Our Unforgettable China Adventure – Part 2
November 16, 2017
If you have not read Part 1 of this series, you can read it HERE!
Despite the crazy beginning of our trip, our first week in China was great! We had been able to see what a fairly normal week looks like for our friends, since they continued to go to school and language tutoring sessions and participate in their normal weekly activities. We started our second week heading into National Day Golden Week, a Chinese holiday that starts around October 1. This year, it coincided with Mid-Autumn Festival, so the holiday was actually eight days long. Because many citizens and migrant workers travel back to their homes or to holiday destinations during this week, a large number of businesses and most government offices are closed. This includes the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in China, a fact that became significant for us as the week unfolded. Our friends did not have school that week either, so we made plans to visit tourist locations and do a variety of fun outings throughout the week. This second half of our trip was meant to feel more like a vacation, for us as well as for our friends, and we all looked forward to exploring more of the city together.
DAY 8: (Saturday-a.k.a. America Day)
As I mentioned in the last post, we moved to a new apartment on Day 7. The first morning at the new place was great in so many ways. We were able to sleep in, which is always on my list of awesome things to do; then we enjoyed a slow-paced, quiet morning. Just the two of us. I’m not typically one who needs a lot of alone time or quietude in order to feel refreshed, but the constant onslaught of new things was sometimes a bit overwhelming, and quiet was exactly what I needed that morning. We enjoyed a late breakfast on the balcony as we watched the bustling city more than 20 stories below. I spent some time reading and then sat with my computer on my lap, trying my best to recall the events of the previous week before they escaped my memory.
Eventually, we got ready for the day and walked down to the bus stop to meet our friends and their kids. We rode to a shopping district not too far away to eat at a great little pizza restaurant. We had taco pizza then walked around to some of the little shops. After our friends decided to go home for naps, my husband and I walked around by ourselves for a little while before heading to Starbucks for a much-needed cup of coffee. The barista spoke a little English, and he seemed quite proud of himself that he could say “sugar”. Even though we didn’t need any, I accepted a packet as a way to applaud his efforts.
The first part of the day had already been laced with reminders of home, so we thought it would be a good afternoon to take a trip to Walmart. We located the closest one and hopped on a bus headed that direction. As we approached the location we had pinned on iMap, we saw the familiar blue sign above a set of escalators that headed underground. I was not quite sure what to expect even though our friends had tried to explain it to us. In some ways, it was like any American Walmart: there were carts, there was an extremely varied selection of products, and there were lots of interesting people. But, there were also many differences. The sheer number of people far surpassed any Walmart experience I have ever had in the States. It was totally nuts! Also, as one would expect, the kinds of products for sale were very different from what I am used to. Near the front of the store, there were rows and rows of clear plastic bins. Each bin contained a different individually-packaged food item like candy, nuts, meat links, dried fruits and vegetables, chicken feet, and a whole host of unrecognizable things. In another part of the store, there were refrigerators and washing machines for sale along with a huge selection of electric kettles and at least 75 different models of rice cookers. While we didn’t make it over to the fresh food department, I hear it is quite the sight with all the hanging meat and peculiar seafood selection.
As we wandered around the store, we noted that it was just a very different feel. There were a lot of product representatives, and I don’t mean like sample day at Costco. It was more like four or five individuals standing around a display of pots and pans (or shampoo or water pitchers or whatever) calling out to the people walking by. I assume they were talking about the pans (or shampoo or water pitchers), but I’m not positive. Once we’d had our fill of Walmart, we bought some snacks and small gifts for our kids before catching the bus back to our apartment.
That night for dinner, we went to the home of an American family we had met the previous week (friends of our friends). They lived in the same complex we were staying at and had invited us over for homemade chili and cornbread. And thus, America Day ended right on theme.
DAY 9: (Sunday)
Our second Sunday, one of the families was going to a Chinese (Three Self) church that they sometimes attend. We got there a little late for the Chinese service, so we sat in the back row of the overflow room where the pastor’s sermon was being broadcast on a large screen. Since I could understand nothing, I spent the time observing the people in the room. I was especially intrigued by the ushers. I guess that’s an accurate title for them, but their job involved much more than just seating people. These middle-aged women, in their matching orange Polo shirts, were on a mission to make sure every single person in that room stayed awake and sat still and quiet in their seats. And there seemed to be no tolerance for anything less. While they were jovial with us, giving a thumbs-up or exaggerated smile to our friends’ children, they were not as friendly to the young boy sitting a few rows ahead of us. He and his dad were on the end of the row, and every so often, the boy would stand up and walk a few feet away into the empty aisle. His dad didn’t seem to mind, but, oh, those ladies sure did. They were on him like jackals on a kitten, physically directing him back to his seat where they would firmly place him in his chair. All of this right in front of the father, who just looked at them with an irritated expression. They did this 2 or 3 times before they’d finally had enough. I think my husband and I were the only ones who noticed this all happening, so it’s not like he was disturbing anyone. In any case, the more grumpy-looking woman of the crew marched up right behind him. Then, turning abruptly toward her cohorts, she raised her thumb and dramatically thrust it back over her shoulder like, “I’m gonna kick him out!” Her narrowed eyes, furrowed brow and pursed lips were enough to send me into a silent fit of giggles. She was sooooo mad at this poor little boy, who was clearly just bored out of his mind. He returned to his seat without being shown the door, but he and his dad ended up leaving on their own not too long after that. With the little troublemaker gone, they had to find a new congregant to harass. And find they did. It was a woman sitting near the middle aisle, several rows directly in front of me. She had nodded off and those ladies would have none of that. The same usher who nearly had a panic attack over the wandering child went up to her and pushed her back to wake her up. And not too gentle of a push either! She also said something to her that I could not understand, and by the lady’s reaction, it was not a blessing. That interaction actually led to an altercation between those two women later in the service when Usher Woman’s constant Amen-ing during Communion set the other lady OFF. There were many words exchanged in whisper-yells and, I am not kidding you, pushing. You guys! Usher Woman pushed her! I cannot even tell you how I did not die right then and there. It was one of THE most comical scenes I have ever witnessed. And all right in the middle of the service! If we had been in America, I would have been looking around for the hidden camera. It was that unreal.
