11 X 38: China Trip!
T (T is for travel…)
Check out this trip (a total trip) to Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai! Wow! I experienced culture shock, anti-culture shock and reverse culture shock all in one trip.
What is the opposite of culture shock? This, I wondered as we walked through the Indigo Mall in Upper East Beijing, must be it. I just flew 13 hours to experience what I have in Houston and Anywhere, USA? Moreover, if all of the US Stores I’m seeing have items largely made in China, why is my friend saying she’d rather wait to purchase items from this mall until she returns home, where the prices would surely be less? I now call this first experience with China my anti-culture shock. Sure, we did experience local Chinese bazaars, markets and street-side vendors, and the immense hospitality of our hosts overwhelmed me further as China’s lure sunk in.
But I’ll never forget that feeling of exiting a capsule to this foreign land and seeing nothing and everything foreign.
During all of my other travels this year, I worked, schooled, and traveled. I had never been on a tour. I made some mistakes at first getting the right mindset, and I was not distracted by work or school or travel accommodations (or internet for that matter). Yet, I have never learned more about life and how the world works than in my time in China.
R (R is for reason…)
I’m not going to lie. I went because I got the tour for $1,000 with ChinaTour.com. But as I quickly learned, I was on this tour to learn completely different lessons. Slowly, I observed that tours have their great and not-so-great sides. Even with the best of intentions, it’s difficult to absorb being taken from one tourist trap to another and somehow feel that the experience is authentic in any way. But I am in a country I have a language barrier in; I literally spoke two words. Hello and thank you.
The patience threshold of dealing with adversarial things vs. the benefit of the price of this tour was never harmed, but it was tested often. Given the speed of my other travel planning this year, I put no effort into researching my China trip since I knew I’d be toured, and this resulted in a 100% dependence on our tour guides and their red flags (well, except for my spontaneous trip to a museum, haha). This was good and bad.
Like my previous travels, a tour brings strangers together. Unlike my previous travels, however, we did not choose each other like instant friends in a tiny hostel in Albania. We were all very different people with very different needs and talents. We do not handle any of the logistics, although I think at times we all felt like we needed to try, or have opinions on how they were actually handled. In the end, there are so many pros and cons to doing a tour, I have no opinion on it overall.
I (I is for inspiration…)
Seeing the Great Wall of China with my own eyes, hiking its uneven steps in the crisp air and a welcome break from the air pollution in Beijing, somehow smoothed the clash of opposites I kept witnessing in Beijing. Beijing has an old city and new city, and I’d like to say that it lives harmoniously with itself, but I didn’t quite see this. I worry for Beijing, but maybe it’s always been like this, dynasty and dynasty, for ever.
Then followed the Forbidden City, across from the legendary Tian Amenn Square. The air pollution was marked at an all time high and we all wore masks, but the guards of the flags, arches and gates, did not. Our last day in Beijing ended with a quiet hour to tour the busy Wangifung Street, where I enjoyed a quiet dinner of broccoli and rice and Sidney, the restaurant server told me how difficult it is to make one’s dreams come true in China.
Speaking of culture shock, I never experienced as much as in the difference between Beijing to Shanghai, and that’s in one country! Everything is different, the climate is a bit lighter in Shanghai, literally, even the air pollution. It’s like reverse culture shock, and Qi, our amazing tour guide, led the way.
Through bonzai gardens, the famous silk factory, boat rides, and markets, she showed us the brilliance of China in stark comparison to the challenges we all faced in Beijing. She was frank about what she loved and hated about China, and even if it was a show, she was so enthusiastic to calm our every worry, nourish our every question, and see to our every need with grace. I learned so much from her. She was the yin to our yang.
Superstition is if you believe it, it will happen. If you don’t, it’s bullshit.
My favorite day was our last day in Shanghai, when Qi gave us a special tour, apparently on her day off. We rode the high-speed Meglav at 430 km/hour, the high-speed elevator to the observation deck of the JinMao tower (where you can see all the way down the middle of the building), and shopped at the mall market.
Oriental Tower. Shanghai.
Well, my “dears” (as Qi would say) shopped, and I spontaneously visited the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum after discovering it was right across the street from the mall we were intended to shop in. Not only was it amazing to see hundreds of happy Chinese children running around experiencing science (with signs in both languages), but a celebration of witnessing how science is universal around the world. I have a surge of energy for my chosen career in science education, and it was the best souvenir I got.
P (P is for people…)
Eventually, many of us made friends. Before, we were strangers together in a foreign land. This was true until the end, but at least we are a little more familiar with it all. I was fortunate enough to watch my friend from Toronto learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube after two days of instruction (I myself took months to learn!). My friend from Minnesota told me all about the Pearl Buck books I need to read, and we all learned from our LA and Colorado friends. My other friend from Dallas inspired me with her calm and kind words no matter what. Her cousin showed me how to play Heads Up with the whole back of the bus, which was sadly our last time together as a full group and I didn’t get to say bye to our friends from Chicago.
It hit me somewhere between Suzhou and Hangzhou. Of course everything gets worse before it gets better, or else it wouldn’t be the end, right? We are strangers in a foreign land, so things will not be smooth, at least at first.
As our graceful guide Qi explained, while on the manmade West Lake gondola tour, “in her country, there is no worst. Just like on the yin and yang symbols, as soon as you think it is the worse, you are past the roundest part of the circle, things can only get better.” And they did.
As we ate together, we shared our own customs of understanding one another in a culture altogether different but now more familiar to each of us. It is always where the magic occurs, right? Maybe this is the way experiencing China is supposed to be done.
I truly believe that all people truly raise above their differences. And they did.
We were on our own when we got to the airport. No red flag to follow. Still in a pack mentality, we Houston folks tended to stick together through the airports, although we never would have done that before. We will all go back to our lives, wherever they are, and tell stories about our experiences. Maybe some of us will remain friends. We will likely forget most people’s names (if we even learned them all to begin with), although I doubt any of us will ever forget Qi. If we could be hosted by Qi again, I think we would all follow her and her red flag wherever she wants to take us.
For seven days, I didn’t have to think. In fact, because of the limited internet and my own personal technology fails, I did not work or do homework. Other than a true holiday in Mexico, it is the first time this year that I did not work and go to school while traveling. It’s a good thing, now that I think about it. China’s intensity and the many lessons I learned there required my undivided attention.
(c) 2015 Jess Rowell