Our Unforgettable China Adventure – Part 1
November 9, 2017
My husband and I love adventure and the idea of seeing more of the world, but three young kids, traditional jobs, and a limited income have kept us from traveling much outside of the United States. When we had the opportunity to go to China together to visit some friends who are there going to school, we couldn’t pass it up!
And so, about seven weeks ago, on September 22, we left our children with some seriously amazing family members and set off on what we thought was a 2-week trip to China. In SO. MANY. WAYS. our journey did not go as planned. I have loads of observations and experiences and pictures to share, so I will be writing multiple (long) posts in order to include as many details as I can. I will cover the first week here, which was moderately uneventful compared to the rest of the trip, and will continue from there until the story is told. At one point toward the end of my time there, I said to my husband, “I don’t think I would believe someone if they told me all of this.” But, friends, it’s all true. Every mishap, every miscommunication, and every mistake. Every incident involving the police. Every ride on my emotional roller coaster. Every hilarious, tense, disheartening, frustrating and joyous moment really happened. Thankfully, I am able to laugh about it now, so I hope you will enjoy my recounting of our travels and find some humor in the circumstances we encountered and lessons we learned!
Travel Days: (Friday/Saturday)
These two days were actually only a day and a half due to the 13-hour time difference, so we’ll just call it Day 1. We had already dropped our daughter at my sister’s house on Thursday evening, so we left our boys with my mom on Friday morning and headed to the airport. The kids did super well with the goodbyes. I think they were just so excited to spend time with cousins and grandparents that they didn’t think about the fact that we were leaving for two whole weeks! I may have teared up a little when we drove away, but I was mostly just happy that I didn’t have to leave anyone crying or kicking and screaming.
We flew out of Des Moines and had a short layover in Detroit before the flight to China. I had never flown internationally, other than to Haiti, so I had no previous experience with being on a plane that long. I brought a book to read, but after bawling through the entire third chapter, I decided it was not the best idea to read it on an airplane. Or anywhere in public, for that matter. Since my other books were in one of my checked bags, I really had no alternative but to binge-watch movies and attempt to sleep between meals, cups of mediocre coffee and multiple trips to the lavatory. After an arduous 14 hours, we finally arrived in Shanghai to clear customs before our 90-minute flight to Wuhan.
We made it through the first customs counter with no problems then collected our luggage for inspection. It was a little confusing, but we were able to figure out where to go and get through the initial baggage screening pretty quickly. The last thing we had to do was re-check our bags and obtain our boarding passes for the last leg of the flight. We had four suitcases to check because we were bringing gifts and other items from home for our friends. Our last suitcase was almost done getting tagged when a couple of airport security personnel came up behind us and asked us to follow them. We were uneasy walking away from the counter and the person holding our passports, but it seemed we had no choice but to go with them. We were led to a nearby room with a sign that read Baggage Inspection. Once we entered, an agitated security officer told us in broken English to open the lone suitcase sitting on the conveyor belt. One of our bags. My husband unzipped it, and she began searching a specific corner of the bag with a gloved hand. She looked at her computer screen and then returned to exploring various pockets, clearly trying to find something specific. I had no clue what she was looking for, but I motioned to another pocket on the lid of the suitcase hoping she would find whatever was bothering her and we could be on our way. She reached down in that pocket, and when she pulled out her hand, the object she held caused me to audibly gasp and say, “That is NOT mine.” You see, we had borrowed suitcases from several different people for the trip, and although we had checked inside each one, we had not reached way down deep into the front pockets. If we had, we would have found the 9 mm bullet that had lodged itself under the metal frame, apparently left behind by the true owner of the suitcase.