Following that entertainment, we went upstairs to the main sanctuary for the English service. The African church’s worship band led the time of singing, and it was just awesome. As I looked around, I saw at least 6 different nationalities represented in that room. We were all praising our Creator together, and I couldn’t help but think toward eternity. It was beautiful. The sermon was given by an American guy we had actually met the previous Sunday. It was nice to make the connection again, and we set up a time to get together with him and his wife later that week to hear about their family’s experience running a coffee business in China.
We ate lunch at a little restaurant very close to the church. Our friend accidentally ordered a dish with frog hips? pelvis? buttocks? I don’t know, but it was certainly more than just legs, as there were full-on ball and socket joints. And wide pieces of speckled green frog skin. The white meat tasted kind of seafood-like, but I was not a fan. I did, however, very much enjoy a dish that contained little yellow eggs that resembled small potatoes. I’m not sure what animal they originated from, and I don’t really care to know. But they were delicious.
Our next stop was an area famous for its street food, a place called Hubu Alley (a.k.a. Wuhan Flavor Street). After our filling lunch, I was not too hungry or eager to try anything. Countless vendors lined the area selling every type of street food you can think of and more. With every step, a new and intoxicating smell was introduced. Sometimes good smells, sometimes not. That many aromas all at once was almost too much for my senses to handle, but the beautiful colors and people made that part totally worth it. Any crowd of that size makes for some great people watching!
DAY 10: (Monday)
Sometime mid-morning, we moved over to the apartment that we would be staying at for the rest of our time in China. As far as we knew at that point, the rest of our time would be five more days. To save us some effort, our friend came over on his e-bike, strapped our suitcases to the back, and took them to his apartment. E-bikes, which look pretty much like mopeds, are a very common mode of transportation in Wuhan. I found it interesting that there seems to be no expectation that they follow traffic laws even though they are driving on the street most of the time. They can run red lights, drive on the sidewalk, swerve in and out of traffic, and even go the wrong way down the street! Also, they are very quiet because of the electric motor, so it is nearly impossible to hear them approaching from behind. It took me some time to get used to the honking, which is the driver’s way of communicating that they are behind you. Usually right behind you. I was startled many times during the first week. By the end of the trip, however, I was almost numb to the constant honking.
That afternoon, after tagging along with our friend to a warehouse store, (think Chinese Costco, sort of), I needed a little pick-me-up. I decided to walk by myself over to Pacific Coffee, where we had kind of become regulars. When I walked up to the counter, the barista smiled at me and said in her best English, “Hello! Medium Americano?” She knew my drink! I felt so accepted. And so legitimate. And like, maybe I drink too much coffee!! 😀
A ferry ride and visit to the Jianghan Road night market were definite highlights of the day! The boat deck was full of people, many jockeying for a place on the narrow upper ledge where the view was unimpeded. The weather was beautiful and made for a stunning look at the city as we crossed the river. Once we got to the market, I was shocked at the size of it! We walked nearly a mile down the narrow street lined with hundreds of vendors selling anything from local snacks to blankets to turtles, and of course, there were tons of people. Super cool experience!!
