I like to watch the beautiful women of Beijing spit on the street.
My journey to get to the capital of China was arduous. I got an hour of sleep on the plane. My first 24 hours here came without closing my eyes. That first evening, a friend insisted on giving me a long walking tour of the city.
Over the next few days, I visited the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, and they were awe-inspiring, like a movie. Crowds and long lines. People like to push and cut in front of you here, it's just the way it is.
I know I'm a quiet person, but it turns out most Chinese people are extremely loud.
I've been running in the mornings. The first morning past Tiananmen Square, and I thought about what happened all those years ago. The second morning up the old shopping street Wangfujing, an old clock tower chiming. The hutong, the old houses in small alleys, are disappearing.
The city is changing, and I wonder where all of this history will go.
People look at me and I wonder what they see. A strange man who's not quite sure where he is or where he belongs at any given time. A wayward soul stumbling toward self-discovery in his parents' homeland.
Beijing is a cosmopolitan city, but one that's a little harsh and cold. I had imagined it to be a gray and drab communist city, and there are sections like that, but it's more like New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong rolled into one.
So full of young hipsters; they could be out of Brooklyn or Paris or Amsterdam. They are all looking into their phones.
And commercialism reigns. Huge gleaming shopping malls with all the high-end stores. A large wealthy elite class with nice clothes and nice cars. Business people doing deals at the hotel.
And yet there are the other faces across the city. The old people playing cards and chess and tile-based games. And the have-nots, the people who have migrated from the rural areas. My friends say the government has been bricking up small, illegal shops as a way to force migrants to leave.
And the hutong. These are the traditional neighborhoods built around small alleyways and courtyards. Many are being torn down. Developers tore down an ancient hutong south of Tiananmen Square and built a shopping district that resembles an ancient hutong.
My friends here say that everything is hard in Beijing, and that's true. It was hard to get around the city. Often hard to get a taxi, even with their equivalent to Uber. Once in a cab, stuck in traffic jams. Or navigating the crowded subway.
One night, I had to stay overnight with my friends, instead of at my hotel, because it was 11:30 and the subway was closed and the streets were empty.
The only time I was yelled at was when I walked out of a restroom at a restaurant and the cleaning lady looked in and accused me of not flushing. She was right, of course, but I wasn't about to walk back in and flush.
I wanted to tell her, "So long, and thanks for all the fish."
I struggle to climb the steps as I walk up the steep slope of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. I gasp for air, and my knees hurt. I should have trained for this on the Stairmaster.
Every few minutes, I stop to take in the view. I study the long spine of the Wall, running far across the forest. I follow the mountains, layered in shades and shadows. I look up toward the watch tower, several hundred steps away, my goal.
Why am I pushing myself so hard? The tour guide warned about overexertion. He's seen young men collapse. I haven't planned this well. I have no water with me. My clothes are soaked with sweat.
Tourists take selfies. Lovers hold hands. Children run up and down, stretching their arms out as if in flight. I capture snatches of conversation, an American talks to his guide about business deals involving Native Americans and casinos.
I want to take all of this in, because the Great Wall is on my bucket list, and it takes my breath away, both figuratively and literally.
I am reaching my limit – hitting the Wall – in more ways than one. I am afraid of heights, so it's hard for me to look back (down) at where I've come from. So I try to focus on what's ahead of me, taking one step at a time, trying not to think about how I'll get back down.
And physically. Five years ago, I could have climbed these heights without concern. But time has a way of wearing you down. Will I be able to do something like this 10 years from now?
Finally, I reach the watch tower and climb to the top platform. It's taken me an hour of steady hiking. There's a man selling bottles of water at three or four times the usual price, but I have to buy one. There's no way I'm making it back down without hydrating.
Later that evening, I will collapse and sleep for 10 hours. My body will be sore for days.
But for now, I stand on the watch tower and look at the land as if it were a mural surrounding me. And I'm breathing. And I realize I've traveled several thousand miles to get to a place I've wanted to be ever since I was a child.
We've come to Lama Temple to pray, but I don't know what to pray for any more, I do know what to pray for, but I've prayed and cried and prayed for four years for my family, and maybe I've prayed myself out, or come close to it.
Do lamas live here, I ask Xinchao. I imagine llamas, but then return to lamas. Yes, I think they live here, he says. He is my father's former postdoc. He is in Beijing, waiting to get his visa to return to the U.S. so that he can start as a professor on the East Coast.
Xinchao says, are you OK with smelling the smoke? What do you call it? It's called incense, I say. We each pick up a bundle of incense sticks.
He shows me how to take three sticks and light them in a fire, you hold the sticks up and out, you pray, you turn and face north, east, south, west, you leave the sticks standing in something like a censer. You do this at each hall and altar. There are many halls and altars here.
Yonghegong, as it's known here, is said to be the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing. The crowds have come out today, maybe because we are approaching the Chinese National Day. Or maybe they are taking a break from shopping to catch a glimpse of the monks in crimson robes.
My gaze follows a woman who is praying with her mother. She has large serious eyes and long lustrous hair, and as we move from hall to hall, sometimes she pins her hair up, and sometimes she lets her hair spill around her shoulders.
I watch Xinchao as he prays, and I try to emulate him. I am praying to God, not Buddha. Belief has always been something private and personal for me, not something organized or indoctrinated. But I respect what I see around me, and I tread gently.
Inside a pavilion, Xinchao kneels on a low bench and bows and turns his palms upward. For the past two years, when he was a researcher in my father's lab in Illinois, Xinchao was always there for my parents, taking my dad to his medical appointments, buying groceries for my mom, bringing fresh fruit to dinner.
