48 Hours in Xiamen
As the year 2017 came to a close I spent some time reflecting on all the good, bad, and downright crazy things that came into my life in those twelve months. So much happened, but my mind kept drifting back to my short stay in Xiamen, China...
It was a layover on my way to lead my Bali retreat that landed me in China in the first place. I remember seeing that 48 hour layover and I had a lot of feelings. Mostly bad ones. I had this weird subconscious belief that China was a bad place and I was really uncomfortable with the thought of being stuck there for two days. I told myself I would just hide away in the airport and work, staying in my safe little bubble. Then I found out the airport I would be landing at is closed at night (crazy right?) so my plan was out the window. I would have to leave the airport, find a place to stay and navigate China on my own. My first thoughts on this? “Oh fuck” and “NO”.
Little did I know the fun with China would begin long before my landing in Xiamen. On the way there I had my first layover in Shenzhen. Everything I had read prior to my travels stated I would be fine just passing through China for less than 48 hours without any prior paperwork. Apparently this was a lie. The moment I stepped off the plane in Shenzhen I was met by a airport guard with a sign that had my name in big bold letters written across the front in both English and Chinese. I was real confused. Once I identified myself, he put me in a bright neon orange and yellow vest and escorted me to a quarantined check point for undocumented people. He marched me through the terminals to the checkpoint all while carrying a bright red blinking light on a pole. I remember thinking in my head “he’s like Rudolph the red pole security guard” bad joke I know, but I was real nervous so give me a break. Needless to say we drew A LOT of attention. As if my 5’9 frame, blonde hair, and face of freckles didn’t make me stand out enough in China already.
The guards that received me at the checkpoint were lovely. One man and one woman, both of them about a foot shorter than myself. The woman had really kind eyes, she made me feel less nervous with just one reassuring look. She tried her best to converse with me in English while patting me down extensively. The male guard then opened up my entire backpack and searched through its contents on a big metal table. I got interrogated about some sun lotion and that turned into a hilarious yet terrifying back and forth of me attempting to explain why I had ten tins of sealed sun lotion (which was for our retreat guests in Bali), I even offered to give them one to prove it wasn’t anything illegal! Eventually it was all handled, my bag was repacked, and I got my visa. Then it was off to Xiamen.
After the shortest flight of my life, only one hour take off to landing, I arrived. My phone stopped working pretty quickly thanks the the Chinese government and the limited access to media in the country which I was not prepared for. Fortunately I was able to get a message out to my host and he showed up after about an hour of my waiting at a Chinese Mcdonald's just outside the airport (side note: Chinese Mcdonalds menus are super wild). He was the tallest local person I had seen so far and he work bright blue flip flops and a huge smile. In his best English he told me to call him Mark. It was a short drive to the Airbnb that he hosts, he gave me a tour and showed me to my room. Boy did I love this room. It was precious. Simple and clean, some art hanging on the walls, a big window overlooking the neighborhood with a tea table (porcelain tea set and all) settled into a little nook. It felt like it was made for me, my own little corner of China. Still feeling wary about the food at this point I found some oat milk in an upstairs fridge and mixed it with my veggie protein mix as a makeshift dinner, not gonna lie it was pretty disgusting. But my belly was full so that problem was solved. After that I spent about an hour hiding in my room, pep talking myself and deep breathing in an attempt to build up the courage to go downstairs and be social.
Once I gathered my confidence and ventured to the ground floor I found three or four people, mostly locals gathered around a television watching professional pool on tv. Most of them smiled when I came down and I sat to join them. It was all men and one woman with curly hair and her body was covered in glitter. I’m talking LOTS of glitter plus a butterfly sticker on her cheek. I liked this woman right away. She was glowing with happy energy. She spoke a little English and chatted with me as I started to relax, but after a little while she left and went on her way. I stayed in the living room and watched pool with the guys for a couple hours. I spent most of the time petting their big sweet dog named 7-up while trying to piece together bits of the conversation. Even though I couldn’t understand a word that was said or was coming from the television we had fun anyway, it was a good night.
