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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 318: Dear China

Dear China,

I never thought we’d meet, but here we are.

Last day so perfectly sums up our relationship. I missed my connecting flight to Thailand, so I’ve been put up at a hotel by China Eastern. I arrive with another Chinese man who happens to speak some English and missed his flight to Nepal. He tells me Kunming, his hometown, is also known as the City of Eternal Spring, boasting only the best weather – neither too hot or too cold ever, just nice always. Breeze is perfect and the temp couldn’t be any more ideal. When we arrive, all heads turn in the lobby as I drag my disheveled-ness of a bag inside a hotel adorned with one too many cheesy chandeliers and over embellished gold décor. As we check in, the concierge lady signals to the group (all seemingly waiting for the same thing) that it’s time to go get food, “Chi fan.”

Wait a sec, I know what those words mean.

My ears perk up immediately.

Chi fan? Wo ye yao chi. Eat food? WAIT FOR ME. Mind you, that morning I woke up at 5:30am to leave for Thailand, and my flight had been cancelled and then delayed, which then made me miss my flight to Thailand. It was now 5:30pm and I had eaten zero meals. Hangry was the current moment.

And that’s what became of the unusual moment of moments. Our group, which now clicked as the group that missed their connecting flights that day, made its way to the restaurant. A round table of nine of us, mostly older Chinese men (the kind that sit outside playing mah jong all day with cigarettes hanging ever so slightly out their mouths), sitting round a lazy susan waiting for food to come out at any moment. I do what I knew I had to do to request the things I know won’t come out unless I ask.

Yo chai ma? Bu chi xo. Bu la. Do you have veggies? I don’t eat meat. No spice please!

Spotted in Beijing's artsy 798 district, an old military-industrial complex turned artist community 

Spotted in Beijing's artsy 798 district, an old military-industrial complex turned artist community 

I exchanged a few words with the Chinese guy who spoke some English, but for the most part happily ate in silence as I watched eyeballs glued to me in disbelief, dumfounded that I couldn’t speak the mother tongue and god forbid, only ate veggies. That seemed to be a pattern on this entire trip, so I just shrugged it off as no biggie. The unspoken disconnect did however have a familiar sound, laughter and the occasional smile of recognition. I was just happy to be in the company of others who had also missed their flights and were simply resigned to the present moment of acceptance. The connection was comforting and I was at peace.

Little slice of peace can be found no farther than in Beijing's best kept secret alleyways, also known as hutongs. There are about 1000 of these left in the city. This was taken in our little boutique hotel, Lama Hotel, whose OG architecture clearly wants to preserve tradition.

Little slice of peace can be found no farther than in Beijing's best kept secret alleyways, also known as hutongs. There are about 1000 of these left in the city. This was taken in our little boutique hotel, Lama Hotel, whose OG architecture clearly wants to preserve tradition.

Fast forward to this morning to a 3:40am wakeup call that I had not requested, another pattern that seemed to come up quite a bit during this trip. I was to head out by 4:15am to catch my flight to Chiang Mai after spending nearly a month in the motherland. And the kicker is this. Fast forward to 6:00am, and I’ve already been taunted by 3 Chinese men who can’t seem to grasp that here I am, a Chinese person who can’t speak fluent Chinese. A driver, airport guard, and immigration officer.

So is life over here.

While I’m ready to peace out, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bittersweetness in this moment. I felt it on my last day in Beijing when I ventured three trains out to the art district, 798. I felt it watching a little Chinese girl of maybe 3 years old tauntingly poke her older brother of maybe 5 years old, who reminded me of Thomas when he was young. I felt it during late night chats with Jane at Lama Hotel when we talked about books, travel and even sadder topics like the reality of small businesses in China shutting down – the ones including this very hotel that are not in jeopardy of being shut down unannounced by the government for reasons that seem to contradict the true desires of the people. I felt it every time I attempted to speak Chinese and was received by a comforting smile of someone who filled in most, if not all of the gaps. I felt it trekking the Great Wall and occasionally meeting eyes with old Chinese woman climbing the narrow steps like their life bucket list depended on it. I felt it during calligraphy class when Mr. Wong showed me how to properly write my name in Chinese and telling me the meaning of Ling, my middle name: intelligence, the sound of swords when they clink. Aliveness.

