By Dakota Phillips*
At 5 a.m. Beijing time, I awoke to the sound of absolute stillness and the shafts of dull grey Chinese light through the dirty windows. Not knowing Dan (my new roommate) very well, I hesitated to get up and risk waking my likely equally jet-lagged companion. I opted to pull out my Nexus 7 tablet and play Pokemon Emerald version until further notice.
View from the window
At 6:15 am, I rose to the sound of Dan’s phone alarm. After two rounds, I climbed out of bed and looked back to the owner of the phone for permission to silence it. Whatever stir or half-nod he gave was all the permission I needed. He stirred in his sleep for a moment before building enough momentum to propel himself onto his feet and into the bathroom.
"I'm gonna shower, and then we're going to go exploring."
"S-sounds good to me."
And with that the bathroom door shut. I changed clothes as Dan showered. I picked up my pack of conversation starting cards and placed them deliberately into the pocket of my ill-fitting jean shorts. Dan got out of the shower, dressed casually but carefully and picked up the meal vouchers given to us by the hotel staff. We collected our necessary equipment. I got a notebook and a fresh pen as Dan picked up his wallet freshly filled from the ATM in the airport.
We ate pig ears and cabbage for breakfast. I couldn't tell if my stomach was sick from nerves or from the food. It’s nerves, assured Dan as he chewed on sub-par baozi, we'll have to get real baozi today.
Dan eating his disappointing baozi
We stopped by the elevator before descending down to the ground of Beijing. I said nothing of my thoughts of Ariani, an Iowa student I met a few months prior who was going on the trip to China with us. I was thinking it would be nice to see a familiar face.
The elevator door opened and Ariani stepped out with a man I barely recognized.
"When did you guys get in?"
"Last night. Oh. This is...actually I don't know your Chinese name," I said, trying to mask the fact that I had forgotten my roommate's name.
"I'm Dan." said Dan.
"I'm Ariani. This is Walker," she said gesturing to the man I did not recognize.
"We're going on a walk, do you guys want to come?" offered Dan.
"Yeah, absolutely. Love it." said Ariani.
So the foursome went out onto the streets of Beijing for food and entertainment. Ariani and Walker shared their grievances with Dan and I about not getting a hotel room and people asking if it was their honeymoon.
Walker ended up buying some lighter with the old Apple logo and emblazoned with some impressive 'Chinglish'. Most memorable of which was the phrase “Briefness Can give Birth to Wigdom."
After walking around for a bit and picking up a few essentials, our motley crew decided to hang out in Ariani and Walker's room for a bit to get to know each other. Somewhere along the way, we got separated in the hotel and Walker and I were lucky enough to see a wedding processional come through the hotel lobby.
For lunch we sought out a man who was cooking noodles over an open flame for Ariani's meal, while the more adventurous of the group went to get real baozi containing unknown meat.
Later on we went for a leisurely stroll through the downtown Beijing area, seeking out a city park.
Busy train station in Beijing
We meandered through a little corner of Beijing with pollution filled wind in our hair. Under bridges and through tunnels, we pushed the cityscape behind us as quickly as it could be pulled toward us.
After delays, directions, and shots in the dark, we arrived at the suspicious gates of a city park that charged 2 Yuan (34 cents, US) to enter.
In the square of the park
We decided to rent a boat and we spent the remainder of the free day on the lake before returning to the hotel to greet our teacher.
With our teachers back at the hotel
That night I pondered everything I experienced that day. So little I saw and heard was in English. I sat in bed and contemplated how the arbitrary meaning behind the sounds of the English language weren't inherently different from those in the Chinese language. And yet, the world in Beijing, 13 hours ahead of my home in Iowa was so wildly different.
It will take more than learning the language to bridge a gap across the world.
I turned to my side and listened to my American podcast, with a stomach full of Chinese food.
In this brief moment, I experienced a moment of true wigdom.
*Dakota, of Elgin, IA, is a junior majoring in Chinese and communication studies at the University of Iowa. He is currently studying abroad in Tianjin, China on the Iowa in Tianjin summer program.