BY STEPHANIE BARBÉ HAMMER
November 11, 2015
Friends – it’s official. I just did some time traveling.
I’m serious. I went back in time this past Saturday, and lived the same day twice.
The first time I experienced last Saturday, my husband and I walked through snow flurries in an ancient neighborhood in Beijing. On our last day in China, we gratefully drank the bottled water in our hotel room and then walked down the many uneven steps to the lobby.
We roamed the slick narrow street, dodging cars and bicycles until we came to one of the few remaining hutongs, a walled compound in this city-within-a-city that has been—at different moments—a private house, a school, a dormitory for actors and a museum. The hutong is an incredible structure; these walled compounds formed the architectural framework of Beijing. Marco Polo saw them, and commented on the splendid organization of the city when he finally made it to China many centuries ago.
We were grateful for the snow in which we walked, despite our concerns about flying out later that day. Why were we so happy about feeling frozen, and possibly delayed in our departure? Because everything you’ve heard about pollution in urban China is true. We saw people wearing masks to help them breathe and we coughed intermittently when we were outside. I took allergy meds to help me cope with the smog and my husband, Larry, who is tougher than me, noticed that his lungs felt heavy.
After looking at the hutong’s museum, we took a taxi to the airport, got on the plane and arrived in Vancouver on that same Saturday. In fact we arrived, several hours before we had departed on that same day.
Larry and I decided to push for home although we were tired. I was so exhausted I actually slept through the Deception Pass Bridge crossing, although this is one of my favorite sights on Whidbey.
But we didn’t sleep well that night. Living the same day twice exacts its price. Your body doesn’t know what the heck time it is.
My body got up at around 3:45 a.m. on Sunday and I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. But I didn’t drink it right away.
In China, the water from faucets is not potable. Everyone needs to boil their water first. I had to remind myself that I could drink the water straight from the tap.
I looked at the glass and thought about how incredibly important clean drinking water is. Then I drank it. It was delicious.
Later, I slid open the sliding doors, walked outside and waited for the sun to rise.
I inhaled deeply.
Here on Whidbey we have made important, good decisions about slow growth development and the protection of our natural resources. I don’t think about this much, until I leave the island and see what kind of shape the rest of the world is in. Yes, on Whidbey we are overrun with deer. But that’s the extent of our over-population problem. Otherwise, most of us Whidbeyites are in pretty good shape, comparatively speaking. We value the beauty of our natural environment, and the rest of the country and our world could learn a thing or two from us, it seems to me.
But I also want to share that China has a quality that is very much worth emulating. All the people we met, or saw, seemed to have a true understanding of what it means to be hospitable. You see, the Chinese people are the most hospitable people we have ever met. People welcomed us, asked us where we were from, and welcomed us some more. At the hutong museum, two young guys asked us if we liked the West Coast, and ran back into their store in order to present us with two bags of candies and some playing cards with photos of the hutong on them. They said they hoped we’d come back.
Here on Whidbey, and in America as well, we could learn to be more welcoming of strangers.
I’m going to work on that one personally.
But first I’m going to have another glass of water.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s debut novel, “The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior,” was published by Urban Farmhouse Press this year. She is also a published poet and she authors scholarly studies and creative writing books. A University of California professor emerita, she teaches at writers’ conferences and associations, dividing her time between Coupeville and Los Angeles. Read more about her work at http://www.stephaniebarbehammer.net.
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