The next 45 minutes were some of the tensest of my entire life…up to that point, anyway. In case you didn’t know, it is illegal to bring weapons or ammunition into China on a commercial flight. That bullet became the catalyst for a frenzy of security personnel to spring into action. We tried to explain that we had borrowed the bag and that the bullet was not ours, but the language barrier seemed only to be making the situation worse. So, we stopped talking and just stood there while one security officer after another came into the room, each taking time to examine and photograph the forbidden item. A few individuals wrote something down or made a phone call or two, and they all looked us over with smile-less faces. After a while, it appeared they became less concerned with the bullet and maybe a little mindful of our impending flight. We can’t be sure because we couldn’t understand a word that was being said, but the overall mood in the room did seem to lighten up a bit and I saw one guy glance at his watch a few times. Once we’d been standing there for about 30 minutes, a man approached us and asked me to come with him. Just me. Because, of course, the tag on the bag had my name on it. I looked at my husband with wide eyes and then followed the man around the corner, having no idea where he was taking me. A thousand things ran through my mind, and I quietly prayed that God would bring about a resolution that did not involve an interrogation room. I know that sounds dramatic, but at that moment, all I could think of was every airport security scene from every spy movie ever. In those films, it typically does not go well when someone wearing a foreign uniform says, “Ma’am, you need to come with us.” But thankfully, I was only led back to the customs desk where our bags had previously been scanned and where there were forms for me to sign. I timidly asked what I was signing (because they made no effort to inform me of such information), and I was told it was a statement declaring that I did not want the item and was turning it over to them. I cannot say for certain if that is what it actually said, but I went ahead and signed it. Again, to avoid the windowless room. More pictures were taken of the bullet before it was placed into an envelope and sealed with a large red sticker. I was instructed to write my name on the outside of the envelope. I did just that, and then someone handed me my passport and sent me on my way. Just like that, the ordeal was over, and we were hustling through the airport to catch our flight that was scheduled to leave a very short time after that. We got to the gate literally three minutes before they closed boarding. At that point, we made some ignorant, and now comical, comments about the experience like, “At least we got that out of the way!” thinking that was going to be the “crazy story” we told when we returned home. Boy, we couldn’t have been more wrong. But those are tales for another day…
We landed in Wuhan around midnight. By the time we got our bags, met our friends and took a taxi to the apartment where we were staying, it was nearly 2 AM on Sunday morning. We took the elevator twenty-eight stories up, chatted briefly about the plans for the morning, and then settled into our room. I was asleep almost before my head hit the pillow.
DAY 2: (Sunday)
After only 4 hours of sleep, we woke up and ate some breakfast then took a 1-hour subway ride to the international church our friends attend. After the service, we chatted with some other Americans who were there and then went out for lunch at a nearby restaurant with our friends and a few others. This was my very first experience eating in an authentic Chinese restaurant, and my expectations were high. We were greeted by the curious stares of the Chinese patrons, which is understandable since we were a large group of foreigners in a city with a foreigner population of less than 1 percent. We were led upstairs to a private dining room with a large round table. In the middle of the table was the biggest turntable I had ever seen. The colorful and aromatic dishes were served family style, so that giant ‘Lazy Susan’ really came in handy! One thing I found interesting was that our place settings (plate, bowl, spoon, and glass) were individually shrink-wrapped, apparently by dishwashing services that are commonly used by restaurants there. It felt very sanitary, even if it was just an illusion! Just as I’d hoped, the food was a-mazing! My husband and I were both very happy we had learned to use chopsticks pretty well earlier in our marriage, although we were both a little rusty. It was at this lunch that I first realized I would have to drink room temperature or warm water for the rest of my trip. Sigh. And yes, I am aware that makes me sound very high-maintenance, but I’m just keeping it real. I really like cold water!
After our delightfully filling meal, someone thought it was a good plan to ask me to decide how we should get back to our friends’ apartment. I thought it’d be fun to ride the bus so we could see more of the city. At that point, I didn’t think the jet lag was affecting me. Evidently, I was clearly delirious. While it was cool to see so much of the city that day, it took more than an hour and a half to get back, and a lot of the ride was spent standing up on a hot bus packed in like sardines with like 100 other people. Or maybe just 50. I just know there were a lot of people on that bus. It was particularly fascinating to me how much attention was given to our friends’ kids, especially to the blonde-haired little boy. Nearly everyone close to them on the bus commented on his hair and tried to touch all the children’s faces. This was a common theme in public the whole time I was in China. I don’t think the kids are big fans of feeling like zoo animals, as I would not be either, I suppose.
After getting back and resting for a while, we enjoyed more delicious food, chatted about news from home, and discussed the plans for the upcoming week. When we walked the 10 minutes back to where we were staying, I felt utterly exhausted from our busy day. I sat down on the bed in our little room, and I don’t remember much after that. At some point early the next morning, I woke up, on top of the blankets and still in my clothes.
