Monday, February 25, 2013

Foreign Lands

by Joan

I took a journal with me to China. If there is a book to be written of my adventures in that foreign land, then I was determined to arrive prepared.

I have traveled by myself many times before, but never in a city where I did not speak the language. I was truly alone. All alone to lug my wheel-less carryons, to navigate a layover in Seoul’s Incheon airport, to arrive in Beijing with a borrowed cell phone and a nervous smile.

I mentioned in my Calling Me Home post how shocked I was at the air quality. From the first step off the plane, the stench assaulted me. On the route toward immigration, it slightly dissipated, then grew stronger. From the workbench in our garage, I had smugly tucked away a utility mask to protect myself. After snapping the elastic over my head, I realized immediately how useless it would be. Particles of coal dust infiltrated the airport, so while waiting to clear customs I tasted it on my tongue, mask be damned. As I reached the exterior door, it grew into an ugly dragon’s breath, permeating my nostrils, my bespecled eyes, my hair.

On the first morning I looked out the picture window on the 5th floor of my hotel’s breakfast room to find a grey haze of the previous night’s burned coal hanging over the city like storm clouds. Despairing tree limbs wilted from the oppression, while masked city dwellers plodded through another day. Mothers bicycled past with their bundled children in tow, to or from the long day in a city that seems poised for an apocalyptic melt down.

The atmosphere might be drab and brutal, but the people I worked with were bright and joyous and positive. This is their home, after all. I am the foreigner. They instantly welcomed me to the company and took me to lunch for Peking duck. One woman, a young mother who traveled from Tianjin to work with me, took special care of me, linking arms with me as we waited in the dark for a cab and delivering me to my hotel room each night. She spoke little English, but we always seemed able to communicate. Her work ethic was as brilliant as her smile and when she answered a question, she always started with a sing-song “for example…” I close my eyes and hear it still, smile on my face.

At night I fell into bed, too exhausted to write or even read. But I did jot notes in stolen moments. Such is a writer’s life, to always wonder where your next book will be set, which traits of acquaintances or passersby can you memorize, whether the whining, black-lunged cat will be rescued by my next character, if there is a scene to be captured from the night I arrived for an overnight layover in Korea. At one a.m., after traipsing from one end of the airport to the other in search of the transfer hotel, I sobbed when an airport security guard kindly commandeered my unwise carryons and escorted me to the hotel check-in desk.

I might have arrived in China armed with a journal and mask, but I wasn’t prepared for just how foreign I would feel in a land others call home.


  1. Wow. You are one brave woman AND writer! Glad you're home safe and sound!

    1. Thanks Julie. At the time I didn't feel so brave- mostly obsessed with state of my lungs!

  2. This is a lovely post! It is very disconcerting to be in a country where you don't know the language, the customs, and where you are so obviously a foreigner. I experienced this in India, though once I arrived there, there was one person I did know so I wasn't utterly alone.

    Bravo for being brave to travel! It is such an experience. I wish more people could see what the world is like outside their realm of experience.


  3. I agree Jen. I'm glad so many colleges encourage foreign exchange for students. It's good to see we Americans are not truly the center of the universe.


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