One of the highlights of this trip happened in Mr. Wong's lively studio outside of Xian's old city quarters. We brushed up on our calligraphy strokes and put ink to paper in no time. Mei Guo = USA (Mei=beautiful). Ling is the character right above the "NY" in "TIFFANY"

One of the highlights of this trip happened in Mr. Wong's lively studio outside of Xian's old city quarters. We brushed up on our calligraphy strokes and put ink to paper in no time. Mei Guo = USA (Mei=beautiful). Ling is the character right above the "NY" in "TIFFANY"

Alley cat lurking in the distance, watching me curiously do yoga from afar

Alley cat lurking in the distance, watching me curiously do yoga from afar

Entering Beijing's 798 district happens just like that -- squeezing your body through two colorfully graffiti-coated dumpsters pushed up against one another. No funny smells lingering on the other side, I promise! Just all kinds of color, creativity and curious things...

Entering Beijing's 798 district happens just like that -- squeezing your body through two colorfully graffiti-coated dumpsters pushed up against one another. No funny smells lingering on the other side, I promise! Just all kinds of color, creativity and curious things...

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Exposed piping runs all around this little complex, harkening back to the good ole day of Mao

Exposed piping runs all around this little complex, harkening back to the good ole day of Mao

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798 had a friendly and accessible vibe to it, gathering all types of curious minds: students on field trips, skaters, travelers, hipsters, business people, artists, and apparently Audi-drivers as evidenced in this photo

798 had a friendly and accessible vibe to it, gathering all types of curious minds: students on field trips, skaters, travelers, hipsters, business people, artists, and apparently Audi-drivers as evidenced in this photo

BA JIE! My favorite Chinese pig of all time. We stumbled on this furry friend while walking through a small alley of design shops and clothing boutiques. He's named after a character in an old Chinese TV series about a flying monkey who causes trouble but also saves the world with his team of fearless friends, including his friend BA JIE, also a pig. This particular BA JIE is the mascot of a clothing store and sleeps in a tent at night. He has a highly animated tail and his mouth naturally defaults to a smile. I visited him a total of three times over two days <3

BA JIE! My favorite Chinese pig of all time. We stumbled on this furry friend while walking through a small alley of design shops and clothing boutiques. He's named after a character in an old Chinese TV series about a flying monkey who causes trouble but also saves the world with his team of fearless friends, including his friend BA JIE, also a pig. This particular BA JIE is the mascot of a clothing store and sleeps in a tent at night. He has a highly animated tail and his mouth naturally defaults to a smile. I visited him a total of three times over two days <3

Doesn't it look like BA JIE is wearing black laced lingerie? He's surprisingly so soft!

Doesn't it look like BA JIE is wearing black laced lingerie? He's surprisingly so soft!

woof

woof

We walk into an instrument store and are completely mesmerized from the start -- the sounds of the instrument, the turquoise painted interiors. I look up and feel compelled to compliment the store owner on her beautiful choice of lamps (in this photo). Upon sharing my compliment, she looks at me and goes silent. Assuming she's gathering the story in her head about the artist who's designed this lamp, I wait patiently.&nbsp;A few seconds later, she turns to me and says "I think they're from IKEA." We both giggle. She had me fooled.

We walk into an instrument store and are completely mesmerized from the start -- the sounds of the instrument, the turquoise painted interiors. I look up and feel compelled to compliment the store owner on her beautiful choice of lamps (in this photo). Upon sharing my compliment, she looks at me and goes silent. Assuming she's gathering the story in her head about the artist who's designed this lamp, I wait patiently. A few seconds later, she turns to me and says "I think they're from IKEA." We both giggle. She had me fooled.

