I wasn't able to get onto this site (or most western sites) while I was away, so I didn't get to read the helpful and encouraging comments on my previous post until just now. Thanks!
We visited a total of 3 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou) and had important, and very different, experiences in all 3. I won't waste your time regurgitating information that better writers have posted all over the Internet, so here is a somewhat random and idiosyncratic list of things I learned, and haven't read elsewhere:
- Chinese food tastes better in China, at least to me. The vegetables and eggs have a more intense flavor, and even white rice tastes like food, not papier mâché.
- Quail eggs taste like chicken eggs, only more concentrated.
- New York is not such a big deal, global-wise. It is not even a really big city.
- Even so, being a New Yorker made it possible to navigate the streets and subway system of Shanghai with a fair degree of success and confidence, even with extremely rudimentary Chinese language skills.
- Chinese students are taught that the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were Tibetan princes who enslaved the Tibetan people, and that the people are grateful for their liberation by the Chinese.
- Chinese barber poles look like American barber poles except that instead of stripes, they have red and blue checks.
- Even in a country that bills itself as Communist, if you lose your job and can't pay your bills, you can lose your home, and you can be denied health care if you can't pay for it.
- As MKT42 pointed out, the language started to feel less foreign with exposure. We became familiar with the symbols for "China," "Beijing," "Shanghai," "exit," and "bathroom," and learned a few handy phrases. "Boo yao!" ("I don't want it!") was especially useful in communicating to street vendors that I really, seriously did not want to buy a panda t-shirt or a Buddha statuette, as nice as these were.
- With goodwill on both sides, it is actually possible to carry on a conversation using very few words and lots of hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, especially if you are all drinking good beer and laughing a lot.
After a strenuous trip home (around 24 hours total travel time for Bill and me; more for Ben who went on to yet another city to fulfill a recording contract) we agreed that it would be a while before we were prepared to travel again. "A while" turned out out to mean a day or so — we are already floating ideas for the next trip. Stay tuned.