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On Leaving Beijing in a Most Undignified Manner

I very much enjoyed my time in Beijing. In addition to my afternoon at the National Museum of China and my walking explorations of Beijing neighborhoods and parks, I visited Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, with Chairman Mao’s face watching thousands of tourists stream by each hour and uniformed officers and elevated surveillance cameras watching the crowds as well.

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I walked around the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, the huge park and building complex where Chinese emperors performed sacred rites to pray for good weather and good harvests.

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I wandered through the Forbidden City, home to two dynasties of Emperors and Empresses, concubines, government officers, military men, maids, and grounds keepers.

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I toured the Summer Palace on foot and by boat. It was the luxurious summer retreat of the royal residents of the Forbidden Palace, built into the hills at the banks of shimmering Kunming Lake.

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I climbed over and into the Ming Tombs, burial place for 13 of the Ming emperors, laid to rest between 1424 and 1627.

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I hiked both crowded and deserted sections of the Great Wall of China. It was begun by the first Chinese emperor, Emperor Qin (260–210 BC), the powerful and violent visionary who first united the country as one. Today some parts of the Wall have been rebuilt. Others remain visible yet are crumbling. Still other parts have been lost forever, borrowed as building material or simply disintegrated into dust.

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I strolled around Shichahai Lake, a popular leisure spot for the past thousand years, still popular today. It now serves, along with the surrounding hutongs (old alleyways), as one of the capital city’s top shopping, dining, and bar areas.

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My head filled with so many sights and so much Chinese history, I left Beijing and bumbled my way toward the ancient city of Xi’an in my usual undignified manner. I came to China three weeks ago with one backpack and one duffle bag, each half-full to allow for the unavoidable accumulation of stuff that always happens on trips. It was a good plan, but like most of my plans it had one unforeseen crucial flaw: my underestimation of the number and size of gifts people would give me. I’ve traveled enough in the past (across five continents) to know that people often give international guests gifts. But administrators at three of the five libraries I had visited before reaching Beijing had presented me with heavy stacks of informational and commemorative books, and now my two sensible pieces of luggage were overstuffed, straining at the seams, and coming dangerously close to the 40 kilo domestic Chinese airline weight limit. My backpack alone was so heavy that when I first put it on that morning, it knocked me to my knees.

I couldn’t quite fit all of my clothing into my overstuffed bags, so I dressed in my longest, fullest skirt -- the piece of clothing that took up the most space -- for the plane ride. I had been washing my clothes in hotel sinks (with a couple of splurges on overpriced hotel laundry services) every few days and re-wearing the same four outfits day after day. Laundry in hot, humid Guangzhou had taken three days to dry fully in my breeze-less hotel room. The climate of Beijing was a lot drier. The early summer temperatures were higher in Beijing, climbing up near 100 each day; it took only one day for my laundry to dry in my Beijing hotel room, despite the still, closed hotel air.

As a part of my travel efficiency plan, I washed my laundry in my hotel room sink the day before I left Beijing so that I could arrive in Xi’an with a clean traveling wardrobe. Everything dried in time for me to leave for the airport, with the exception of my purple plaid flannel pajama shorts, which were still really wet. I must have forgotten to wring them out before hanging them up to dry. I was worried that the wet, heavy shorts might push my duffel bag over the checked baggage weight limit, so I pulled them on underneath my skirt. No one would see them.

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I put my money belt, borrowed from a friend back in New Jersey, on top of the shorts. I had been paid my salary from the university in cash (?!?) and had yet to figure out what to do with all that paper Chinese money. With the cash and my emergency documents (photocopy of passport, health insurance cards, etc.) inside it, the money belt bulged two inches thick. With both the pajama bottoms and the money belt hidden under my skirt, I looked to be about five months pregnant.

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I’d been having allergy issues due to the Beijing air pollution. I’d need some tissues on the plane. I couldn’t put them in the pockets of my now damp skirt – wet, crumbling tissues would be a mess. I tucked four tissues into my bra; after all, I had extra space there.

Serving about 90 million passengers a year, Beijing Airport is the world’s second busiest airport. I was soon to find it to have the toughest airline security -- or any kind of security -- I had ever experienced. I checked my duffle bag and walked toward the security lines.

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A guard opened a side gate for me and motioned for me to join the security line behind it. The line was marked “Female,” apparently a separate security line for unaccompanied single female travelers. I removed my camera and laptop from my backpack, as shown in the pictures at the beginning of the conveyor belt, and walked through the x-ray gate as my items were scanned.