The oldest and largest contemporary art museum in 798, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art,&nbsp;was holding an exhibit by a multimedia artist, Zhao Bandi. He started out painting at university, and then gradually found a voice across all media, spanning fashion, sculpture, video, photo and even feature films. If you, like me are ever curious about what social art/activist looks like in China, go see this exhibit. PS - I don't think I know one Chinese person my age who didn't have to take piano lessons growing up. Guess this painting has some truth to it?

The oldest and largest contemporary art museum in 798, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, was holding an exhibit by a multimedia artist, Zhao Bandi. He started out painting at university, and then gradually found a voice across all media, spanning fashion, sculpture, video, photo and even feature films. If you, like me are ever curious about what social art/activist looks like in China, go see this exhibit. PS - I don't think I know one Chinese person my age who didn't have to take piano lessons growing up. Guess this painting has some truth to it?

Zhao Bandi takes China's mascot, the panda, to make a statement about the homogeneity of different archetypes as played out in Chinese society. Made a whole fashion show out of it too.

Zhao Bandi takes China's mascot, the panda, to make a statement about the homogeneity of different archetypes as played out in Chinese society. Made a whole fashion show out of it too.

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Lost in translation at its absolute finest!

Lost in translation at its absolute finest!

798 wouldn't be complete without its very own Israeli and Business Cultural Center!

798 wouldn't be complete without its very own Israeli and Business Cultural Center!

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And as we exit 798 the same way we entered, be sure to absorb every last color, shape, and texture, cuz you're about to see a whole lot of...

And as we exit 798 the same way we entered, be sure to absorb every last color, shape, and texture, cuz you're about to see a whole lot of...

THIS!!!!

THIS!!!!

Goodbye 798. Now we head back 3 trains to Lama Hotel, while dodging rush hour bike traffic on the way.

Goodbye 798. Now we head back 3 trains to Lama Hotel, while dodging rush hour bike traffic on the way.

Beijing MTR &gt; NYC MTR

Beijing MTR > NYC MTR

And 6 trains later, we are HOME! Say hello to Jane, cool girl on the block

And 6 trains later, we are HOME! Say hello to Jane, cool girl on the block

Mom puts it so well. There are moments when she feels proud to be Chinese and times when the exact opposite is true. And I understand that completely. Like that time we first landed in mainland China proper. While waiting on the immigration line to pass through, the Chinese man in front of us let a loud one rip and didn’t even bat an eye. There was zero shame. And the best part was, no one else seemed to even flinch – except for Mom and I of course. Those shared moments of “what is happening right now?” were the saving grace. Thomas, if you were here, you’d be in on it too I’m sure.

You guessed it, this was taken at 798

You guessed it, this was taken at 798

And this, at the Muslim Quarter in Xian (best food market hands down - scary face was only to illustrate how damn crowded it was about to get)

And this, at the Muslim Quarter in Xian (best food market hands down - scary face was only to illustrate how damn crowded it was about to get)

More 798-ness

More 798-ness

In an odd nostalgic way, that moment brought me back to all those moments sitting around a table with family, and one of the grandparents inevitably lets out a succession of burps – a typical and socially acceptable expression of satisfaction and compliment to the food currently in their mouth.

Bunny sculptures give side eye too, especially when they live in 798

Bunny sculptures give side eye too, especially when they live in 798

Either Jasmine or Oolong tea at Zen Beans

Either Jasmine or Oolong tea at Zen Beans

Tofu shreds with toon and fungus, dressed in a cool sesame chili sauce&nbsp;

Tofu shreds with toon and fungus, dressed in a cool sesame chili sauce 

But to make my point China, I can’t believe I’m finally here after all those 15 years of Chinese school. I dreaded Saturdays more than weekdays, and spent the majority of Chinese school daydreaming about what normal American kids did on Saturday mornings. Yet after all these years, I find myself curious about you, curious about Mom’s experience living in Beijing in 1984 two years before I came into the world, and what you look, feel, smell and sound like. I know you’re curious about ne too from all the subtle and sometimes not so subtle staring over the past month. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, which I guess was to be expected. You surprised me in many ways, good and bad, and while I won’t pretend to completely understand you, I do feel a curious camaraderie stronger this past month than in all the years of Chinese school combined. And didn’t Lao Tzu say it best with,

“In philosophy, yin and yang represent truth and falsehood, meaning that nothing is absolutely true or totally false. For thousands of years, Chinese people have understood that there is no clear cut boundary between yes and no, right and wrong, or good and evil.”

