Welcome to the Jungle Here!

June 27, 2012 - Shenyang, China

“Welcome to the Jungle Here!” This is how Crystal began her e-mail to me, as we traded our physical characteristics and airline itineraries over the internet, arranging my pick-up at the Beijing airport. Shortly after midnight, I finally arrived. Filthy and exhausted, I dragged four heavy suitcases (mostly film equipment) behind me through the long terminal to the pick-up area. I walked up and down the line of eager, sign-carrying locals—once, twice, three times, no sign of the woman who wrote, “one big guy used to describe me... tiny.” Imagine my surprise when I finally found someone holding a Half the Sky sign: not a tiny Asian woman, but a tall, beefy man who didn't speak a word of English.  My wheels immediately got to cranking--Wouldn't someone have told me during my eight-hour layover if someone besides Crystal would pick me up?  Who the heck was this guy?  Did he beat her up and steal her sign? Without any way of asking him questions or calling my list of contact numbers, I did the only thing that seemed logical: I handed over half my suitcases and trailed behind him to the parking lot. My worry compounded on itself when I saw his vehicle—he walked straight toward a white, unmarked van. I was already seeing the headlines in tomorrow's newspaper: “AMERICAN TOURIST KIDNAPPED IN BEIJING.”  He pulled out the van, popped open the trunk, and I breathed a sigh of relief—a big pile of Pampers diapers, which he shoved over to make room for my suitcases. This was definitely the right guy. He drove me to the hotel, set me up in my room, and left me to settle down for the evening. My first night in China without a word of English to anyone.

Early the next morning, I figured out the ethernet cables (when did you think you'd ever see those again?) and sent out an e-mail to family and friends announcing my arrival in Beijing. Three minutes later, I got an e-mail back from Hannibal, an old college friend, saying, “ I am in Beijing! Come find me! Where are you?”  It turns out that he had been studying abroad in Beijing for the past year, and was adding footnotes to his final paper when he got my message. Over a flurry of e-mail exchanges, I learned that he was on the opposite side of the city, and he learned that I was leaving for Shenyang in two hours.  Just when I'd given up any hope of seeing my old friend, he wrote back: “Will be there in half an hour, it's actually not that far.”. Sure enough, precisely thirty minutes later, Hannibal was knocking on my hotel door... it was very surreal. In the final hour before my flight to Shenyang, he took me out for my first Chinese meal and taught me a hundred times more than I'd previously known about Chinese etiquette (Don't stick your chopsticks down into your rice. Do dump as much food as possible into your neighbor's bowl.) After a few laps around my neighborhood (all I saw of Beijing), he dropped me off at my hotel, where Crystal had just arrived. She swooped up my four suitcases, and we were off!

Half my height and just my age, Crystal and I became fast friends, and she became my first language-learning recruit.  On the van trip to the airport and throughout our air travel, she patiently fed (and fueled) my curiosity about any and all things Chinese, as we passed my journal back and forth—me writing English phrases, her translating into phonetic Mandarin. Seven days later, I'm still trying to properly pronounce my first full sentence: Nice to meet you! (Hen gao xing ren shi ni!) The words are short and simple, but the tones have me stumped. Depending on how you pronounce it, a simple word can mean up to five different things: you've got your flat tone, your up tone, your down tone, your nike swoosh tone, and no tone at all. With the wrong intonation for the word “ma,” for example, you've just said “horse” when you meant to say “mother.” Yikes!

I'm off to join my co-workers for dinner at McDonalds! After a full week of elaborate Korean barbecue feasts and Chinese banquets, french fries and milkshakes will be a welcome break. But worry not, dear readers: there's more to come! Up next: meeting the production crew, falling head over heels for the kids, and our first weeks shooting in Shenyang.



June 27, 2012
Woohhhh.... I will have to be very careful when celebrating ma's day!
June 27, 2012
Yay! A second entry! This 'Ma' is glad she didn't know about the white van when it happened. I got nervous reading the beginning of your story, even though I've talked to you since then and knew you were fine!
June 27, 2012
Happy to be the one (well, after the beefy Chinese guy with the unmarked white van) to welcome you to China. Hope everything goes well! See you again somewhere down the road!

- ht
June 28, 2012
SO glad that you were not on the Evening News here as a result of your van ride! I will certainly be more careful about how I eat my next Chinese dinner, although I am thinking that they already know me pretty well at House of Ming and accept me despite my sad ignorance of Chinese etiquette. Can't wait for your next chapter. Have fun, Love!
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