Since last I wrote about learning to drive in Beijing, I’ve been driving up a storm. I’ve been in and out of the city on numerous occasions without major difficulties. The biggest problem, really, is that I don’t have a street map. My only map is a one page Lonely Planet guide showing major streets and landmarks. So I squint at that for awhile and try to find my ending point. I then attempt to determine which ring road I should take to get there – there are 5 ring roads circling the city. I look for a street that may or may not be my exit. Then I hop in the car and head out, hoping for the best.
One day, I had an appointment with the ENT (who, by the way, charged me $200 to tell me I’m still deaf. Which made for a Very Bad Day.). I drove into town, missed what I thought was my exit, got off one stop later and circled back until I found a street I recognized. Made my way to the hospital with time to spare. I parked on a side street near the hospital and began to walk away when some guy on a moped started yelling at me. After some discussion, I finally figured out that he was the parking attendant and I needed to pay him 5 kwai to park there for 2 hours. So okay. It wasn’t pretty, but I pulled enough Chinese out of my head to get that much figured out.
The next day, I took off down the 4th ring road en route to a meeting with my editor at the magazine I’ve been freelancing for. I found my way to her building, despite the fact that I got off the road in the completely wrong place. I veered in and out of bike lanes, honked and was honked at, even made a u-turn or two. But somehow, I eventually ended up in her neighborhood. And lo and behold, there was an actual parking garage in front of me. As I pulled in, I realized, I was in the parking garage that belonged to her building! Miracle of miracles! Feeling rather proud, I parked and got out, noted which space I was parked in, and made my way toward an exit sign.
The exit door was padlocked, but no matter. I found another exit sign and followed that. It led me into a dank, dark hallway, through a construction zone, past several curious Chinese, up a horror-film type stairway and to a glass door that led to the street. Would have led, that is, but for the fact that it, too, was padlocked shut.
Now I was feeling A.) panicky, B.) annoyed and C.) late. I thought about asking someone where the exit was. But of course, I don’t know how to say “where is the exit?” in Chinese. I can say “where is the American Embassy?” I can say “Where is my daughter?” I can say “Where is my cup of coffee?” I can even say “My computer is broken, can you please come to my house tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to fix it?” (I’m bragging now, aren’t I?) But I can’t ask the one thing I really need to know right about now. So I pull out the cell phone and call a friend. Her husband answers, and he can say “exit:” chuko. (Now you know. In case you’re ever locked in an underground parking garage in China, you can ask “Chuko zainar?”) Armed with this knowledge, I find my way out, and get to my meeting on time.
So you see, I’m settled in. Getting locked in a massive underground parking garage is just no big deal anymore.
I have a game I sometimes play when I’m overseas just to keep things new. I pretend someone is visiting me, and I try to see what things would look like to them, as visitors. So the last time I got in the car, I pretended my parents were with me. My pretend mom was riding up front, and my dad was in the back. My mom looked a little uncomfortable because I was hitting the speed bumps too fast, but my dad didn’t seem to like it when I veered around one, cutting off a bike rider in the process. My dad was appalled to see the lady who was riding her bike down the middle of the road, against traffic, with a small child on the handlebars. My mom, meanwhile, was asking about the crazy truck with two wheels in the back but just one in the front. “That just seems like it would fall over around the corners,” she commented. My dad cringed on the highway when I accelerated to get around the slow bus, braking hard and pulling back in front of the bus before I hit the taxi in the fast lane. And on and on it went, the whole way to the Embassy and home again. My imaginary parents were nervous driving with me, I can tell you that. I’m pretty sure they talked about it after I went to bed that night, and you can bet my mom got on the phone with my Aunt Ann that night to tell her how scary it was driving with me. My dad probably cracked some joke about how they’d overpaid for my drivers’ ed classes, way back when. But, hey, what do they want? We got there and back safely, after all. And we had a nice lunch together, too. I think they’re enjoying their imaginary visit.