I can hear the questions now. "So Dave, why China? Why did you visit the world's most populous country? Aren't there enough people there already?" Well, to answer these questions, we must go back to the Fall of 1999. As I began my graduate studies at the University of Maryland, I became friends with a Chinese student named Tiebing. One day, Tiebing said to me, and I quote, "You should visit China." And so the adventure began ...
This past summer presented the perfect opportunity to visit China. Already being in Asia, it was easy to swing a little 12 day layover on my way back from Japan. My friends, Jeff and Isaac, joined me in this excursion. On August 10th, the three of us caught a plane headed for Beijing. Armed with our extensive Chinese vocabulary, consisting of "hello," "thank you," and "dumpling," we were confident that we could survive in this foreign land ... or at least we could find the exit to the airport ... right? Unfortunately, after 12 days of watching planes shuttle down the runway, we were ready to go home. But no! The story doesn't go that way. After all, it's not WHAT you know, it's WHO you know. And thanks to Tiebing and his wife Yufeng, we had a new friend, Haijun, who graciously met us at the airport, escorted us to our hotel, and arranged an extensive itinerary so that we could maximize our time in China.
Our new friends, Haijun and Kathy, were of great help throughout our time in China.
Large Halls, Great Walls, and Other Tourist Attractions:
Being our first trip to China, a significant portion of time was set aside to visit famous landmarks of Chinese civilization. The Great Wall ... The Forbidden City ... The Temple of Heaven ... There was no shortage of historic treasures, overflowing with cultural beauty, picturesque scenery, and pesky women intent on selling you souvenirs.
One of our favorite spots to visit was the famous Tiananmen Square. This lively square in the center of Beijing is, perhaps, the heart of China. The Chinese people seem to be drawn to Tiananmen with a mesmerized affection and deep sense of patriotism. The square itself is surrounded by several points of interest, including Tiananmen Gate and Chairmen Mao's mausoleum. And don't forget the many nearby art exhibits, where they have special deals, just for you, because "you're so clever and handsome."
Also located outside the square is the Great Hall of the People, where all the important government meetings are held. While touring this building, we took a few moments to stop and gaze down upon the massive hall from an upper balcony. A lone distant figure sitting at a table on the center stage seemed to be preparing for an upcoming event. We sat quietly in contemplation, taking in the magnificent silence, until, and I am not making this up, the attendant grabbed a pistol and fired it into the air. Our hearts raced as we scanned the auditorium, fully expecting a violent burst of discharging weapons, followed by guest appearances from Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. But this was no Hollywood movie. We were assured by several onlookers that they were, in fact, "testing" the sound system.
"This wall is great." - Dave climbing the Great Wall.
Jeff, fighting the crowds at the Forbidden City.
Working toward better relations between the U.S. and China.
Dave and a Chinese guard on Tiananmen Square.
During our brief visit, we were also able to break away from the tourist sites and experience other aspects of life in and around Beijing. Hanging out and talking with new friends and acquaintances provided us with invaluable insight into the culture and many lasting memories. Whether we were making dumplings with a Chinese family or visiting local universities with a current student, we enjoyed getting to know the people of Beijing. One highlight was visiting the English Corner, a weekly event where hundreds of young Chinese converge on a small park to hang out with friends and practice English. We became instant celebrities due to our amazing proficiency at spoken English. I knew I had to be good at something ...
One day we decided to venture outside the city limits, to leave Beijing behind and get a glimpse of "real" China. We began by taking the subway to the eastern edge of the city, where we carefully chose a bus ("Hey this one's stopping. Let's get on.") to take us to ... well, to this day, we have no idea where that bus took us. But one thing was for sure: no one spoke English. This experience taught us, among other things, that there are many forms of communication besides comprehensible speech, such as sign language, body gestures, incomprehensible speech, pictographs, and interpretive dance. While faced with the difficult task of ordering lunch, however, we quickly realized that there are no simple body contortions to portray "spicy chicken." Thanks to Jeff's creative genius and hungry stomach, we soon discovered that the best method to ensure an enjoyable lunch experience was to simply roam the restaurant, ordering our meal by pointing at other people's food.
A visit to Tiebing's alma mater, Tsinghua University.
Isaac ordering some typical "street food" on a backroad in Beijing.
Notes and Observations about China:
Our trip to China afforded us many opportunities to experience the culture. Here are a few observations:
The People - Friendships can develop quite quickly in China as the people are very relational and outgoing. The people are also very numerous. And for some strange reason, the people are always on your mind ... perhaps this is because virtually every possible inanimate object and institution is named after "the People" - the People's University, the Great Hall of the People, the People's Hospital, the People's Bank, the People's Champ and the People's Elbow - you name it, and it's the People's.
The Food - Food in China is exceptional. My tastebuds were shedding tears of joy after experiencing such a vast array of incredible dishes. Or maybe it was just the hot pepper. Regardless, the Chinese restaurants in America do a great injustice to the many flavors of authentic Chinese cuisine.
Transportation - The transportation system in China is something worth experiencing. Take, for instance, the roads. The "rules of the road" are quite simple: if you value your life, stay far away from the roads. It's every man for himself amid this "unorganized chaos." Crossing the road on foot, for example, is accomplished via the "Frogger Method." This method, based almost exclusively on the classic video game of the same name, involves walking steadily into the oncoming traffic, stopping occasionally to let vehicles pass by. The truly skilled, however, use a variation of this technique, whereby traffic is ignored altogether as they simply walk forward in confidence, without looking to the left or right. Bikes are also a popular mode of transportation. On several occasions, we had the opportunity to venture the streets of Beijing on bicycle.
Riding bikes on a university campus.
Watch out, Jeff! You're in the Military Forbidden Zone.
Isaac, Dave, and Jeff.
On August 21st, our adventure in China came to a close. It was time to leave our new friends and head back home. After a long and eventful summer abroad, I was ready to return. Upon arrival in Chicago, my heart jumped as I saw the words before me: "Welcome to the United States of America." I knew I was back home. Back to my culture. Back to family. Back to friends. ... Back to my Nissan Maxima. It had been a long time.
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