Last Tuesday my friend and I decided it was a good day to hit up the Forbidden City. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have never set foot in one of the world’s largest historical relics to be preserved in China, despite having been in Beijing for over half a year already. But you know that the average folk never tours their own city. I consider myself a Beijinger, even if it’s only for the year.
Thus, in order to rid this mind-tormenting guilt, we hopped on the subway and headed into the heart of Beijing.
Little did we know the great barriers the capital had erected in front of us.
We should have know of course, being political science students and generally up-to-date news-alert people. After the Tiananmen car incident and the Yunnan spree-stabbing occurrence, plus the fact that People’s Congress had been in session last week, security around the square had been over-the-top intensified.
The problem was that we had thought we didn’t need to traverse the actual Square in order to get to the Forbidden City.
We were wrong.
The security guards had sealed off all the underground staircases that led to Mao’s portrait except for a few which ran through the Square. So, we, like hundreds of others, had to cross one of the two roads running perpendicular to the large figurehead, namely Guangchang East Side Road. Then we must cross the large West Chang’an Avenue through one of two staircases before finally coming face-to-face with Mao’s giant head staring unwaveringly down at the itsy-bitsy people.
There were two main problems in front of us:
1) A combination of factors.
My friend was a large, and very, very white person. It was an unseasonably warm day. There were a lot of people pooled at the street-crossing, waiting to cross the street (which was manned by a security guard timing how many people and how often the street was crossed) and a lot of people on the other side going through security (imagine it airport-style and you can comprehend just how much time it took).
We were stuck in the crowds, on a rather hot day, with my friend who perspired easily. She decided to take off her jacket, having only a tank-top underneath. In a sea of black-haired Chinese tourists, a good portion of which were countryfolk who’d never really truly witnessed a foreigner up close and personal (as is typical of being stuck in a Chinese crowd), my friend was ablaze in all her glorious whiteness.
We were to be stared at and talked about in hushed tones for the entire duration of the hold-up.
Not only that, but people made their comments heard, perhaps not knowing that I spoke and understood Mandarin (to be fair, I was speaking English the whole time). I observed phrases such as “she’s dressed so coolly!” and “put on some layers or you’ll catch a cold!”
2) The lack of official ID.
A Chinese citizen is trained to carry their hukou card everywhere they go. It serves like the equivalent of a driver’s license in Canada.
I might look Chinese. I might have been born in China. My native Chinese accent might fool a few people into thinking I’m fully Chinese. But, I was raised more than half my life outside of this country. So I never really had the habit of carrying around ID, especially something as nearly-irreplaceable as my passport.
I had forgotten to bring my passport.
This, despite the fact that that very morning I had texted my friend to remind her to bring hers.
My mind works in mysterious ways.
We had finally crossed the street and were well-stuck into the pen, awaiting our release into the security tent, when I realized this fact.
I panicked and so did my friend. But we couldn’t turn back now. We were really packed in there, with people in front, behind, beside and pressed up against us. There was no where to go but with the crowd.
We crossed our fingers, praying to whatever god or gods that presided over this Square, to let me through without having my ID demanded for.
There were three possibilities with my very-American friend beside me: the security guards would either let us through because she was (and still is) very foreign-looking, or they would skip me to check her because she was very foreign-looking, or they would check us both because she was very foreign-looking.
Two out of three would work out for us. The chances were not so bad for such a crowded, frustrating day.
The moment of truth came torturously slow because an old lady in front of us had a huge bag filled to the brim with food and liquids. She was being checked down the pockets of her pants.
When it was finally our turn, without even really glancing at us, the security guard lightly padded us down and waved us through to the luggage-scanning machine. Our bags safely passed through and we were out of there before someone could even say kan! laowai! (Look! Foreigner!)
Oh joyful day!
I don’t remember ever being on this Square. Maybe my parents once took me here. But nonetheless, the air felt different there. It ain’t the biggest square in the world for nothing.
After that ordeal, the road to the Forbidden City was smooth sail onward.
And so, we finally, safely, and without too much unexpected hassle, made it here.
So folks, when visiting China, don’t ever forget your passport. But if you do, at least have a foreign-looking friend as your shiny beacon of hope. Or maybe your fortunes might just run out and run right into possibility #3. In that case, good luck.