Sometimes I’ll be reading a book or watching TV or something and, with no proper warning, this song will come back into my head. That’s when I have to search it out in my iTunes. This can be difficult, because it is included in what I can only assume is an album of Chinese pop greatest hits, listed in Chinese characters, that I bought in China seven years ago. The song is at once bizarre, grating, and catchy. I can’t ever help but sing along, which is hard because I don’t know any Mandarin except to ask “where is the bathroom” and count to twenty. It features both a daughter singing a lullaby-like tune with her mom and dad and some weird deep-voiced chanting, and when I was there, this song was full-on sweeping the nation.
You HAVE to listen to the entire thing.
It was everywhere — in shops and in restaurants, and on the amazing Chinese lip-synching talent TV shows (like the video above) playing in my dorm room at Peking University, where my friend Aimee and I would fall asleep before 9:00 pm every night. We always fell asleep early because our white, middle-aged, and troublingly Maoist professor had us meet at 6:00 am most days, in the dorm lobby, to do our wake-up routine to a tape of Chairman Mao’s exercises, which are still played regularly on the radio there today. This was, and is, embarrassing in too many ways to count.
I was there as a college freshman, spending my school’s May Term taking a Chinese history class abroad. I had a few friends going on the trip, which is what made me interested in the trip in the first place — China wasn’t one of the countries on my dream destinations list beforehand. This was before I was afraid of flying, so taking a 14-hour trip across the world (we flew over the North Pole and it was the most incredible thing I’ve seen) seemed thrilling, no matter where I landed. Then I did land and I loved it so much. It was beautiful and weird.
United States restaurants need to start giving us jian bing — an incredibly spicy crepe (with eggs, soybean paste, scallions, cilantro, and more) we ate in the mornings in China. Aimee and I would walk across campus at dawn to the jian bing stand, requesting “not spicy” in Mandarin so that it would be tolerable to our pathetic American palates. It was still the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten. We also bought chocolate milk in the mornings, because we were starved for dairy — there is almost none in China. Still, somehow, China has the most incredible chocolate milk in the world. I don’t need to have been to many other countries to just know that that is true. It must be soy, because it’s not always refrigerated. It comes in what look like kids’ juice boxes, and it tastes like youth and freedom. I would honestly give like $150 a day to have jian bing and chocolate milk for breakfast every morning, until I run out of money like a week later. It would be worth it.
We were in Beijing for the majority of the time, but we also went to Xian, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, and a handful of other towns whose names I can no longer remember. We traveled around by bus and by train, and the landscapes I saw during those trips were the most stunning and green I’ve ever seen. I love traveling by train. I loved my hot sleeper cabins, filled with 2-4 of my classmates plus a few native Chinese people, and waking up at sunrise to sit out in the passageway and watch out the window. I like being on the ground and watching the gradual changes outside. In that way, it’s ok that I try not to fly anymore.
But I REALLY want to go back. You can’t get to China by train. (At least that I know of??) You get there by a 14-hour flight that inexplicably serves you, like, seven meals that become increasingly Chinese as you go. You get there by a flight that takes you over unending miles of ice that used to look mythical and unreal and now look exactly like death. So someday, I am going to buy a bag full of horse tranquilizers, and I’m going to have somebody inject me with them two days before my flight. (For me, the worst part is the 48 hours prior — when I could still escape my death, but know that I won’t.) Then I’ll have that person drag me onto the plane, and shake me out every few hours so I don’t get blood clots. And then I’m going to wake up on the ground in China, and it will be perfect.