Have you ever stood a gathering of people that you could actually call a ‘sea’?
I thought I had. I’ve see Grand Final crowds, performed for ANZAC gatherings at the Shrine of Remembrance, attended the Commonwealth Games, been to Southland on Boxing Day, watched fireworks at New Year’s in the city, marched with thousands down Swanston St. I knew what a ‘sea’ of people meant. I thought. Past tense.
They weren’t a sea of people. Not even really a lake, or a billabong, or even a pond of people. Maybe a small gulf at best. A sea is one-hundred-and-fifteen-thousand people pressed (shoulder blade to back, to midriff, to backpack, to flank) into Tiananmen Square, at nine minutes past six in the morning, waiting for the flag to be raised – at 0610hrs precisely – on National Day.
Some of our intrepid band had walked from the Peking University Campus, starting out at half past one and walking four hours into the cordoned city centre. Other had severe menstrual cramps and caught taxis, arriving with two and a half hours to spare. About the time of a feature length movie of standing and pressing and surging and crushing and covertly leaning on the stranger behind you. Fortuitously, the man in front of me was watching Pirates of the Caribbean III on his phone without speakers. He grudgingly allowed me to peek over his shoulder for the length of the movie.
Shout out to my two crush-companions, Emily and Padma, to whom I owe the support of several ‘break sessions’ squatting amongst a forest of legs, and the hilarity of reading the clothes around us. One fashionable woman in a hipster-bucket hat sported the phrase ‘Read an book and the mouth in the spiny bumps’; a middle-aged woman in a red t-shirt with the words ‘DEAD INSIDE’; another cap a few heads forward simply said ‘Vibrate’.
As the National Anthem blared across the square, the sea of humanity became a prairie selfie sticks and phone-clutching hands held aloft. Pigeons were released. The crowd ooh-d and ahh-d and then started to (quite efficiently) disperse.
Thus began ‘Golden Week’ – the national holiday period which combines China’s National Day celebrations and the Moon Festival. This is China’s boom-week for domestic tourism, mooncake* sales and general international students seeking tourist trips to South Korea, Mongolia and (really) North Korea. All of which my fellow dorm-mates pursued this opportunities enthusiastically. So enthusiastically. Such boundless energy and utter bounciness I do not possess.
Me, I stayed in my room, eating Beijing patisseries and instant coffee. I pulled a thirty-six hour writing session and finished the last chapter draft of my thesis. I was ecstatic. And quite possibly medically delirious. Don’t worry. I can feel my fingers again now.
*Mooncakes are a kind of dense pastry often with a salted-egg-yolk centre and also now an essential part of my identity.