By Madonna Hernandez
A semester abroad in Beijing, China had afforded me endless opportunities to place myself in absurd situations.
Somehow my feet were usually involved.
On one unusual day when I was seated on one unusually high top bunk in the dorm room where my friends and I were staying, I decided I would conquer my fear of heights. The room had a pair of bunk beds though there were only three of us in the room. One bunk served as our sanctuary. When one of us needed a break from the other two, we would retreat to the empty top bunk. I usually took my laptop or journal up there. This time, however, when I was ready to return to “reality”, I took a long look at the shiny tile floor as I dangled my feet off the edge of the metal bed.
“I think I’m going to jump.” I was unsure if I was actually going to do it.
“Really? Ok. Do it. ” Karina said, her eyes wide with excitement.
“You think I should? I want to.” I stared at the floor, trying to imagine how I would land.
“Madonna, are you crazy? Don’t do it. Come on.” Karen jumped in the conversation, as she came out of the bathroom.
Karen and Karina are twins. Ironically, they were standing on opposite ends of the room giving me two vastly different opinions. I didn’t know which one I should trust.
“I want to conquer my fear of heights. This is so dumb. I’m just going to jump.” I continued. It was dumb. In fact, it was completely stupid of me to think I would conquer any fear of heights on a bunk bed.
“Don’t do it. Bad idea, Madonna. Bad idea.” Karen, obviously the more level-headed of the two, cautioned me.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” Karina started chanting while pumping her fist in the air.
I stared at the floor, then at my feet, then at the floor again. I was going to do it.
“Ok. here goes…” I moved my butt gingerly towards the edge of the bed and stared down at the ground some more. I then proceeded to jump down to the hard and shiny white floor. I paused a moment when my feet touched the ground and smiled in accomplishment. For a split second, my eyes made contact with Karen’s (the twin that had told me not to jump.)
Then, the pain hit me.
I collapsed when I realized I could no longer stand on my right foot. I screamed and agonized while grabbing for my foot. I did this for about 20 minutes in between moments of laughter at the absurdity of the situation and glances over at Karen and Karina who both sat in stunned silence on the bed watching me. I had landed at an awkward angle and caused some sort of muscle contusion on my foot. To this day, I remain unsure of what went wrong. Somehow my diagnosis was lost in translation.
By some odd coincidence– some would call it divine intervention– a friend had asked me and the girls to let his Chinese acquaintance spend the night in our room, in our empty bunk. We agreed in advance, not knowing just how much we would need her help. Mei was her name. She was as sweet as could be and spoke shyly in her imperfect English. I wasn’t sure what to do about my foot; I hoped I could sleep it off. Throughout the night it throbbed in pain until I awoke crying at about 5AM unable to withstand it any longer. Something had to be done.
We had to call the ambulance, only none of us spoke Chinese. Thank God for Mei, who had her cell phone and made the call for us in her native tongue. But that was only the beginning. The ambulance got to the room with no problem but the next obstacle was going to be getting me out. I wasn’t able to walk and given my plump size, the emergency workers weren’t going to be able to carry me. Quick thinking led to an idea to wheel me out on a luggage carrier. The medical technicians placed a chair on the luggage carrier. I sat in it. And they wheeled me out. Everyone proceeded to laugh at the sight of the silly American doing something outrageous… including the silly American.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get stranger, we arrived at the hospital. If one could call it a hospital. I would call it a morgue. The hallways were long and dark. The rooms were cold and empty. It looked like a movie set for a horror film. I was wheeled into a room with a doctor whose head was drooped on the desk and seemed to be barely alive. He lifted it when the noise of squeaky wheels (since I had now been placed on another cart not designed to carry humans) made its way into the room. The bags under his eyes were deep. He looked at me and managed a tiny smirk, most likely due to my weight. I was used to the strange looks I received in China because I was bigger than most people there. He looked at my foot and then walked out of the room, leaving me all alone to stare at the bare white walls and desk.
“Karen, Karina, come here!!” I yelled so that my voice echoed throughout the empty hallway. They came in a hurry.
“This place is so creepy.” Karina began
“We should get out of here. “ Karen continued.
“I’m scared. I want to go.” I was feeling completely helpless. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t speak the language. And besides that, my foot was killing me.
They helped wheel me out of the hospital from hell without telling the doctor and I couldn’t have been happier.
We got into a cab that took us to another, larger hospital in a more populated area of Beijing. This second one was bigger but still gloomy, dark and depressing inside. It was the complete opposite of an American hospital’s bright lights and frenetic pace. Here, there was barely any noise. I limped into the hospital while leaning on Karen, Karina and Mei’s shoulders’, and in need of serious help. The Chinese people nearby all stared and laughed at me as I hopped on my cheap, blue flip flops across the slippery floor.
My frustration mounted with each and every hop. So, I picked up the pace.
Then, of course, I fell.
I landed directly on my injured foot and screamed in pain in between tears and bouts of laughter. Immediately after, someone brought me a wheelchair.
I was wheeled into a doctor’s office where Mei did all the talking as I stared at the floor in silence. I felt like a child. The doctor touched my very swollen foot and decided I would need an x-ray. When the x-ray was completed and it was clear that my foot wasn’t actually broken, the doctor concluded that I needed absolutely no more medical attention. He claimed there was nothing wrong with my foot and that it would heal in two days. He gave me a topical liquid (with a picture of a dinosaur on the label) to place over the abnormally puffy areas of my foot, and then sent me on my way. He didn’t even give me crutches to walk on. My foot healed a month and a half later.