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I spy Mao, and I still don't know why

I spy Mao, and I still don't know why

Aren't the Red Guard obsolete? Why don't they all live behind bars?&nbsp;

Aren't the Red Guard obsolete? Why don't they all live behind bars? 

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That is money. And that is blood. By: Zhao Bandi on display at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

That is money. And that is blood. By: Zhao Bandi on display at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Adam and Eve? Or Buddha? Same same different?

Adam and Eve? Or Buddha? Same same different?

Chinese panda + Red Guard star + Hitler stache = satirical political commentary = ?

Chinese panda + Red Guard star + Hitler stache = satirical political commentary = ?

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Duality is built into our shared DNA, and it helps to make sense of your/our complex history from thousands of years ago, 4000 to be exact. I still can’t figure out if your/our people today like Mao, as his photo is literally everywhere – even in the most unlikely of places: a cool youth hostel that promotes creativity, entrepreneurship, and all the things he stood against and punished people for. I know where I stand on things Mao and the matter of the Revolution, and while I’d rather not share it openly for reasons that are so obvious today, maybe I can look at it from another perspective – if it weren’t for what he did to history, my family wouldn’t have left and moved to Brazil. I wouldn’t have had the experience of growing up in this body, with this identity, itching to see the world and understanding it the way I am today. I’ve come to peace with the experience that is one of fitting nowhere, yet finding a piece of myself everywhere. This is peace.

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Apparently I'm a Noble Lady at the Palace of Eternal Harmony in the Forbidden City, oooo la laaa

Apparently I'm a Noble Lady at the Palace of Eternal Harmony in the Forbidden City, oooo la laaa

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I don’t know if I’ll be back as there’s so much to unpack and process. It will be awhile. But I do hope you know that I’ll always stay curious and sing your praises for the experiences you’ve given me on the Yangtze River, Xian and Beijing. No country is perfect, and this week couldn’t have made a better case for that with all that exploded in Barcelona and Charlottesville. And Lao Tzu said it best: Chinese people have understood that there is no clear cut boundary between yes and no, right and wrong, or good and evil. Perhaps I had to come see you after all these years to embrace this little gem of a truth.

And now let's scale up China's most prized achievement&nbsp;

And now let's scale up China's most prized achievement 

The&nbsp;

The 

GREAT

GREAT

WALL!

WALL!

I ain't walking 6000 miles though! That's the total span of the wall.

I ain't walking 6000 miles though! That's the total span of the wall.

I will however scale down this uncomfortably steep stairwell for a cool photo :)

I will however scale down this uncomfortably steep stairwell for a cool photo :)

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Time to cool off

Time to cool off

and head back to the hutong, where the crowds are less and hardly a mess.

and head back to the hutong, where the crowds are less and hardly a mess.

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What happens in the Forbidden City stays in the Forbidden City

What happens in the Forbidden City stays in the Forbidden City

They should forbid umbrellas in the city&nbsp;

They should forbid umbrellas in the city 

But alas, they make great sunshine tents

But alas, they make great sunshine tents

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And lastly, a big thank you to Mom for coming on this wild adventure <3 

Cruising on the Yangtze River while passing Gorge two out of three

Cruising on the Yangtze River while passing Gorge two out of three

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Mom did this cruise in the 80s in a different time and a different China&nbsp;

Mom did this cruise in the 80s in a different time and a different China 

Taking all 9 miles of Xian's Great Wall one pedal at a time!

Taking all 9 miles of Xian's Great Wall one pedal at a time!

All that pedaling and walking led us to some good ole fish therapy. Goodbye dead callouses!

All that pedaling and walking led us to some good ole fish therapy. Goodbye dead callouses!

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Yours Truly

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Tiffany Wen