Contrary to what most Americans believe, Singapore is not a city in China. But the influence of Chinese immigrants is everywhere, and not just in Chinatown. 74.1% of the population identifies as Chinese, and Mandarin (or a Singapore version of Mandarin) is heard everywhere. With our expat assignment winding down, I felt it was important that Mia and Andie experience China proper, so for spring break we decided to go to Beijing.
Marc has been to China many, many times, and because of his work schedule (and having his personal fill of trips to China), he was unable to join us. I have been taking Mandarin lessons since we arrived, so a trip to Beijing became my “final exam,” my test to see if I could communicate and function in an immersion situation and get the girls and me around the city without a guide.
We flew into Beijing and, using frequent flyer miles, were fortunate enough to stay at the Beijing Raffles Hotel. The location was perfect, just a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the main shopping district. The Raffles is in an old, elegant state-owned building (think marble, chandeliers and fresh flowers everywhere), where the government controls when the building’s heat gets turned on and off. It was so warm inside, and the windows only open a crack, so the management provides portable fans in every room! Despite the warmth, we loved the hotel, and spent many happy hours — and Happy Hours — in the lounge.
Our first visit was to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Mia and Andie saw Communist architecture at its best: large square buildings, many soldiers marching in formation, cannons, and lots of statues of “the workers” and “the people” doing non-bourgeois labor. What we did not expect were people treating Andie like a rock star. Being the most “Western” looking among us, many times strangers asked if they could have their photo taken with her, including one where a little girl tried to give her a kiss! My Mandarin teacher was also crazy about Andie, something about the long blond-ish hair and fair skin. Mia and I were never bothered, looking old and uninteresting (me) or having typical brown hair (Mia).
Next, we took a trip out to the Great Wall, in Mutianyu. Marc and I were there almost exactly three years ago, and again we got the same hazy brown skies. Blue skies in Beijing are rare, but we had quite a few of them — just not on the day we went to the wall. It was not too crowded (except for a large number of student groups) so we had a great time perfecting Instagram photos and enjoying the cooler weather (hence the panda hat).
The Raffles is right next to the Wangfujing street market and many of Beijing’s nicest shops and restaurants. We ate Peking duck at Da Dong restaurant (delicious) and saw street food such as scorpions, seahorses, and starfish on a stick. One night we went out to a hot pot restaurant, where we were the only Westerners and no one spoke English. Yes, my Mandarin saved the day! So what if we got three orders of meat instead of one? I think I spoke at the level of a three-year-old but managed to be understood.
Unfortunately, once you leave the safe, clean, happy island of Singapore, you are more likely to encounter the real world. Which is what happened on the Beijing subway, when Mia’s purse was open and her wallet was stolen. The wallet was not such a big deal, except for the fact that it contained Mia’s most prized possession, the iPhone 6 her Gran Tio gave her before we left. It was her precious, her one ring, and it is probably on its way to North Korea. Now she must suffer the humiliation of carrying around one of our old iPhone 4s until we get to the US and get a new phone plan.
To make up for the loss, we went to the Temple of Heaven (where I am sure Mia prayed for a new phone) and across the street to the Pearl Market, where we bargained for knock-off merchandise. Mia replaced her wallet with a “Kate Spade” wallet for $15 in which to conceal her oh-so-embarrassing replacement phone.
My second time to Beijing was so much different than my first. Three years ago, it was a huge foreign capital where I could not read or communicate, with strange smells and foods at every turn. This time, knowing the language and being much more familiar with the culture, it was a very enjoyable city. I loved watching the girls using the subway, hailing taxis, meeting locals, eating new foods, and not being overwhelmed by their surroundings. It was such a pleasure seeing them feeling at home in a large Asian city. They have both come a long way from our early days in Singapore, and in our own ways, we all have. We will miss being in this part of the world, but I am sure we will find a way back someday.
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