My backpack made it through the scanner as I walked on to the next security stage, the full-body pat-down. Before I could step up onto the wooden block for a pat-down, I heard: “Umbrella?” in English. The security guard at the end of the conveyor belt pointed to my backpack. I walked back and pulled out my umbrella. The guard picked up the umbrella and pack, groaning with the weight of the pack, walked the pack and umbrella back down the length of the conveyor belt to the beginning, and sent them through the x-ray machine for a second time.

The bag re-emerged. The guard frowned at me. “Battery?” she asked. I pulled the chargers for my laptop and cell phone out of the pack. She walked back to the beginning of the conveyor belt again and sent everything through the x-ray machine for a third time.

The bag emerged once more. The guard turned at glared at me: “Electronic?” she asked, clearly irked that I hadn’t known to take all of these items out of my backpack before sending it through the scanner. I pulled out my headphones and attached MP3 player. She sent the whole mess of items plus the backpack through the x-ray machine for a fourth time.

Meanwhile, the pat-down began. I stepped up onto the wooden box with my feet on the painted footprints. The guard began a most intimate pat-down, and I began to worry.

Uh-oh. She was going to wonder why my skirt was wet.

Uh-oh. She was going to find the concealed money belt.

Uh-oh. She was going to find the hidden tissues.

And she was not going to like any of it.

The guard patted around for a while until she hit the money belt. “Off,” she commanded. I lifted up my skirt, revealing the wet, purple pajama bottoms to all four guards standing nearby and to all of the passengers waiting in nearby security lines.

I pulled off the money belt. The x-ray scanner guard who had already sent my backpack through four times sighed loudly. She stomped over to me, grabbed the money belt from my hand, and sent it through the x-ray machine, along with my backpack yet again, scanning it for a possibly recording-breaking fifth time.

I was still holding up my skirt, waiting to replace the money belt. The pat-down guard stared at my odd pajama shorts. She started patting them and took a step backward in surprise (or revulsion) when she found that they were wet. She set her mouth in a grim line and kept patting, but noticeably more gingerly.

She moved her way upward. Now she hit the tissues. She looked confused. She turned and yelled something to another guard who was a few feet away. I don’t know what she said, but I’m pretty sure that if I could have understood it, I would have been even more embarrassed. The other guard opened her eyes wide with surprise and they both turned to stare at me.

I had little choice. I reached down the neck of my blouse and pulled out the tissues.

At this point I started to laugh. The guards didn’t laugh with me, unfortunately. (The world would be a much better place if we all laughed more often.) The pat down guard just shrugged and kept patting.

Finally satisfied that I wasn’t a threat to national security -- just deeply strange -- the pat-down guard gave me a curt nod, indicating that I was free to go. I put the money belt back on; straightened my skirt over my once-more bulging middle; replaced the tissues; packed my laptop, umbrella, power cords, MP3 player, and headphones back into my backpack; zipped it up; and hefted it back onto my back. Then I lifted my head as up high and honorably as I could, and I marched off to find the gate for my flight.

As I continue to travel around China, I’m finding the security measures becoming increasingly annoying, not just at Beijing Airport, but at tourist sites and public buildings as well. Most of the security checks are overseen by Chinese soldiers. Some of them have been friendly, but most just seemed bored. There are conveyor belts and x-ray scanners at libraries, subway stations, museums, historic sites, and public buildings. Except at the airport (and in Xi’an where, strangely, I would later find that most of the security conveyor belts were broken when I visited), people only put larger bags through to be scanned, holding onto purses, umbrellas, and cameras as they walk through the x-ray machines. I commented to one of the Chinese graduate students who was with me when I visited the Guangzhou Museum that security checks were more frequent in China than in the U.S. but more lax. “Do you think they have to be stricter in the U.S. because so many people there are carrying guns?” she asked.

My stomach sank as she said it. I don’t know the exact sociopolitical reasons for all of the U.S. security precautions. It must be at least partly latent September 11th fears that keep U.S. domestic security so high. But considering that the U.S. has nearly 23 TIMES THE NUMBER OF GUNS PER CAPITA as China, the student had a good point. Chinese security signs warn people that they can’t carry lighters, gasoline, or flammable liquids into overcrowded public spaces, which makes sense, as China has a surfeit of people. U.S. security signs warn against carrying concealed weapons, which makes sense, as we have a surfeit of guns.

With these sobering thoughts in mind, I sat at the gate awaiting my flight departure. I was anxious to board the plane and head to the ancient city of Xi’an where – if nothing else – at least no one had seen my embarrassing departure from Beijing Airport.

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Click here to read about my adventures at the National Museum of China.

Click here to learn about some of the current efforts to reduce gun violence in the United States.

Posted by dagosto 05:52 Archived in China

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