the history lesson with a visit to Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen Square is in the center of Beijing. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the square includes the front door to the Forbidden City. It is a large space where the common people gathered when there was an announcement from the Emperor or a celebration.
Now, its concrete floors pride itself in becoming the site of the Monument to the People’s Hero, a massive stone structure built in memory of martyrs during the people’s struggle or revolution. On the front of the monument are Mao Zedong’s words loosely translated as “Eternal glory to the people’s heroes!”
There are other monuments and structures in Tiananmen Square. While my mom is busy listening to Mandy’s lessons, I turn 360º, creating a mental image, absorbing the history from the cracks on the ground, the characters on the wall.
The distance from the Monument to the People’s Hero to the Forbidden Gate where the portrait of Mao Zedong is displayed is about the distance from SM North Annex to the Block.
It is a photo opportunity with the Great Mao Zedong. My mom takes my picture, I take her picture. Mandy takes our picture. Finally, we have a picture together. On the sides of the Forbidden Gate aka Tiananmen Gate is a massive stone lion, its paws on a round object (globe/world). According to Mandy, the stone lions are often seen in the entrance of temples and palaces. It is a symbol of grandeur meant to keep evil spirits away.
Walking in the Forbidden City is an arduous task, especially coming from the airport.
The Forbidden City is divided into the Outer Court and the Inner Court. We entered from the Tiananmen Gate, the Outer Court. Within the Inner and Outer Court, there are numerous gates and walls.
Two walls after Tiananmen Gate, about an hour of leisurely walk, calluses and blisters are starting to form on my feet and we are still in the Outer Court. My mom, not as used to walking long distances is lifting her foot, putting pressure on her left side, then the right.
We walked in a straight path all the way to the end, about two and a half hour of walking, two centimeters of callus, and not a single sweat. The air is too cold for any sweat to form. The Forbidden City has a floor space of 724,250 square meters, a city wall 3,400 meter long, encircling 9,999 buildings. As we move from one gate and wall to the next, the floors change from concrete to brick.
When we finally entered the Inner City, I am happy that we are half way done. In the beginning, I am attentive to the details of each palace room, staring at the intricate colorful pattern on the tiles, on the walls, on the ceiling. I am staring at the gold and jade stone furniture. An immense space of land that used to be home the Emperor is now only a tourist destination.
Out of all the rooms that I am able to peek and scrutinize, one large mansion said to have been the sleeping quarters of the Emperor’s concubine catches my eye. How many concubine can an Emperor need? The room is gigantic, able to house more than 50 females.
Our tour of the Forbidden City ends with the Imperial Garden. I lose track of the number of gates and walls between the outer and the inner. But I am sure that my feet gained two more blisters.
The Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are within the urban center of Beijing. In our last day, we leave the buildings and structures of the city, for the rural landscape of dried leafless trees, compound dwellings with walls and courtyards that act as protection.
The ultimate protection is epitomized in the Great Wall of China. After the shock of walking a few kilometers in the Forbidden City, my mom and I, wearing comfortable shoes and two pairs of socks for extra cushion, are more prepared to conquer the Great Wall.
The construction began in the 7th century BC, on the borders of China as protection from the incursions by nomadic groups. It spans 8,518 km composed of various materials: stone, earth, brick, even wood.
Despite the mental preparation for the Great Wall, I am still caught off guard when I finally reach the long stretch of land. In my mind, I pictured a long concrete bridge, winding, but has a smooth and even surface. It should have made sense that being man-made and having been built in 7th century BC, that the structure would have its flaws. What I am stepping on is uneven ground, sloping, with irregular size steps on the stairs.
Each watchtower we see becomes a goal. I must climb up to that watchtower. I must climb up to that next watchtower. Then the next. And the next. I could have gone on and on, my feet becoming accustomed to the uneven surface. My mom, however, is growing tired, her water bottle almost empty.
Unlike the walkathon in the Forbidden City, once we reach the end, Han is already waiting with the car’s engine running. At the Great Wall however, after conquering about four watchtowers or at least a few kilometers of walking and climbing up the stairs, we are faced with the burden of walking back down to the start/finish line.
Common sense dictates that going down should be easier since we are not working against gravity, and it is for me. My mom, on the hand, easily gets dizzy. She constantly stops to catch her breath. Her camera is proving useless because she cannot point and shoot without turning pale, her whole face as if drained of blood.
I take the camera from her. On even ground, we have an equal number of pictures. As we climb higher, her photos increase while mine decreases. There is a picture of my mom on the watchtower hugging her water bottle, a picture of her climbing down the watchtower, a candid shot, a posed shot, all sorts of shots until we both arrive where we have started.
There is an ancient Chinese custom, commonly known as lock-laden chains. Lovers purchase (or bring) a lock, attaches it to a line of chains, and throws away the key. The lock remains on the chain forever, a symbol of enduring love.
The lock-laden chain on the Great Wall of China welcomes us back. Amidst tourists hurrying to buy their chains, my mom and I asks one of them to take a picture of us. Another picture with the both of us in one same frame.
Chinese stereotype characterizes them as conservative, penny-pinchers, brutally honest, rude, even cold.
The cold weather in China digs deep into my bones. Despite layers upon layers of clothing, I am still trembling. Even as I walk kilometers after kilometers, my body is not really warm.
My mom sees me rubbing my arms with gloved hands and offers me her scarf to cover my neck. She buys me a panda beanie that covers my head and ears. She makes sure every inch of my body is covered and protected.
Family for me consists of one other person: my mom. Sure, I have a grandmother, uncles and aunts, cousins, but they are not obligated to stay with me and love me unconditionally like a mother would.
I have not seen my mom in over two years — separated by thousands of miles. I am in the Philippines pursuing a degree while she is in the United States, working.
The thirty-year age gap coupled by years of living apart, quite naturally ensures that we do not agree on many things. The weekly phone calls have dwindled to one a month to one every few months. Even emails are becoming fewer.
Beijing is the place for us to reconnect—to share stories, maybe secrets. In entering a foreign land, with a foreign language, barriers are set-up for us to share the same pain.
The beginning of our trip might not have started as we would have liked. But my mom and I are both fighters. We fight to keep our relationship alive despite the strains of each misunderstanding, each missed call and each unanswered emails.
My mom packs her boxes of tea as I take my menstrual meds. She returns the keys to the front desk. We are walking arm in arm, as we join Mandy and Han in the car.
On the plane, I shed my jacket and my sweater. I buckle my seat belt. I close my eyes and I rest my head on my mom’s shoulders.