A few months after the bunk bed incident when my foot was as healed as could be, I bought a pair of sneakers. My sneakers were bright, pink and very funky. They stuck out like a fat American in a sea of skinny Chinese people. They were cool, they were colorful and they were different.
Karen, Karina another American friend named Adam and I had journeyed to a small town outside of the capital of China with a Chinese bookstore owner we befriended named Laoji. We all met him in our hotel/dorm complex. He was the one who arranged the trip for us. We were going to see his hometown, meet his family and be the guest speakers at his school. We jumped at the opportunity to travel outside of the capital city.
As we drove into the relatively small (by China’s standards) town of 800,000 people, we could already notice the distinct differences between Beijing. The roads were dusty and brown. Streets and houses were run-down. Things weren’t as industrialized. More importantly, we were the only non-Chinese people in sight. It was obvious that Renqiu (the town) wasn’t a typical tourist destination.
“Waiguoren!!” A passenger in a nearby car yelled and pointed at us, as our friend drove us through his hometown.
“Waiguoren?” I asked.
“Foreigner. They are calling you a foreigner.” Laoji answered.
We arrived at a lunch upon our arrival where we were greeted by Laoji’s friends none of whom spoke English, and served with fried larva, whole fish, rice and lots and lots of alcohol.
I didn’t eat.
It’s a sign of respect to drink as much as possible when invited as a guest for dinner. So we drank begrudgingly. At that point I think we would have all preferred eating hamburgers and drinking soda but we were guests in a foreign land. Adam, the only American of the four of us whose Chinese was near fluent, became very friendly with the other men at the table. They told him to drink. And drink he did. Within no time, Adam was completely trashed.
“Adam, you ok?” I asked, as he was seated next to me.
His head proceeded to fall into a plate of tofu.
“Is Adam ok?” I asked out loud.
“It is ok.” Laoji said in his forced, harsh English. “We will leave him in the car while I will take you on a boat ride.”
I didn’t think it was the best idea to leave Adam in a sizzling car on a scorching hot day while he suffered from alcohol induced dehydration, but I couldn’t turn down a ride on a speed boat in China. None of us could. So we left.
When we returned from our boat excursion, we were amused and worried to have found Adam with tofu vomit on his shirt and flies on his nose. He was alive, so we laughed. From there, we were to eat a dinner which included donkey meat then head off for the main event of our day (there’s a reason they don’t sell donkey in neighborhood meat markets). Adam was still drunk.
Once dinner was complete, we thought we were on our way to a local school to watch a performance by a group of elementary school kids. We were wrong.
“So have you practiced your dancing and singing for the show?” Laoji asked.
“What show?” I lifted my tired head from against the car window.
“The show you will be in right now.” He continued. “Remember I told you to sing something?”
I looked at Karen and held back a laugh. We all proceeded to stare at each other for the next minute, not knowing what to do. Laoji had vaguely mentioned something about performing for a few kids. We brushed it off. Never thought twice about it. I placed my head back against the window.
We drove up to the school to the sight of smiles and awe-struck stares. We were exhausted. Adam smelled like alcohol and vomit. Karen and Karina looked dirty since they hadn’t showered. I had slept throughout the car ride so I was a bit grumpy and dazed. They told us we were late so we had to hurriedly make our way in to the auditorium and into the most surreal moment of my life.
We entered into the auditorium single file. It was a suffocating, hot night magnified by the fact that there were over 1,000 people stuffed into an auditorium that could only fit about 700. There was loud music and bright lights coming from the stage. But the moment the doors opened and we walked in, the crowd became deathly silent. Chairs creaked as everyone turned in their seats to watch us while we made our way to the first row, towards our specially assigned seats. We were the honorable dignitaries on hand. I smiled at people and they shyly smiled back. Then the entire audience did something unexpected: they clapped for us. They didn’t just clap politely either. They cheered and squealed. We were the Beatles. I was confused.
We got to our seats where we were presented with bottled water and watched as other performers sang and acted in words that made no sense to us. Then it hit us. We weren’t going to watch a show or just sing a little, we were the main event. When that realization sunk in, it was our turn. We were escorted outside to “rehearse” before we went on; although we weren’t entirely sure for what. As Karen and Karina used the outhouse style bathroom that was our rehearsal room, in the pitch black night I proceeded to step into a pile of shit. My pink sneakers were barely pink anymore. They were wet and one was completely brown. My foot inside was moist and smelly. That moment, of course, was our time to perform.
We nervously headed backstage where we decided that we would sing a forgettable rock song from one of the CDs we had brought with us—Linkin Park’s ‘In the End’. There was an embarrassingly cheesy rap portion of the song that I’d rather forget ever happened. Our performance was dreadful of course. Karina and Karen were both off key. Adam, slowly and walking backwards, made his way off the stage to avoid performing, in the middle of the song. I didn’t know half the words we were singing. And I could see from the corner of my eye that the twins had incorporated some highly embarrassing hand gestures and dance steps to our horrific routine. I couldn’t believe how bad we were. Yet the audience went crazy.
I stepped off the stage unsure of what had just happened. I looked at my pink, now slightly brown sneakers. My feet were wet. I was cold, uncomfortable and drained. I had been on cultural overload all day.
But something happened unbeknownst to me. I had stepped into something.
Not the shit.
I had stepped into a completely different world, into situations that were slightly ridiculous and bizarre but nonetheless completely rewarding. I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going and how I was going to get there, for most of my time in China. But I was sure of one thing; I had stepped into places and situations that I would never forget for the rest of my life.