DAY 11: (Tuesday)
Cold, rainy weather doused our plans to visit the famous Yellow Crane Tower. We decided to go to IKEA instead, which was about an hour away by subway. The store was attached to a huge mall, so we did a little shopping elsewhere before heading to IKEA for lunch. Sadly, the restaurant was completely packed with no place to sit, so we had to settle for Burger King. The food was nothing to get excited about, but it wasn’t gross, and our meals were pretty cheap. When we headed into the actual IKEA store, we were invited by our friends to play a game that involved guessing the number of people who would be sleeping on the furniture. There may have been a wager. One of our friends picked a pretty high number for his guess, and since he had been there before, I followed suit and guessed somewhere in the high teens or low twenties. Because it was still a little early in the day, the actual numbers were lower than expected. However, right after lunch, there is a cultural sort of nap time. And I am told that during those hours, there is not a bed or couch left empty. People sometimes even get under the covers! That is fascinating to me, and I secretly wished we could stay longer so I could witness that for myself. However, the kids were getting tired so we got some ice cream and prepared to leave. One of our friends decided she was going to take a taxi back with her kids instead of the longer metro ride. She asked me if I wanted to ride with her, but I declined: a decision I later regretted. Instead, the other mom joined her with her own 2-year old, and we parted ways. The rest of us went to another level where we all got coffee or cold bottled drinks for the ride home. The train pulled in a couple of minutes after we arrived at the platform, and we stepped on, easily finding seats. It got busier as we went along, but we soon exited to change to a line that would take us to the right part of the city. Unfortunately, we got off a stop too early and had wait for another train to take us that one stop. After the transfer station, the train became extremely crowded, and, at one point, I was pushed from behind pretty hard. I made a mental note of the man who pushed me because he was a pretty big guy. I don’t mean that to sound rude, but Chinese people are generally pretty slim. Seeing someone so far outside the norm was unusual and memorable.
Once we got back to our friends’ apartment, I went straight to our room to unload our purchases. I was wearing a cross-body purse, and as I lifted it over my head, I realized it felt oddly light. I opened it immediately to discover that my wallet was not there. My stomach dropped, and I began to search around the bed, on the table, and in the entry hall to see if I had absent-mindedly taken it out or dropped it somehow. As I was frantically digging around under papers and coats and shoes, my husband asked what I was looking for. I told them that my wallet was gone from my purse. And then I dropped the bigger bomb, “And my passport was in it.” The statement echoed through the room with sickening force. My passport and visa were gone, along with my driver’s license, credit card, and some cash. I was soon made aware that, because of the holiday, all the government offices I would need to contact to obtain a new passport and visa would be closed until the following Monday. That was almost a week away and was two days after we were supposed to fly home! While our friend contacted some other people to get advice on what we should do next, I went to my room and sobbed into my pillow. How could this be happening? How could I have been so careless? What were we going to do? I felt sick to my stomach as the weight of the situation crushed down on me. I thought ahead to the next Tuesday, my youngest child’s birthday, and I knew I was going to miss it. I cried even harder, suddenly desperate to be with my kids.
This may be a good time to explain why I was even carrying my passport around. First, the Chinese government requires foreigners to carry a valid passport or residence permit at all times. Second, I had just purchased a new passport wallet with my birthday money, and what else does one do with a passport wallet but carry a passport, right? I’d even had an opportunity the week before to switch it to a copy, but I chose not to since the passport was already in there. Because it was a passport wallet!
We were advised to go to the neighborhood police station, which was just around the corner. Our other friend met us there, as he is the most fluent Chinese speaker of the group. The officers informed us that we actually needed to go to a different police station and offered to drive us there. Upon our arrival, we were led to an office and began the process of filing a police report. At first, I felt like I was being interrogated, and I wasn’t sure if they were trying to aid me or accuse me of something. It didn’t help that we had not registered our arrival in Wuhan within the required time frame, so they were not extremely happy with us or our friend. After we all got past that, it became clear that they were just regular people doing their jobs. I gave a report of what had occurred, with our friend acting as my translator. He later told me he only understood about 60% of what they were saying. Ha! When we finally finished up, I was asked to sign the report. A report that I could not read. As I placed my signature at the bottom of the page, I prayed that my account of the events was actually what was written on that paper. Before we left, we were given an official copy of the police report that I would need to start the process of obtaining new papers the following Monday.
After that, the police “asked” us to participate in the investigation by going with them to the mall to watch the security footage. If I had been in a better frame of mind, the ride in the back of the police car might have been comical because the officers had no clue where they were going. At one point, we were going in reverse on a very busy freeway. However, I was not ready to laugh quite yet. When we arrived at the mall, we first went to the cafe where I had purchased coffee right before leaving. That was the last time I remember seeing my wallet. We all crammed into the little security office and watched the recording of me buying coffee and then, what appeared to be, me putting my wallet back in my purse. The view of my purse was slightly obstructed, so it was hard to be certain, but we all agreed that’s what it looked like. Next, we walked to the main security office to watch the footage from the rest of the mall. It was super helpful that I had snapped some photos on my phone during the time between coffee and the train because we were able to use those pictures to establish an accurate timeline. Can I just stop right here and tell you that it was very strange watching video replays of myself with like five random men? Well, it was. Anyway, the recordings showed nothing useful except that I likely did not remember to zip my purse after I bought the coffee and that most of the time, I instinctively kept my hand on my purse.
We rode in the back of a police car for the third time that day and arrived at our friends’ apartment around 10 pm. It had been seven hours since I had discovered my wallet was missing, and we had been with the police for almost that entire time. The day had been exhausting and emotional, and I was weary at the thought of what the next days would bring. Even still, I was hopeful we would be able to resolve the situation and get the documents I needed within a few days of the government offices reopening. I had no idea of the disappointment and frustration that were soon to come and how many days it would actually take to get back to my children. It’s probably a good thing, too, because I’m not sure my heart could have handled it that day.
Read Part 3 here.