Becoming World Citizens – Beijing, Shanghai, China

Becoming World Citizens
Beijing & Shanghai, China

By all accounts, the China trip did not disappoint. From the initial planning to safe arrival back at Reagan, we hit no snags aside from current events � skirting the Iraq war on the way over and SARS virus on the way back. More than a spring break vacation, it felt as if we were on a mission to Beijing and Shanghai. And that mission was, quite simply, to become world citizens in this pivotal new century.

For Ryan Flynn (’03), T.J. Boyland (’04), Ryan Farishian (’05), Robbie Knouse (’06), Robbie’s Aunt Ann, and I, meeting the people was a top priority. We found a kindred spirit in Sheri Yi, president of Culture To Culture International of Fairfax, Virginia, the organization that facilitated our adventure. She arranged visits to a prep school like our own, a martial arts academy, a kindergarten, a recreation center and a nursing home. At all these places we found the door wide open. They seemed as curious as we were.

Some of our times deserve special mention. The acrobatics show we saw made light of the laws of physics. The opera mixed mythology with screeching farce. The wushu school put on a show of hand-to-hand combat right out of Crouching Tiger. The Great Wall stretched overland like an immense dragon. The Children’s Palace brought forth tiny musicians to mimic Mozart. The Forbidden City had 9,000 must-see rooms. The vast concrete slab of Tiananmen Square still echoed from the demonstrations of 1989. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong � what can you say except there he is in a crystal sarcophagus, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, lying down as if taking a nap.

Wonders never ceased. Exotic remedies filled the jars in traditional pharmacies; courtyard houses lined the narrow, crooked lanes; monumental towers touched the crowded sky. And how about those foot massages, with a warm soak first in a mixture of aromatic herbs? Or shopping for pearls at the source: a pearl farm? Shopping for anything, actually – the variety, brand names (were they faux or real?) and deals were astounding. We all had to buy an extra duffle bag to carry it home.

So many highlights flood the mind: the Yu Yuan Gardens, a Ming Dynasty jewel in the heart of the city; the tea ceremony in quiet harmony with the dao; and the reception in the home of a local family, with our hostess stacking 40 fresh-cooked dishes on that lazy Susan!

Language study fascinated us too. We learned to get around and communicate in their economical way. (For example, “Bu yao” means, “No, I don’t want to buy any postcards so please stop following me or I will have to do something that might cause an international incident.”) We even got to the point where we could recognize characters on the billboards (some were easy – da their word for “big,” is a picture of a person with arms extended).

We played badminton in the park with locals (and got crushed), studied calligraphy with little kids and old masters, bargained hard with street vendors, made dumplings from scratch in a grandmother’s kitchen, cruised the mouth of the great river that divides China and burned incense at the Jade Buddha temple.

We were fortunate to have guides who were willing to talk about anything that was on our minds � from the intrigues of Chinese politics to how to get the laundry done. With Charley Sun and Lili Xiao by our side, we really made some sense of it all.

After 11 days in the Middle Kingdom, we came away with the feeling that peace on earth depends on personal exchanges like these. And it’s heartening to know that the Chinese are just as excited about us. As they say: “In America, even the moon is rounder.” With 1.3 billion friends like these, it could be the beginning of a very good century.

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