The cool October morning air made me thankful that I had brought a jacket with me to Beijing. I hadn’t needed it in the daytime, but in the pre-dawn hours it was a necessity. I took a look around to see who else was out and about at this time of day. It was mostly plainly-dressed people who looked as though they had more important things to do than mess with me. I had been in China’s capital for over a week studying Mandarin, but my defenses were still on high-alert. There’s no class or guidebook that can prepare you for your first adventure in a strange land, and each day was another dose of culture shock. I’d been lured out of my safe Kansas suburb by the “learn Chinese in China” promise, and my safe if quirky hobby had suddenly become a full-blown pilgrimage.
I don’t know why I thought the metro would be open that early. The gates were locked and the sign for hours of operation told me that if I waited for the metro to open I wouldn’t make it to Tiananmen Square in time for the flag raising. The distance was too far to walk and I had no clue about city buses.
That left one option. The dreaded option. I would have to take a taxi. I quickly walked to an intersection and timidly put out my hand, cringing back as though the crazy Beijing traffic might leave it a bloody stump.
I had developed an aversion to Chinese cab drivers a week earlier, when a group of us had been conned into paying way too much for a ride to the Great Wall. It was a classic rookie mistake. Were we supposed to haggle on the price? Absolutely. Did we know that we were supposed to haggle? Definitely not, and I’d only realized our mistake after we’d paid the money and hopped into the minivan. We didn’t lose too much money, but I always hate feeling like a chump.
On this occasion, I could see that the cabbie who had stopped for me had a meter. Hoorah! No haggling necessary! I was so excited that I banged my head jumping into the taxi. After the stars went away I noticed the driver looking at me. Meiyou wenti, I said: no problem, I’m fine! But then I realized that he wasn’t looking at me out of concern. He needed a destination. With one hand on my head and one hand pointing forward, I wearily said “Tiananmen Square” like a wounded general leading his troops into battle. As we rode to the famous square, I kept a very close eye on the meter, making sure that the fare added up correctly. I watched the driver too to make sure that he didn’t put some cab driver “hoodoo” on the little machine to make it multiply or jump to the RMB equivalent of Bolivia’s GNP.
I don’t know why I thought that I would be the only person in the square that morning, but again, I was wrong. No sign of sun yet and there was already a sizable crowd of patriotic Chinese citizens. I picked a spot on the shore of the human sea that I thought would have the best vantage point for pictures. More people arrived and swarmed around and behind me. Again, I was thankful for the jacket. I don’t like to have strangers touching my bare skin and the crowd was squeezing in. The man next to me must have been from an industrial town because he breathed with a horrible rattling wheeze. He was so close to me that every time he inhaled I could feel that rumble in his chest like it was my own. At one point, he tried to maneuver to get in front of me, but his small, Chinese, rice-fed physique was no match for an American, beef-fed, big-shouldered broad. I stood my ground with all of the resolve of an iron girder while ferociously minding the position of my bag.
I patiently waited for the first light of day. I could see the guard by the flag pole beginning to stir and I thought that this was a good sign. Another patriotic group began trying to maneuver their way in front of me, but this time it was a woman attempting to squeeze a little girl in a pink coat into a very small bubble in the human sea. The woman pushed the girl until she wailed in protest. Not even the small girl could squeeze through.
Finally, the tint of the eastern sky went from black to sapphire. The guards lined up by the waiting flagpole. Camera flashes popped all around me and I thought, “Fools, you just got a nice shot of the guy’s head in front of you.” When the sapphire changed to a rosy purple, the guard slowly began the ceremony. There was no sound during the flag-raising, but when it reached its pinnacle the piercing music of the Chinese National Anthem played at a deafening level. I cringed, but as I looked around I realized everyone else had tears in their eyes. The solemnity of the crowd moved me as well as spooked me. They weren’t here to protest or to bicker over petty differences. They were here to salute their flag, to take pride in the fact that they were Chinese. I could physically feel the press of this tiny percentage of China, and I shivered as I imagined the immense power of a country 1.3 billion strong.
All of a sudden, learning Mandarin didn’t seem like such a quirky activity.