The next morning I was having coffee and eating some delicious little biscotti type cookie treats when Mark asked my plans. I said I wanted to stay in and work until my flight late that evening, to which he replied “get bag in car we explore until flight now”. That was that. Mostly because I lacked the language to argue. I packed up my things, gave them to mark, and he tossed them out a window. I’m not kidding. He straight up tossed my backpack out a window and said nothing. My facial expression was probably priceless. Another friend I hadn’t seen was outside, he caught my bag and put it in the car. We drove around and Mark showed me old parts of town before we went into the city. We parked in what I believe was a center type place and I spent the next eight hours on foot following Mark through Xiamen.
We visited all kinds of places. He took me to the biggest yoga studio in Xiamen (where I got yelled at for having a camera), Xiamen university, a busy street market, and basically anywhere else he thought I might enjoy. I was watching some locals tear it up on skateboards when I stumbled upon an alleyway full of incredible street art. All of the art was themed around the oppression of the Chinese people. It hit me in a way I didn’t expect. This one piece really drew me in, it was an entire wall of chain link fence with at least 30 surveillance cameras mounted to it, all the cameras had gnarly cut cords and mutilated lenses. It was so expressive and raw. The message the artist was speaking came across crystal clear. This piece held so much emotion. I was so engulfed in this artwork I nearly lost sight of Mark, thankful for his height I was able to spot him and dash down the street to catch up. As we made our way up and down different roads Mark was very excited to share local foods with me. He taught me to use chopsticks properly much to the amusement of everyone around us as I fumbled and dropped my food repeatedly until finally getting it almost kinda sorta right. We ate weird stuff. Some real weird stuff. But I will try damn near anything at least once so I didn’t shy away from these street snacks, even the ones that looked and/or smelled not so appetizing. I ate something fried on a stick and I am still not sure what it was, I just know it was all scrunched up and seemed to be rolled in corn flake cereal? Who knows. Just a few hours later these local snacks would have me puking every ten minutes in alleyways and ditches, but it was still totally worth it.
Taking our time working through the city was a mind opening experience already, but being the only tall, blonde, white girl in the whole damn place took it to another level. I had never felt like an outsider in such an intense way. It wasn't bad necessarily I was just the definite minority and I felt it with every breath. My looks, my language, and my way of being was all completely foreign to them as they were to me. A few people stopped me and asked to take a photo together, children stared at me, and most business owners gave me stern looks when I came inside as if to say “who are you and why are you here”. I wasn’t allowed in a one business we tried to enter and Mark never did explain why. Then there was a moment as we walked down the street, a Caucasian man passed by on a messenger bike and Mark shook my arm to get my attention, pointed at the man, and exclaimed rather loudly “he look like you!” all the people around us looked between me and the man and nodded their heads in agreement. It was one of the strangest moments of my life.
We wandered until my feet ached and my puking had mostly subsided. At first I tried to hide my sickness from Mark because I didn’t want him to feel bad for feeding me so much street food, but he caught on and we went to what he called a “western restaurant” for dinner where he said the food would be easier on my stomach. I ordered a fruit bowl and was delivered pancakes. Once again I lacked the language to argue so I just ate the pancakes and they turned out to be pretty tasty. It was my last meal with Mark before my flight and I felt a little sad even though I had known him for just more than a day. He was by far the biggest blessing China gave me. The kindest man, most wonderful host, and he has a killer sense of humor even with broken English. If you find yourself traveling in Xiamen, he is your man and I can pass along his contact information if anyone ever wants it. He made my trip what it was and I never would have ventured out of the house that day had he not told me we were exploring and tossed my backpack out that window.
Our day in the city flew by fast and I left China with a new perspective. All the fear and anxiety from before my arrival had passed. It still felt foreign, but in those two days I was able to carve out a little space for myself made up of my precious room, my new friends, and my open minded embrace of the Chinese culture. I only chipped away at the first layer I’m sure, but the first layer was really phenomenal and I’m so lucky to have had that opportunity. I left China feeling like maybe the world isn’t so big. Maybe we are all different, but we are so much more the same. My negative uneducated impressions of this country were replaced by fond memories, love, and connection.