My Mandarin Adventure near the Tel Aviv Bus Station
Let’s face it: We all like a little diversity in our lives. No matter how good the croissants, how blue the sky or how cheap the beer, we inevitably desire just a wee bit of change to avoid monotony’s terrifying face peering up at us from our crispy falafel. This past weekend, as I ventured a mere ten-minute bike ride from my front door and into the bustling, clamorous side streets of Israel’s foreign workers hub, I discovered how easy it is to leave Israel from the comfort of my own home.
I’ve been studying Chinese for a year now, and though my fellow classmates and I often practice asinine conversations to one another about the weather and the state of our body weight, I felt it was about time to put my limited Mandarin knowledge to the test. It is a well-known fact that Tel Aviv’s central bus station is the meeting, selling and socializing nucleus of Israel’s vast foreign worker population. Thai, Arabic, Afar and Filipino waft into the air and the aroma of each culture’s local food create a cornucopia of unidentifiable spices. People huddle in groups, sharing stories and picking at various dishes, laughing and sharing stories about their respective lives so far away from home.
I see my friend Joe waving to me from ahead and I pedal to meet him, both of us out of place as we sit perched on our bikes, trying to maneuver our way through the endless colors and blankets filled with second hand shoes, clothes, televisions, sewing machines, books, pictures, and CDs. We had heard of a tiny, nameless Chinese restaurant deep into the swarming boulevard, and as I scanned the tiny shops of traditional Ethiopian clothing, Thai snack food and Nigerian rap music I felt like I was pedaling through Disney World’s ‘It’s a Small World After All.’
If I were to be brutally honest, I would concede that our little Chinese adventure wasn’t exactly the most luxurious getaway.
Eventually, after much navigation and a few too many apologetic “excuse me”s at having accidentally run over or into various laid out objects, Joe points to the left and stops his bike. A tiny room, consisting of two small tables and an endearingly authentic Chinese kitchen, sat open and welcoming for our arrival.
With an enthusiastic “Ni Hao!” and an eyebrow raise from the old Chinese man sprawled on the chair outside, we make our way into the broiling room and roll up our sleeves from some good old fashioned Lo Mein and dumplings.
If I were to be brutally honest, I would concede that our little Chinese adventure wasn’t exactly the most luxurious getaway. The food was mediocre and our waiter painfully shy (or just trying to be polite as we bombarded him with personal questions in our butchered Chinese), but the experience was precisely what I needed to reboot myself in a city that sometimes, just with all things, get old. The walls were covered in scribbled Chinese characters, an old TV blared a dubbed Japanese movie, and unappetizing chunks of dried animal sat piled and neglected in the open kitchen. The table was sticky and oily and the small fan on the wall was little relief from the heat, but for an hour I was reminded of the same cultural exhilaration I’d so cherished while traveling through China.
We promised ourselves to make a date of it, to make sure that every weekend we’d go ‘overseas’, just across the road.
After living in a city for a period of time, our senses eventually close off to the various stimuli around us – we no longer walk in awe, our eyes bolting from new image to new image. We less often search for hole-in-the-wall authenticity, are less inclined to engage ourselves in history and culture as we settle into the normalcy of our day-to-day lives. But for that afternoon, as Joe and I slurped our noodle soup and humoured ourselves with trying to read the characters on the wall, we were the same wide-eyed, fearless travelers that we used to be. By taking ourselves out of the Israel we are familiar with, even for only a short time, we become more alert and perceptive to the vast dissonance of culture existing right under our noses.
We remained there for a little while, having Chinese-English-Hebrew conversations with the old man at the entrance, until eventually the sun started to go down and we headed home. Within five minutes were back in Kansas, and it was as if we had instantly entered into a completely different realm. We promised ourselves to make a date of it, to make sure that every weekend we’d go ‘overseas’, just across the road.
My mini-vacation ended up being so much more than what I originally anticipated, as it reminded me of the elation of newness that we travelers are so desperately addicted to. I vow never again to concede to boredom, or to think that I have to leave Israel in order to achieve that same high of curiosity and cultural knowledge. I just have to open my eyes a little wider, get out of my comfort zone and explore. Just like old times.