Here and There
My alarm clock buzzes at 4:45 in the morning but I am already awake. As I swing out of bed I turn it off and slowly rise, feeling every minor ache and pain of my aging body. For some reason each one feels good. Reaffirmation of life. It is still dark outside but by the time I come out of the shower a beautiful orange pinkish color is emanating from another sunrise over the rooftops. I grab my bag and head downstairs to catch a taxi to the airport.
The air is fresh and Beijing is still asleep in the downtown area of Dongdan where I live. I amble down the block to the spot where the taxi drivers congregate. A few are sleeping in their cabs, some standing outside their cars talking and smoking. I approach the first taxi and get in. The driver is a woman and I am pleased when she understands my rudimentary Mandarin and we're off! Chang An Jie to Jianguomen to Er Huan Lu and then the gao su lu.
My driver explains that I am very early for my flight. I tell her I have a stop to make in Wangjing on the way to the airport to pick up jian bing (pancake) from my favorite vendor, a woman who I have known for over 10 years. Her jian bing is the best I have ever eaten. My daughter told me about her when she and her friends used to get breakfast from her every morning before their school began.
Her cart is along a line of several carts with breakfast delicacies, including other jian bing carts. There is always a line waiting for her but not often for the other food sellers. When you have the best product, people come to you, will wait in line. We always exchange the same greeting whether I have seen her the day before or the year before. "Ni hao. Ji de wo ma?" I grin at her. "Ji de," she smiles back. I get back in the taxi and we resume our journey to Beijing Airport Terminal 3. I go through the procedure of checking my bag and boarding the plane to America. It is a 13 hour flight. I read and eventually fall asleep.
"Please fasten your seatbelts, we are about to land in New York," a flight attendant announces over the plane's loudspeaker in both English and Mandarin.
As I wind my way through customs, jet lag takes hold of me and everything seems to be moving in cloudy slow motion. I go outside to find a taxi and realize I am on the other side of the world — literally — from where my early morning began. When I get to my apartment it is the same time as when I left Beijing. So bizarre! When you go West to East you lose a day but when you travel the opposite way you gain a day!
Once home, my thoughts are a bit jumbled and the culture shock begins to sink in as I sit at my computer and begin to write. Soon I realize that I need a cup of coffee so I head outside. The two block walk to the coffee cart welcomes me back. "Ni hao," I say to the Chinese dry cleaner opening his business. "Welcome back," he replies. It is a running joke between us. I always speak in my broken Chinese to him and he always answers in English.
Then I cross the street to buy a cup of coffee from Mohammed, my Egyptian friend who has sold coffee from his cart on this corner of Broadway for over 20 years. "How is China?" he asks, always eager to learn.
"Great, interesting, hot, changing," I respond. He laughs and moves his attention to the next customer standing behind me.
I sit down on a bench and observe New York wake up as I did Beijing only 15 hours ago. Shopkeepers sweep in front of their stores, businessmen head for the subway, a few homeless appear from their haunts, delivery trucks arrive to unload their goods …
The other side of the world … different peoples, different food, different sounds but the same life. I look to the sky and feel gratitude.