A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I awoke early the next day to go on a tour to the Great Wall with another guest at the hostel, Su from Scotland. She’d just finished a brief stint working as an ESL teacher in Chongqing, so we had a lot to talk about. I found out that Chinese schools get a 2 hour afternoon naptime! What a brilliant idea.
A middle-aged Chinese man who didn’t speak any English drove us to the Wall, bought our tickets and sent us on our merry way. Some tour! Oh well. We boarded a rickety ski lift up to the top.
The Great Wall is not a one-day hike. It stretches up and down mountains, across ranges and valleys with small fortresses every kilometre or so.
To my disappointment, the fortress walls were covered in graffiti. It was impossible not to notice, and after a while I was quite angry. This is the GREAT WALL, not a pub toilet. Tourists are truly terrible people.
After a few hours of climbing up and down the stairs, Su and I decided to go back down. In style.
Who’d have thought you could toboggan down the Great Wall of China? I sat on another plastic bucket thing and careered down a luge. But not too fast – more intimidating security guards watched from every corner.
“Hiii-yaaarrgh!” Some old Chinese men in warrior garb greeted us at the end of the luge.
What an end to seeing one of the wonders of the world.
Drove home, ate food and passed out into an intense nap for a few hours. It’s true what they say about Chinese food – it tastes different in China. It’s much more aromatic, with a curry richness and added coriander.
After I got over my lunchtime food coma, Su invited me out to dinner with her Chinese friend. Before I knew what was happening, a car arrived at the hostel and I found myself sitting in the car with a young Chinese teacher and Suzanna’s ex boss, who was going to treat us all out for dinner.
Dinner was at a swanky restaurant in Wangfujing. A raucous company party with a live band and kung fu performers was taking up the main part of the restaurant, so we got our own private room.
We ordered a plate of the famous Peking Duck. I’ve eaten duck only once before in Australia. It came in a takeaway container full of greasy chunks and swimming in sauce.
Duck in Beijing came served with vegetables, fruit paste and little crepes to roll it all in. Unlike its greasy Australian cousin, real Peking Duck is a light, fresh blend of subtle flavours. It was so good that I felt a bit sad afterwards, knowing that I wouldn’t eat duck as good as that ever again – unless I returned to China.
Everyone who knows me knows my dislike for prawns. I don’t mind the taste, it’s just that they look like aliens and I don’t want to to put them in my mouth. But when in China… I ripped off its head, tore off each of its creepy little claws and slurped out the meat.
The boss said the prawns were actually imported from Australia. They’re a species that Aussies don’t like, apparently. After step-by-step instructions on how to disembowel this tiny beast, I got to the prawny goodness in the tail – more brown and meaty than your average prawn, and marinated in a chilli sauce that lightly burned my lips. It tasted okay. But I didn’t have another one. Too much work.
I’d seen yet another palace on the way to the Summer Palace and was curious as to what it was. The Old Summer Palace has a colourful history. Destroyed twice by European forces throughout various conflicts in China, you can still see the huge stone ruins of what must have been a grand palace.
Near the ruins was a labyrinth with a grand pagoda in the middle, which sucked up a fair bit of my time. It was surprisingly difficult – the design was cleverly disorienting, winding you around in circles until you felt dizzy.
This made it on every list of “weird things to see in Beijing”. Dongyue Temple is a Taoist temple depicting different departments of the afterlife. The Taoist afterlife is much like our own, complete with bureaucracy governing the laws of post-life. The departments deal with familiar issues like family, wildlife conservation and childbirth. Then there are the departments of Violent Punishment and Wind Gods.
Humans, demons, animal gods and angry shaman stared at me with painted-on, dilated eyes. Some of them didn’t have heads, or were in the process of losing them. With only three other people in the entire temple and surrounded by eerie stone tombs and after four days wandering around ruins and ancient in Beijing, I thought “this is it – when the end of the world happens, it’ll happen in Beijing.” I was also slightly delirious from what later became a Beijing pollution-induced flu, so it’s probably best not to read into that statement too much.
I gave Su a call to hang out – but she’d contracted some kind of awful Chinese food poisoning. She was to fly back to Scotland the next day. Goodbye, Su! You were an excellent random travel friend!
I was so determined to find this godforsaken Ghost Street that I fiddled with a VPN just to get onto Google (blocked in China), which yielded clearer directions on how to get to Ghost Street. So off I went to Beixinquao station.
I emerged from the subway to the most neon lights I’d seen in China so far. And “Donkey Burger”.