DAY 3: (Monday)
Before heading to our other friends’ apartment to act as visiting science teachers for their children, my husband and I stopped to get coffee by ourselves for the first time. It went pretty well because the menu was also in English and we could point, and also because one of the baristas could speak a little bit of English. The hardest part was trying to say that we wanted the coffee to-go. After a few moments of confusion, she said, “Take away?” We both exclaimed, “YES!” It was so exciting to feel like we successfully communicated!
We took our coffee and walked over, ready to teach some fun science concepts. We used Jeremiah 31:35 as the basis for our three sessions for the week. The verse describes God’s sovereignty over the sun, moon, stars, and sea, so the first day we talked about the sun and the moon. Along with the lesson, the kids made a sun craft and used Oreo cookies to show the phases of the moon, scooping out the unnecessary frosting with a spoon. They seemed to really enjoy that part, especially when they got to eat the frosting.
After we finished school, we hung out for a little while and had some lunch from a nearby restaurant. The dish we had, named Muslim Noodles by our friends because the restaurant owners are Muslim, was by far one of THE BEST things I ate in China. We ate it at least two other times while I was there because it was just that good. After lunch, we went back to the other apartment and napped for basically the rest of the afternoon. Once we woke up, it was already time for dinner, which we ate at a Chinese BBQ restaurant close to their complex. The food there was amazing as well. I was starting to feel like all we were doing was eating and sleeping! After dinner, they took us to the nearby Yangtze River and we walked along it, admiring the colorful dancing lights of the city. We walked for quite a long time, and by the time we returned to our friends’ apartment, I could hardly keep my eyes open. That was another night of falling asleep with no difficulty at all.
DAY 4: (Tuesday)
SO much good food this day. We had a traditional Wuhan breakfast dish that translates as “hot dry noodles”. Seriously good stuff, and so cheap! We could get a bowl of these tasty homemade noodles covered in sesame paste (and sometimes veggies or meat) for less than $1 USD!
On our way to teach another science lesson (this time about stars), I decided I wanted to order some bubble tea. The place we went did not have a picture of what I was thinking of, so I just pointed to a delicious-looking drink with mango slices on top. Of course, it ended up being the most expensive thing on the menu, but let me tell you, that drink was heaven. It was creamy and sweet and refreshing. It had these delicious squishy things at the bottom (not the regular tapioca pearls) and an entire mango sliced up on the top! SO. GOOD.
One of our friends made the best homemade fried rice for lunch, and then we made the wise decision to take naps. That jet lag thing is for real. To offset the nap hangover in the early evening, my husband and I went to a coffee shop that we had walked by numerous times. It is a very large cafe with beautiful decor – tons of windows and chandeliers. Communicating was a little more difficult than at the other place, but we managed to order a couple Americanos and some treats. We went up the stairs to enjoy our afternoon snack and inadvertently sat right outside the smoking room. The glass walls and open door were not doing much to keep the smoke from entering the rest of the cafe, so it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. In addition, the place was super hot and the coffee was just okay. We did not go back after that visit.
For dinner, we took the bus to a nearby shopping mall that was pretty impressive. It had at least five floors and was somewhat enclosed with some open access to the outdoors as well. There were a lot of American stores and tons of restaurants! We actually went there to eat at a specific hot pot restaurant known for its excellent customer service. The food was great and the service was, in fact, incredible. Even in the bathroom! There was only one stall with a western toilet, and at that point in the trip, that was the only option for me. The bathroom attendant quickly ushered me over, but before allowing me to enter, she tidied up the stall and put a seat cover on the seat for me. I left like royalty, as she was kind of bowing and smiling ear to ear whilst she lifted up the toilet seat to properly tuck the corners of the paper cover under. It was surreal.
