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During four years in China, I have had the chance to travel a bit and China and see some interesting things. Not only have I seen many historical sites such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, the home of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong Province, or the city of Xi'an. I've also seen beautiful gardens in Suzhou, Huang Guo Shu waterfall in Guizhou Province, and wonderful beaches in Dalian and Qingdao. I've met many friendly and interesting people all over China, including students in middle schools I visited in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi Province, and Guizhou. Almost all of my experiences were wonderful. Sometimes, though, I had some odd experiences while travelling in China. Let me tell you about some of my strangest memories and the lessons I have learned from them.
My very first time in China was a short trip to Shanghai and Hangzhou. I didn't speak any Chinese at all then, but many friendly people helped me find my way. Two apparently friendly young women in Shanghai, however, were not very helpful! I was looking for a place to eat, and they offered to take me to a restaurant they knew. We went into a noodle restaurant, but we passed by all the people eating, and went into a back room. We ordered some drinks first. However, there was no food, so when I decided to go out, they brought the bill. The drinks cost 2400 yuan! Of course, it was just a trick to take money from a stupid foreigner (me!), but I only had a little money with me. We ended up arguing for an hour and half before I used my English-Chinese phrasebook to say "American Consulate". When they realized I would be telling other people about their dishonest prices, they decided to let me go. LESSON: China has many, many people. Although most are wonderful, there are still a few "bad eggs".
That wasn't a very positive experience, but my second travel experience is truly frozen in my memory. It was during my first trip to Qingdao. I had heard many good things about the city, so I was really looking forward to it. What surprised me most was how many people were swimming in the sea. I really couldn't believe my eyes. After all, this was in January! I was wearing two shirts, a sweater, a heavy winter coat, with a hat and gloves, and I felt cold. The icy wind felt like a knife slicing through my body. But there were people just wearing bathing suits, swimming in the sea, and when they got out, they played beach volleyball. I really envied them, but if I had tried to play volleyball on a day like that, I think my fingers would have fallen off! Like I said before, that image is frozen in my memory! LESSON: Don't complain because your apartment is too cold. Just exercise more and create your own body heat.
Another interesting memory in Shandong Province was my visit to Tai Mountain. So many of my students in Yantai told me I should see Tai mountain, so I was really looking forward to seeing it towering over the city of Tai An. I really wanted to feel its majesty. As soon as I arrived in Tai An, I looked around - to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west - but I couldn't see it. I was told I had to get closer. So I got on a bus to go nearer to Tai Mountain, but I couldn't see it from the bus, either. It was a cloudy day so, no matter how close I got to the mountain, I never could see it! I walked all the way to foot of the mountain, but all I could see was clouds. Still, there were people preparing to climb Tai Mountain. I guess they were hoping to go above the clouds and get a magnificent view from the top. For me, I just know that I was there, but I never saw anything! LESSON: There are many hidden wonders all around us, if only we have patience to wait for the clouds to clear away.
I really enjoyed the old capital of China, Xi'an, especially since the history there contrasts greatly with Yantai where I was staying. However, my visit there did not start well. I have a friend who said his friend has a friend in Xi'an who could help me find a place to stay. I said I didn't need any help, and above all, I did not need anyone to help me find my way around. As an American I like to go around independently, and by this time, I could speak enough Chinese to ask for directions or buy things. But my friend insisted, so I accepted my friend's friend's friend's help. When I arrived in Xi'an, my friend's friend's friend's two friends were there waiting for "us". They expected two people, me and my friend, not just me. And they expected "us" to pay for a guided tour around the city. I spent the first half day in Xi'an trying to convince them that I did not need any help, rather than seeing the city. LESSON: You can trust your friend, and maybe you can trust your friend's friend, but you can't always trust your friend's friend's friend's friends!
After Xi'an, I visited my friend who was teaching in Inner Mongolia. I had two especially strong memories from that trip. The first was really special. We had a big party with my friend and his students, and at the party all of his students sang for me. Mongolian people have some of the most beautiful voices in the world! I was really touched when they came over to my table and sang just for me. Of course, I then had to drink some Chinese liquor - baijiu - too. I got very drunk, very fast! After dinner, we went dancing and karaoke. I was drunk enough to sing an English song for them. It was a wonderful evening! LESSON: We should all sing more often.
My other memory of Inner Mongolia was more odd than anything else. My friend was teaching in a small town in the western part of Inner Mongolia, near the Gobi Desert. We took a ride out into the desert along with my some of my friend's students. It was an amazing feeling - there were no trees, only a few very small plants. There were no houses, not telephone poles, no light poles, nothing! It was so peaceful, in the middle of nowhere. Then, suddenly, in the middle of this intense peace, a telephone rang! The contrast between the peace of the desert and the loud ring was somehow shocking. Of course, the ringing was somebody's mobile phone. LESSON: No matter where you go in today's world, you are never alone!
This article first appeared in English Salon, a magazine for students of English in China, in June, 2005. If you can read Chinese, visit their web site here for more interesting articles.