I see Beijing before I experience it, from the window of our nonstop flight from Newark. Clusters of tall buildings appear below, in seemingly random and impulsive groupings: six identical apartment buildings here, twelve matching office compounds there, as though the city were an urban-design video game being played for the first time. “Colin,” I whisper to my husband, “it looks like Sim City.”
We are visiting China to see my friend Alison and Colin’s friend Eric, who have both been living and working in Beijing for the past four to five years. I had taken a semester of Chinese history back in high school, but except for a vague recollection of successive dynasties and a picture of the Terracotta Warriors, I know very little about China and am unsure what to expect. Third world chaos? Oriental splendor? Whatever I was expecting, though, it wasn’t matching apartment buildings. I only have so long to contemplate what the buildings will look like from the ground or what they mean for modern China because our landing plane suddenly starts lurching toward the ground and I’m distracted by airsickness.
Head firmly in lap, my stomach somewhere near my tonsils, as we make our bumpy descent into Beijing, I hear the teenage American boy sitting next to me mutter, “I hope this is worth it.” All I can think is “You and me both, kid.”