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Report From China

Navigation and learning.

January 12, 2014

I am writing from Beijing.

That sentence gives me goose flesh. When I was growing up, on suburban Long Island, a trip to visit my grandparents in Florida was exotic. My parents were conservative both politically and behaviorally, and were somewhat xenophobic. (They grew more adventurous after my father retired, and in fact visited a China in the 1980s, but their travels consisted of organized tours in which a bunch of smug Americans observed quaint natives from a distance.)

We travel as often as we can, but I have to admit this trip panicked me a little. I have never been so far from home, and I have never visited a country in which I didn't speak a word of the language. (I actually do speak one word, nihao (hello), but pretty much everything else runs right out of my head.)

A few days before we came here, we visited our favorite Chinese restaurant and had the staff write down important words and phrases ("vegetarian," "diabetic," "white wine," and so on). That was reassuring. But then, on the flight over, I had trouble with the sound system when I tried to watch a film. I was able to communicate this to the man sitting next to me through pantomime, and he explained the situation to the baffled flight attendant. It wasn't a huge problem, and it was resolved with a lot of good humor, but the incident was a sobering indicator of possible communication gaps.

So, for the first time, we signed up for group tours rather than navigating the city by ourselves. It has been a mixed experience: it's reassuring to have a tour leader to translate and explain what we are seeing, but we miss interacting directly with people from another culture, so whenever possible we break away from the group and explore on our own. We are careful not to wander too far, though, and we always bring our tour leader's phone number in case we run into trouble.

Yesterday our group visited the Great Wall. It was breathtaking, as expected. We split into two sections, one (including Ben) which tackled a more challenging path, and the other, less adventurous, which Bill and I joined. Even so, I had to quit after less than an hour of climbing, because the altitude was dizzying. I pushed myself way past my comfort zone, but at a certain point my entire body was shaking so intensely I was afraid I would lose my footing and tumble down the steep stone stairs.

If I had to pick a theme for this trip so far, it would be "limits"—pushing past perceived ones, and recognizing and accepting real ones.

Tomorrow we will visit the Beijing Zoo and the Olympic Village, and see a Kung fu show. The next day we go on to Shanghai.

Definitely goose flesh.

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Susan O'Doherty

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