Condoms are the true Chinese fortune cookies

There are no fortune cookies in China. I spent a bewildered 10 minutes at the conclusion of my first meal in Beijing waiting for that little piece of wisdom enshrined in crunchy deliciousness, only to be informed that the cultural legacy of the fortune cookie does not extend past Ivy Noodle.

Initially I sat crestfallen, lamenting my decision to move halfway around the world to a country deprived of fortune cookies, but my chagrin soon turned to anger. Who was to blame for this heinous deceit? President Levin never warned me about China’s fortune cookie deficit when he touted the Yale-PKU program. My parents never thought to ask if I’d looked into the cookie situation in Beijing. Realizing that there are no fortune cookies in Beijing was like learning there is no Santa Claus — after trekking all the way up to the North Pole and settling down there for the next six months. Needless to say, I was pissed.

Culture shock? Maybe. But thinking about it now, a fortune cookie in those first few days would have been damn useful, and not just because of the “learn Chinese” characters on the back. Hypothetically, fortune cookies are supposed to give you a clue about what is to come or even some advice for the inevitable what is to come. I could definitely have used a clue before coming to Beijing.

To put it bluntly, I had zero idea of what to expect. I had never been to Asia before, and part of Beijing’s allure was its mystery as a place of personally uncharted territory. Discovering the local culture would be part of the adventure. That said, there are definitely a few other things I wish I’d known before coming to China.

For instance, spitting in public is not only socially acceptable here, it’s the social norm. My first day in Beijing I saw a 40-year-old man hack a load of phlegm up onto the sidewalk in front of me and instantly struggled to maintain control of my own gag reflex. I had heard that people in parts of Asia spit, but I always somehow assumed this referred to peasants in more rural regions. Yet here was a man in suit and tie — probably on his lunch break — coughing up snot on an urban street as if it were no big deal.

My question is: Where does all this phlegm come from? Is it the pollution? Is it a product of their diet? Do Chinese people simply have extra phlegm repositories in their bodies that defy the explanations of modern science? I, for one, have never felt the urge to spit phlegm onto the streets of Manhattan, only to chide myself “No, that’s not socially appropriate,” and wistfully muse, “If only I were in Beijing …”

Another tidbit of information I could have used in advance: Everyone in China wants to be my friend. “Everyone” ranges from the merchants at the Silk Market who are anxious to cheat you out of every yuan in your wallet to the PKU students who introduce themselves on the first day of class as being “very excited for the friends we will make in the coming semester” — when was the last time you heard that around a seminar table at Yale?

At first I wondered whether this effusive praise of friendship was just a shtick to glibly welcome Americans into the local culture, but I soon realized that being a foreigner — specifically a white foreigner — is a source of great interest to native Chinese. I have had people publicly gawk at me, surreptitiously snap photos of me, and gesticulate wildly to others nearby, lest they miss the waiguoren strolling down the street.

On one particularly traumatizing occasion, a couple of old women on the subway pulled at my arm hair, temporarily plunging me into a regressive phase of body-image insecurity I thought I’d left behind at age 13. Never before have my pasty skin, five-foot-seven stature and utter inability to speak Chinese been so thoroughly exotic.

But unprecedented celebrity has its pitfalls. My favorite is when locals learn I’m from New York and reply enthusiastically, “Oh, really? I have a friend who lives in Los Angeles, do you know them?” No, I don’t. I’ve never been to L.A. I have no desire to go to L.A. I do, however, have a desire to eat my incredibly non-appetizing chicken claw soup in peace. Thanks.

More information that might have been handy before arriving in Beijing: Condoms are unfathomably difficult to find in China. I know this, of course, because I selflessly went looking on behalf of a friend (you know, one of the many I made in the Silk Market). In a country with 1.3 billion people and a “One Child” policy, you’d think they’d endorse safe sex and sell condoms like candy.

Instead, I went through four different on-campus convenience stores without success, unaware that there is a university rule against sexual relations between students at PKU and that violations of this rule are punishable by expulsion. This, of course, puts “looking for condoms on-campus” somewhere between “snickering during the flag-raising at Tiananmen Square” and “Googling Falun Gong” on the list of good ideas I’ve had since arriving in China.

But the saga didn’t end there. Unabashed in my prophylactic pursuit, I scrutinized every shelf of a fifth shop for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of the store clerks, who finally cornered me in the personal hygiene aisle and asked me what I was looking for. At this precise moment, I had an epiphany: It never occurred to me to look up the Chinese word for “condom” before setting out on this quest.

After a few muddled exchanges, some puzzled looks and a very unfortunate pantomime featuring a tall, skinny shampoo bottle, the clerk’s face lit up with comprehension. He furtively led me across the store to a locked cabinet in the produce aisle filled with more condoms than I could ever possibly use — I mean, filled with a lot of condoms.

There were Chinese-packaged condoms, English-packaged condoms, fruit-flavored condoms, ice cream-flavored condoms and “original-flavored condoms.” While I pondered over my options, a small huddle of store clerks had assembled behind me, anxiously anticipating my selection. Momentarily unnerved by this unwelcome audience, I grabbed the “original flavor” (what does that even mean, anyway?) and bolted for the register, where the cashier smiled knowingly at me and wished me “happy [something-I-didn’t-quite-understand]” in Chinese. The clerk who assisted me then came over and laughed before patting me on the back and walking me to the door, where he waved me off enthusiastically. Apparently, he thought my quest had only just begun.

This was by far my weirdest experience in China — and maybe even in my life — to date.

But more important than condom shopping, hair pulling, phlegm spitting and cookie scavenging was the guidance I received from a fellow Yale student on the first day of the program: “We’re told there will be so many challenges to living in a new country, but it’s very easy to avoid those challenges by gravitating toward your comfort zone.”

In an age of rampant globalization, it’s easy to block out the rush of daily life in China by holing up in Starbucks with an iPod and the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. But where’s the adventure in that? Learning the hard way may create some awkward moments, but they’re also some of the most hilariously memorable moments that are sure to make a semester in China worth the semester away from Yale.

That’s better advice than any cookie could give.

Kate Aitken is trapped in a Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory called the Yale-PKU program. Please send help. Quickly.

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