China: Beyond Expectation
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
I turn around for what seems like the tenth time and see a familiar scene. A Chinese person, smiling brightly holding their camera, asking to take a picture with me. I’m at the top of this portion of the Great Wall, having hiked for 90 minutes, and as far as I can tell I’m the only non-Asian person as far as the eye can see. My skin and hair is so novel, so odd, they want a photo of it. I quickly smile and consent, and we snap a picture together and part ways with a friendly wave. As I descend, I wonder, why IS it there are so few people that look like me at this amazing historic site? Why aren’t there more Americans visiting China?
I traveled back in my mind to a few months earlier and began piecing together one theory. It was July when I scaled the Great Wall, but just as recently as April I wondered if this trip would even happen. I had applied for my visa to China (something I had not had to do when visiting Europe or South America) and the whole process left me a little rattled. Knowing a trade war over tariffs was at hand, that there were growing protests in Hong Kong, and the fact I was a high school history teacher, I projected that maybe this wasn’t the best time to seek a visa to this particular country with an authoritarian government. I actually thought my visa request might be rejected, and a very, very tiny part of me wondered if it was really safe for me to take students there. Imagine my surprise when it took just days to get my approved visa back, and it said I could go, to and from China, as often as I like, for the next TEN YEARS?! China is open for business, plain and simple.
Once in China, we were just delighted by so many experiences, and again our expectations looked
a little silly in retrospect. Sure, one night in a restaurant I flipped through my menu, taken aback to see dishes such as jellyfish, cow tongue and various internal organs being served up, but I
could always find a chicken, beef or pork dish more in alignment with my palate and they were always delicious. In Beijing and Shanghai, the air was not noticeably smoggy and our asthmatics suffered no symptoms. Our hotels were Western styled with comfy beds and every amenity, including two full breakfast buffets - one Chinese, one Western. My phone worked just fine (I had downloaded a VPN- don’t know what that is? I didn’t either. Took me an internet search and about 15 minutes to figure out), as did all my social media accounts. The streets were not overly crowded, as at any time a third of the people are in high rise buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see, and another third are underground using the subway system. While the language is very different, in major cities there are enough English translations on menus and signs that you can navigate with relative ease. When the KFC menu, of all things, tripped me up, a Chinese high school student spent the better part of ten minutes working with me to help me order precisely what I wanted.
What really amazed us, though, were the things we could have never anticipated. The Kung Fu show that showed incredible physical strength and precision, but also helped us understand Buddhist philosophy. The tea ceremony where we fine-tuned our palates to all the different varieties of tea that can tantalize one’s taste buds.The astounding scale and scope of the ancient
terra cotta warriors in Xian, life-sized and numbering more than 13,000 over 36 kilometers. The visual splendor of China is hard to capture, with its bright colors and glowing silks, lush gardens by day and vibrant lights by night. As the Chinese cling to thousands of years of history and seek to preserve and restore ancient architecture, there is also a dizzying embrace of the modern, with endless construction and rapid urbanization and a sharp corresponding improvement in the standard of living, particularly in the cities of Beijing, Xian and Shanghai that we visited. Add to that the diversity of ethnicities and dialects in China, the vastness of the terrain, and the specific economic, political and social forces at work there, and there is no limit to what you can learn and experience during a visit.
I want to go back to China; I want to make sure there are more people that look like me at the top of that Great Wall, experiencing all that China has to offer. My visa is good for ten years - who’s with me??!