DAY 5: (Wednesday)
The highlight of this day was walking to and from the university where our friends go to school. We met our friend, along with one of his Chinese friends, for lunch at a vegetarian buffet across from the campus. The food was probably my least favorite meal of the entire trip, but the time we spent strolling down side roads and through smaller apartment complexes was so interesting. That part of town reminded me more of the preconceived ideas of China I had from movies or history books. It was so different from the bustling city life we had been experiencing up to that point. It just seemed quieter somehow, even though that craziness was swarming just blocks away in all directions. I really like the busyness of the city center and retail areas, but these were lovely moments to enjoy as well, especially hand-in-hand with my best friend.
The rest of the day involved coffee (no surprise) and babysitting! We watched all five of the children from the two families so their parents could have a date night. Woo-hoo for date night! It was a bit chaotic, but we had fun and were glad to bless our friends in that small way.
DAY 6: (Thursday)
For our final science lesson, we used oil and water and an Easter egg dye tablet (because we couldn’t find food coloring) to make waves in a bottle. I think the kids had fun doing the projects we planned, although some were definitely better than others. A tour of the Hubei University campus, an incredibly flavorful lunch in the cafeteria, and milk tea ice cream from McDonald’s made for a great afternoon. We also saw our first foreigner (stranger) that day, which was a pretty big deal considering this was our fifth day in China. While we had seen several other Americans and some folks from Africa at the foreign church on our first Sunday, we had not seen any non-Chinese people just out and about. That was really surprising to me in a city of 10+ million people, but what do I know.
Before dinner, we accidentally took a 2-hour nap. It was clearly needed but left me feeling groggy once again. Solution: coffee. Obviously. This time, we decided to stick with what we knew was good and where we could order easily. It paid off, and we enjoyed our delicious cups of coffee before taking the bus to dinner in a different part of the city. We went to a specific restaurant for their sweet & sour chicken, but unfortunately, they were out that night. The other food there was still very good.
Later that night, the women went for a walk along the river with another American friend to chat and enjoy the cooler evening. It was very interesting walking at night in a gigantic city and not feeling afraid. I have never been in a large American city where I felt comfortable walking around at night or where I wasn’t concerned about being mugged or hassled. It was a strange but welcome feeling. One funny thing from our walk…a young guy ran past the four of us ladies – all Americans – and turned around about 20 feet in front of us to take a mental picture with his hand frame! Sure gave us a good laugh!
When I got back from the walk, we were able to FaceTime with our kids. It was really great to see that they were happy and doing well. My mama-heart missed them, but only a little at that point. I was very much enjoying the time away with my husband and the experiences we were able to have as a couple.
DAY 7: (Friday)
We had an opportunity to stay a few days in the empty apartment of some other Americans who were back in the States. We happily took that chance in order to spread out a little more than you can when you are staying with other people. We walked over with our things on Friday morning then took the subway to an electronics market with one of our friends who was needing to get a new battery for his iPhone. The first market we went to was underground and, I’ll be honest, felt a little sketch. It was kinda dark and dingy and was lined with booth after booth of people selling small electronics. It wasn’t exactly the first place I would go to buy a new phone, but that’s just me. On the way home, I had to use the public restroom at the metro station. My first public squat toilet, because when you gotta go, you gotta go! It was, for all intents and purposes, successful even though I accidentally opened a stall door on an old woman. But you know, whatever. At least I didn’t pee on my shoe, right?
Before heading back to our new digs that afternoon, my husband and I stopped by a grocery store to buy some snacks and breakfast food. It was kind of a lot to take in, and we ended up with bananas, some kind of cookies and some bread. We did our first load of laundry and took some pictures of the incredible view from the balcony before taking the bus to hang out at one of our friends’ apartments. We attempted to order a couple bowls of Muslim Noodles on our way over, but somehow our pointing only got us one rice dish. Fail.
Our first week in China was full of so many new cultural experiences, and honestly, it was overwhelming at times. All the sights and sounds and smells were new and foreign, and there were times I thought I would never get used to it all. It was uncomfortable feeling like an outsider every moment of the day and not being able to communicate with 99 percent of the people with whom we crossed paths. I felt safe and was enjoying my time immensely, but I will admit that it was a definite struggle for me to be in control of so little and to be able to do virtually nothing for myself. Even ordering a cup of coffee by ourselves felt like a major victory! If I only knew at the end of this week what was coming my way in the next few weeks, I would have soaked in those moments when the discomfort I felt was pretty minimal.
To read what happened next, click here!