Tales from Abroad: China

So I missed the first week of classes to go on a family trip to China. When I tell people this, the most common response I get is “why?” Why did I, the history nerd, want to visit one of the oldest and most culturally rich countries on the planet? Why did I, the college senior in respectable academic standing, opt for a once-in-a-lifetime experience (or if I’m lucky, twice) over yet another syllabus week? Or is the question why did [ITAL]I[ITAL] go? Me: the white girl, all-American and embarrassingly unilingual, with a “chinaboo” kid sister and parents who won a big case this year. Everyone calls travel “eye-opening” and “life-changing,” and I don’t expect to escape all the clichés. But travel is also an exercise in privilege.

While abroad, I try my best to blend. I imagine the worst “American Tourist” stereotype and will myself to embody the opposite. Be polite and respectful. No dumb questions. Pay attention to the tour guide. Never assume that you know better. Heed all “no pictures” signs, especially in places of religious significance. No complaints about people not speaking your language; the average schoolchild here knows more English than you know of Mandarin, you poop. No demands that anything — the food, the weather, even the plane rides — conform to your expectations. Always be flexible. And most of all, never forget: this is not your exotic vacation locale, this is not your cultural zoo. This is you visiting an unfamiliar world filled with people more similar to you than not, learning and exploring and most importantly leaving it again untouched.

Despite my rules, I did not blend in even a little. The curly red hair and pale-as-paper skin earned me open stares almost everywhere my family went. On a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing, I was grabbed — quite literally grabbed — for a selfie by at least six locals. I felt like something of a minor celebrity; it was flattering and bizarre and anxiety inducing all at once. For the first time, my whiteness had granted me “minority” status. But unlike other minorities, my whiteness didn’t put me at risk for harassment or discrimination or oppression; the only bullet I had to dodge was a camera flash.

Tours of Buddhist temples and monasteries left me similarly uncomfortable. I was torn between awe at these places’ beauty and millennia of symbolic meaning, and fear that my very presence was an intrusion on these people’s deeply held religious beliefs. I nearly panicked in front of a 2,000-year-old golden Buddha in a Lhasa temple. Burning yak butter and heady incense permeated my nostrils and made my head swim. Dozens of local people jostled me from every side, single-minded in their determination to pray at one of the holiest sites in the world. I was a foreign obstacle to their blinding faith, and I wanted out. I needed to breathe.

Also, for all that Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian are industrialized, modern cities, I never forgot that I was visiting a distinctly non-democratic country. Chairman Mao gazed serenely out at Tiananmen Square, manned every twenty or so yards by an armed officer. “Big Brother’s” webcam sat innocently on the dashboard of our Lhasa van, ready to report any incendiary things our guide might say. Funnily enough, I was able to open the “OkCupid” app — but the nearest users it picked up were in Bangladesh. And of course, every tour guide smilingly referred to my father as a “businessman,” unaware that his daughter — raging liberal and aspiring revolutionary — was sitting quietly in the backseat.

There were simpler, less fraught moments of angst. I spent an hour tracking down my missing suitcase in Xian. I sat down for five minutes in Beijing and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had more than one less-than-flawless encounter with a squat toilet. And don’t even get me started on Tibet. Lhasa was three days of pounding headaches, total lack of appetite, and the vague feeling that I was floating. Altitude sickness is so real. Incidentally, Lhasa was also the midway point of the trip, right around when all my friends were posting “just got back! let’s get dinner!” messages in the group chat I couldn’t reply to. Holed up in our hotel’s “oxygen lounge” and trapped behind the “Great Firewall” of China, I read through these messages and wished I was back in the ‘Burgh with them. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

There were also simple moments of joy. To anyone looking for a pick-me-up, I wholeheartedly recommend the panda breeding center in Chengdu, or these awesome fried soup dumplings in Shanghai, or the aerial view of mountainous Lhasa after a lung-beating climb. I am bowled over by gratitude that I was privileged enough to do all this. So, I’d like to raise one of those obscenely large bottles of beer my parents received in every restaurant. Three cheers to adventure, to learning experiences, and to embracing the uncomfortable.