I’d found it! I set off down the street in search of food.
Ghost Street was lively and colourful, but it wasn’t as amazing as the tourist guides made it out to be. It didn’t even look like the photos. It literally was just a street of restaurants. Nothing more. Still, I amused myself by investigating some of the interesting menu options. I nearly walked into a restaurant that I thought was serving duck, but on closer inspection was actually a big pigeon. I decided to pass on bullfrog too.
I settled for a restaurant with the friendly owner who invited me inside, speaking a mix of English and Korean. He didn’t seem to mind that I was eating alone. We had a chat over my spicy beef. His hometown was somewhere in Chengdu, but he’d lived in Beijing for a long time. His wife was living and working in Incheon, which is why he knew a bit of Korean. He learned English because he wanted to talk to all the foreign tourists he’d seen in Beijing. As he bustled off to the kitchen to get something, the table next to me stopped to talk to him. I heard one word I recognised: “hangwo”, the Chinese word meaning “Korean”. They were talking about me! A young guy at the table waved at me.
“Um… umm… I want nobody, nobody but you!” He sang a Kpop song at me. I burst out laughing and didn’t know how to respond – except by singing the next line of the song.
“Nobody, nobody but you…”
The group of Chinese lads at the table gestured for me to come sit with them. They didn’t speak any English at all, so they just offered me beer and lamb skewers.
The owner returned from the kitchen and sat down with us. We were able to communicate a little easier after that.
“My English name is Tony.”
“I’m Tom Cruise!”
“Say something in Korean!” said Tom Cruise.
I said “hello, my name is Ellie, nice to meet you” in Korean. They were terribly impressed.
“Seumnida!” roared Tom Cruise, clinking our drinks together.<
Benjamin pulled out a guitar and plugged it into a little square satchel, which I realised was a tiny portable amp. He flicked through a display folder with Chinese song lyrics and played us a song. It must’ve been a famous one, because Tony and Tom Cruise sang along in that way that everyone does when they hear their old favourite song.
I usually feel awkward when some guy starts playing guitar and singing near me. But it sounded much more interesting in Chinese. Let that be a lesson to all of you.
“Sing us a song!” Benjamin said, handing over the guitar.
In the middle of the restaurant, I sang and played the only song I could remember how to play on guitar at that point in time – The Beatles “Across the Universe.” The funny thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever sung or played guitar in front of my closest friends. But singing in front of a bunch of friendly Chinese strangers seemed perfectly okay. Fun, even.
More beers and then somehow the owner’s phone was playing Gangnam Style through Benjamin’s amp, setting Tom Cruise galloping off around the restaurant.
“Seumnida!” he shouted.
“I think that’s my name now,” I said.
After Gangnam Style was the Backstreet Boys I Want it That Way.
“I haven’t heard this song for years,” I laughed.
“It was my favourite song from when I was young.”
And then the whole restaurant dramatically clutched their hearts and howled the lyrics at amused passers-by.
“I think I scared away your customers,” I said.
“It’s okay!” laughed the owner. “We’re happy to have you here!”
But all that temple and palace-hopping caught up with me at the end of my dramatic performance. So I bid my friends farewell and hopped into a taxi back to my hostel, ready to catch the plane back to Seoul the next day.
Traveling alone seemed to bother everyone else except for me. I heard it when people asked “for one?” in a pointed tone when I went to restaurants, tried to book tours, talked to service staff. Although it would’ve been better with a friend, I liked traveling alone. I could wander for ages and take photos of grungy alleyways without worrying about another person thinking I’m boring or a weirdo, change my mind, get distracted, go wherever the mood decided to take me. Plus I got to meet Su and her funny boss and those singing guys from the restaurant. It made the whole experience seem more special.
Going to an Asian country as a Westernised Asian was an interesting experience. Unlike Korea where I have somewhat of a personal connection to the country, I could truly embrace being a foreign tourist in China. Even though Chinese people chatted to me in Chinese, I could say “I’m not Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese” without a trace of guilt. China is only the 3rd overseas country I have ever visited – and that was the first time I felt like that. It was nice.
I felt newfound respect for my Chinese friends who came to Western countries as migrants. China was a huge culture shock, even more so than Korea. With very little English (or foreign anything)around the place and censored from nearly every website I use, China felt like its own little universe.
China is one of the biggest and most influential nations in the world, yet seeing it for myself made me realise how little I know about it. I’d love to go back some day.