Coming home from China is a curious experience. While it’s nice to be back in the comfort of home (especially when home doesn’t involve 90% humidity or daily hunts for bottled water), I feel a bit deflated. Some of that let-down can surely be attributed to the fact that all of the adrenaline of the trip has worn off, and what is left is just a jet-lagged body that doesn’t know where it is. But it’s not only that. My spirit is also struggling to understand the why. As in, why is it here when it was so captivated there?
With one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, China offers a rich tapestry of historical sites, culinary experiences, and artistic encounters. You can’t help but love the array of dumplings, feel amazed running your hand along the Great Wall, or say “oooh” as you watch a modern rendition of a literary classic (I’m looking at you, “Everlasting Sorrow” opera). If the Glowing Clouds and Holyland Archway at the Summer Palace doesn’t take your breath away, that’s not on China, it must just be you.
Past glories aside, China also impresses with its massive population and rapid development. It’s not without its challenges, but when you look across the horizon and see hundreds of cranes, you know you are in a place where something is happening. And regardless of how you feel about politics and regardless of how this week’s stock market news plays out, it is truly astounding to behold a billion plus people and manic construction against the backdrop of historical splendor and upheaval.
We were only there for two weeks, and I’m certainly not an expert. I awkwardly made my best attempt at Mandarin, with some success. I tried negotiating with street vendors, with some success. I appeared in a fair number of other people’s photos – most unintentionally but many by request, I suppose as proof to their friends back home that they saw a big-nosed foreigner IN REAL LIFE. I tried to keep the dynasties straight, I tried to be an appreciative guest, and I even tried the chicken feet. But while I’m left with a tremendous kaleidoscope of impressions, they are only my first impressions, all the same.
And those impressions are enough to leave me dizzy.
I saw an older woman dressed in traditional clothing, holding a personal tape recorder and singing opera to no one in particular. And a little boy watching appreciatively before he joined in.
I saw kids sitting on luggage carriers at the airport, eating corn cobs.
I saw lots of people on their phones. Playing games, texting, yelling, watching shows, and taking photos.
I saw parents comfort children by holding them on their lap, stroking their faces, and just generally offering physical affection, even though to me it seemed way too hot for all that.
I saw spitting. A lot of spitting.
I saw men roll up their shirts and pat their bellies. Apparently both this and the previous point are considered healthy.
I saw writhing scorpions on sticks, waiting to be cooked.
I saw life-size clay soldiers that are more than 2,000 years old.
I saw two goats run down an empty street, in front of empty apartment buildings.
I saw old men doing calligraphy with water brushes on the sidewalk.
I saw children as young as one and a half or two push themselves on little scooters, rather than sitting passively in giant strollers.
I saw street vendors chopping watermelons and handing them to weary passerby.
I saw storefronts that didn’t have any flooring or shelving, where goods were simply stacked up against the wall.
I saw malls where everything seemed to be plated in gold, and where koi swam in the fountains.
I saw old folks play cards and chess, with hooting and hollering and cheering and backslapping. And spitting.
I saw people walk out into the middle of the street and stand perfectly still, waiting for traffic to ease up.
I saw entire families sharing motorbikes, with dad driving, mom in the back, and child standing where dad’s feet were meant to go. Sometimes there was also a grandma, crates, shopping sacks, or all of the above. And quite often, the little kid was adorably eating a peach. Or corn.
I saw people indicate with their body language that they intended to get off at the next subway stop, and without much talking, eye contact, or persuasion, most passengers slightly adjusted their own stance to let them out.
I heard “Let it Go” playing at the Olympic Water Cube.
I saw Chinese tourists perplexedly try to figure out the Beijing subway. Just like domestic tourists in every country.
I saw little kids wearing pants with slits in them (so their bottoms were hanging out) traipsing through the meticulously manicured gardens along Tiananmen Square under the eye of the watchful young guards.
I saw people shriek and hide from the rain and thunder during an epic Shanghai downpour.
I saw young guys use selfie sticks under water in a beautifully tiled pool.
I saw Mr. Bean, the cartoon, in Chinese. And ads for Oreos.
I saw women making silk screens and traditional tofu by hand. Not at the same time.
I saw people paddle a gondola along a tributary of the Yangtze, and use skimmers to remove leaves and debris.
I saw people at the hotel make sandwiches with items from the breakfast buffet, and eat them with chopsticks.
I saw older people ask for used water bottles – and patiently wait for you to hand it over, even if you were still drinking.
I saw people make traditional noodles by tossing them in the air and pulling them.
I saw a group of Koreans and accidentally spoke in Chinese to them.
I saw people turn their noses up in disgust when they encountered a Western-style toilet. I was intrigued – and happy to take it.
I saw people taking naps on benches, and when no benches were available, squatting on the ground or sitting on any available ledge. Which wasn’t a bad idea in the heat.
I saw laundry drying on the street and marveled that it’s quite a trust exercise to hang your blanket up on a rope along the sidewalk.
I saw people flying kites on an old Silk Road square while kids tried to break dance to Lady Gaga.
I saw children running away from their parents, having temper tantrums, and just generally being hilarious. Because kids everywhere are both naughty and charming.
I saw people taking selfies in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait – and wondered what he would think of this brave new world.
I saw people sitting on folding chairs in the street, where other people were trying to parallel park.
I saw a big white dog wearing red plastic glasses.
I saw people ask the train attendant to fill up their thermos with boiling water. Because trains conveniently offer boiling water for tea and cups of noodles.
I saw young people with blue and purple hair. I saw old men wearing traditional shoes. I saw a lot of “designer” labels. And I saw a lot of strange English as a fashion statement. Things like “Happy Day So Chic Park Lovely Kitty.”
I saw incredible kindness as the hosts for my husband’s program made a space for us, guided us, kept us safe, and made us feel like a part of their community.
I saw more than I could possibly write down, more than I could possibly keep track of, and more than I could ever have imagined. My heart and my mind are dizzy from an adventure that opened my eyes to another culture.
And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to go back.
China, I’m hooked.