Tokyo-Seoul-Beijing-Seoul-Taipei

The cameras in the People's Square.
The cameras in the People’s Square.

This month, I am going from South Korea to Japan to China and then finally to Taiwan, spending about a week in each place. Each place has its own unique culture, despite being connected as a region. And now that we’re halfway through these journeys (only Taiwan is left) I’m not only feeling culture-whiplash, but a severe pain in my throat and a nagging cough known in the expat community as “Beijing Cough.”

These are some things I remember about Beijing:

Brother Roger took care of a lot of hospitality even though we were only seeing him as a secondary reason; the reason we went to Beijing was to help train students as part of the Sam Houston State University’s Global Journalism Center, which had partnered with Tsinghua University, my grandpa’s alma mater. Roger being the host he is, he made sure we had drivers anytime we needed, which helped a lot but all the car time also showed us how traffic really is murder in Beijing.

The girls were awesome. We stayed in a Marriott “executive apartment” for a few nights because the facility had a giant lap pool and a kids play room, both of which Eva took advantage of. There was also a giant closet that fit Isabel’s co-sleeper so Isa had a “room” of her own.

The duck was second to none, of course, but Roger introduced us to his favorite Japanese restaurant in Beijing and they knew how to make Japanese food, no joke. Tasted like a really quality joint in Tokyo, where we’d been just the week before.

Due to a windstorm, the smog got blown out of town for the first few days of our trip. It was straight up BLUE skies, which I didn’t expect. But the smog eventually returned and was so severe that I got recurring headaches, the tickle in my throat turned into a full-on cough, and when walking from our hotel to a coffee shop to meet my friend Ben, it straight-up smelled like everything was on fire. It was just the air.

I had forgotten about squatter toilets, which have largely been phased out of Seoul but remain in a lot of public bathrooms in Beijing. Squatters were a big feature of life when I spent a few summers in Taipei in the 1990s. Except in the 1990s I was in middle school, about 100lbs and hadn’t delivered two babies, so squatting wasn’t so physically burdensome. I was basically anxious every time I was away from the hotel and felt the need to pee.

This led to a discussion about squatters with the aforementioned Ben. He pointed out that squatters are actually more sanitary, in his mind. I think they’re gross because I have to be so close to the ground while squatting and you see the mix of shoe grime and wetness on the ground while you’re down there. But Ben said it’s much better to squat and NOT have your legs on a toilet seat that so many others have sat on. The solution of course is just to squat over a toilet seat, but toilet seats weren’t an option.

Since we’re on the topic of squatting, something else happened. Matty was outside our hotel one night and saw a cabbie turn his flashers on, get out of the car, drop trou, crouch behind some bushes and take a dump near the curb, get back up with his pants still open, tuck-in his shirt and return to the cab. No shame. Kind of amazing.

You know what else was kind of amazing? The valets who drive you home in your own car.

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