The first time I met Xinchao was close to midnight in my father's hospital room.
At Lama Temple, I hold my incense sticks in front of me and inhale the sweetness. I try to pray. I falter. I think about how far we've come from that hospital room, and how we will someday return to that hospital room.
A woman approached me as I was eating breakfast at the hotel. It was one of those large buffets that you find across Asia. I was eating fried rice, noodles, tofu, spicy Sichuan string beans and an omelette.
She worked at the Grand Cafe. Maybe she had noticed me before, as I grazed there each morning, an awkward man in rumpled clothing who looked Chinese but spoke no Chinese. I hadn't seen her and then suddenly she stood over me as I stared at my fried rice.
She had short dark hair, and she wore a gray suit, and she had a nice smile. She asked me what I was doing in Beijing. On business? I tried to explain I was a tourist, but she didn't understand. Sightseeing, I said. I'm on vacation.
I put two fingers to my eyes and made the gesture of sight. I made my fingers start to walk. Tourism. She asked me where I was from. The U.S., I said. I told her Beijing was a beautiful city.
She asked me if I was alone. I said I was meeting friends, which was true.
I told her where I had walked. The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. The Summer Palace. History, I said. But I don't think she understood. Another employee passed by, and she hesitated. She left me alone to enjoy my fried rice, noodles and omelette.
I contemplated our brief encounter. It's not everyday that an accomplished, attractive woman walks up to me as I eat breakfast. (Maybe my focus is always on my fried rice?) I'm not naive enough to think that my inner qualities had won the day, or that her curiosity traveled beyond the fact that I was a single guy from the West who had enough money to stay at a luxury hotel.
Because I'm a naturally skeptical person, I worried that she might lure me into an alley and knock me on the head and take my passport and money. Or try to become my pen pal for life.
A few minutes later, she came back to the table. I asked for the bill to be charged to my room. She looked up my room number and said, "You are Thomas."
She gave me her business card: Lily Zhang, assistant manager of the Grand Cafe. She let me know that she would go walking with me, if I needed someone to show me around the city.
I read her business card and thanked her profusely. I explained that I was going shopping with friends, and that I was leaving the next day, and I think she understood.
Another time, another place.
I've been trying to write the Beijing massage story. But I've wanted to give it some time, because I'm not sure what to make of it, and also because I'm sensitive to the horrific stories of the monsters in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
As background, for a few years, I've been writing about my massage mishaps during global travel. The Istanbul hamam where I couldn't see where I was going, because the steam was too much for my glasses, and cackling men threw buckets of water in my face. The Russian banya in Jackson Heights where an old man kept smacking me in the head with a branch. The Indian spa where I almost drank the bowl of rose-petaled water that they were going to wash my feet with. The Burmese salon where Buddhists committed violence against my back.
My friend Vidisha says I should write a book, "Around the World in 80 Massages." Go ahead, you are welcome to steal the idea.
Anyway, when I was in Beijing a few weeks ago, I decided to get a massage at my upscale Western hotel. After a long journey from Dallas, I wanted to de-stress and relax, and since the spa was in the hotel, I figured everything would be proper.
The polite, soft-spoken lady guided me to the "Rosemary Room" and asked me to strip and place a small coverlet around my private zone. I lay down and she proceeded to destroy my back and shoulders. She noted that my left shoulder was especially stiff, so I gathered that she was observant and knew what she was doing. OK, so far.
"Strong, soft or medium?" she asked. "I recommend soft for 90 minutes."
"No, thanks, I ordered the 60-minute massage," I said.
She asked me a series of questions as she kneaded my worn-out body. Where are you from? What are you doing in Beijing? How long are you in Beijing? Are you traveling alone? Your face looks Chinese, why don't you speak Chinese?
I tried to remain cheerful and answer all of her questions. I told her my parents had immigrated to the U.S. and as kids we didn't really learn Chinese. But I began to worry a bit, because the conversation was taking away from my focus on relaxing.
About 30 minutes in, she had me turn over and she started to massage my head and chest. Then, a few minutes later, to my surprise, she touched my private zone ever so briefly and asked, "Would you like a massage there?"
Looking back on it, I could have bolted from the room. I could have said something like, "I really do appreciate your business proposition, but I'm just trying to de-stress and relax. I'm not looking for that kind of service, and at any rate I can probably self-serve for free later."
There might have been some cultural misunderstanding, but she seemed to be saying, "Do you want a side of fries with that?" And I wanted to say, "Hands off my french fry."
Instead, I did the nonchalant Tom Huang thing and said, "No, thank you." And we continued on as if nothing had happened. Nothing to see here, keep moving along, folks.
As we left the "Rosemary Room," I noticed there was a clear plastic wrap around her right hand, which remains a mystery to me.
So there was no "happy ending" for me, even though some of my friends wonder whether there actually was and I'm just not saying. Others say the story is anticlimactic, and I can't dispute that.
I hope the Beijing lady had a happy ending, because I tipped her 20 percent, and she seemed ecstatic, and I wanted to tell her, without judgment: The world is a sorrowful place, and I wish we weren't in a situation where you felt you had to do extra stuff like that to make more money, to make a living, to survive.
A few weeks later, I was in Illinois, eating dinner with my parents and some of my father's students, many of whom grew up in China.
Apropos of nothing – I hadn't shared this story – one of the students said, "Beijing has some of the best masseuses in the world. They know all the special points on your body."
I chewed my food slowly.
"Yes," I finally said. "That's what I hear."
(Thomas Huang is assistant managing editor for features and community engagement at The Dallas Morning News.)