It has been 16 years since I returned to China. In my senior year of college, I applied for a study abroad program and my first choice was Australia, but the program was full. Then I tried to go to Thailand and again no availability. The only program with an opening was in Shanghai, China. With no Chinese language studies, horrible chopsticks skills, and not knowing how to ride a bike, I wondered how I would survive a whole semester. After calming down from the panic, and taking some much-needed chopstick lessons from my Jamaican boyfriend (now husband), I started to ease into the idea of trekking through this massive country. Looking back on the experience now, nothing could have prepared me for my four-month journey, and no one could have told me that my third choice was probably the best first world travel experience of my life. I unexpected fell in love with the country, language, people, and culture. It wasn’t until I returned a few weeks ago after so many years away, that I was reminded of my first love.
September 2001: Three days after arriving in Shanghai and just having recovered from jet lag, I woke up to some horrific news. As I turned up the volume on the TV, I see an airplane crash into the World Trade Center. Initially, I thought it was an accident and then moments later, another plane crashed. It wasn’t until the towers fell that it finally hit me the United States was attacked. By this time, my roommates joined me in the living room, and we were nervously watching the scenes unfold. Here we were miles away from home, shocked about what just happened, and worried about our loved ones as well as our own safety abroad. We even considered another world war and whether we would need to return home. No one in the program was from New York, but we all grieved with our nation for the many lives lost. Our Chinese advisors and professors were very supportive and delayed the start of our program. In fact, many Chinese citizens that we met expressed only sympathy and concern for the U.S. It was definitely a tumultuous time for America and for us living abroad, it was very surreal and felt like an out-of-body experience. I believe that moment impacted my outlook throughout the entire semester – the uncertainty and unknown of the future, the reminder of how short and precious life is, and the need for more humanity in the world. It urged me to live in the moment, enjoy my youth, and fully experience another culture. In the short amount of time that I was there, I was able to pick up basic Chinese, read and write some characters, haggle with street vendors, learn kung-fu, sing at my Chinese language partner’s wedding in Suzhou, eat the best Xinjiang food from ethnic minorities, travel on the Yangtze river before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and visit the Great Wall of China in the middle of winter. Not to mention, meet some of the most amazing people who I still keep in touch with till this day. It was a great time to be young, adventurous, and carefree. It was most definitely a perfect time to fall in love and I did — with one of the oldest civilizations in the world! Don’t get me wrong, China was far from perfect. However, even with all it’s complexities and contradictions, it fully embraced me at a most pivotal time in my life, which is probably why I didn’t quickly return and did not feel compel to for so long. It was a sweet romance – innocent and pure – and after it ran its course, I was happy to let it go.
April 2017: Fast forward sixteen years, my younger sister has been wanting to travel to Asia since we first talked about it in our youth. Because I am planning to start a family soon, there was no better time than now. Also, we found some really cheap flights from Philadelphia, so we booked them and were finally doing it. Initially, I wasn’t too excited because I had been to China before. In fact, I had traveled to Asia quite a bit since that first trip abroad in 2001. Not to mention, I have recently been so wrapped up in work after changing careers, trying to have a baby, and making sense of the 2016 U.S. elections that I guess life had gotten the better of me. I didn’t even tell anyone I was going until the week before my trip. I had taken it for granted. It wasn’t until the 13-hour flight from Toronto to Beijing that the memories started creeping back and the excitement stirred in my heart. Though I lived in Shanghai and only spent a weekend in Beijing, I expected much to have changed, and it surely did.
We landed on an early Monday evening and the cab driver wasn’t able to drop us off in front of our hotel because of some road construction, so we had to lug our suitcases through crazy traffic 50 yards to get to the hotel which was located in the posh shopping district of Wangfujing. My sister asked if we needed to find an alternate route the next day because of the construction, but I told her that knowing how the Chinese were, I doubt it will be there the next morning. One of the most remarkable things I remembered during my time in Shanghai was how fast the Chinese built everything – they could literally build a two-story building in three days. Sure enough, when we returned to that intersection the next day, there was no sign of construction and all the roadwork was complete.
Despite the street and store signs being in Chinese, swarms of people, cars and bikes coming from all directions while crossing the street, Beijing looked no different than any other major city around the world similar to New York or Tokyo. But I knew it wasn’t the same – it smelled different and seemed different. It felt like a different country than what I remembered; the people weren’t staring at foreigners, they spoke and understood some English, and they looked more focused and determined. They weren’t concerned with what others were doing, but everyone seemed like they had a purpose and destination. It wasn’t like the scurrying of Tokyo or the hustle of New York though, but a calming and optimistic sense of busyness. From the streets to the metro, you can feel a collective aura of hope and an urgency to chase the “Chinese dream”. This was confirmed by our tour guide who longed for a much simpler China and the slower pace of her hometown in Inner Mongolia.
The highlight of our trip would probably be the beautiful spring weather. We were most fortunate to have many smog-less days and our guide was even surprised to see beautiful white clouds at the Great Wall and Summer Palace. After visiting Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, we had a delicious lunch with a local family (who had the cutest dog) in the old district also known as the hutong, and were able to enjoy the neighborhood by rickshaw. Towards the end of our trip, we were adventurous enough to venture through Beijing on our own via subway and visited some of the most beautiful temples I have seen throughout my travels in Asia – the Lama Temple and the Temple of Heaven. Despite the beautiful thousand-year old architecture throughout China, I was equally amazed at some newer structures such as the 2008 Olympics Bird’s Nest Stadium, which is quite a magnificent site even by car. We also ate through the streets and food courts of the city, but did not dare to try the exotic baby scorpions on a stick. We enjoyed our nightly walks on Wangfujing street, and green tea ice cream for dessert. Our best meal was probably our last meal at a charming courtyard restaurant in a quiet residential area. We walked quite a bit and even got lost, but was able to find this culinary delight by the Beijing Art Museum. Every dish was fresh, delicious and perfectly flavored. Overall, it was a wonderful trip! Everything went as planned with no major issues, except for a bad hotpot meal, crazy crosswalks, and terrible jet lag. We enjoyed it so much that we kept talking about returning again next year with our retiring parents – which brings me back to my love story.
I had forgotten all the reasons why I fell in love with China so long ago – its complicated and extremely long history, the perseverance and tenacity of its people, and the many gifts that it offers the world. This trip reminded me of that, and the humility and quiet strength of this powerful country which appropriately calls itself the Middle Kingdom. Now that my love for it has matured, I am sure it won’t take another 16 years before I return.