Monday, March 28, 2011

Longest Day of My Life

Thursday, March 24 will go on record as the longest day of my life. It started for me around 8 a.m. in Beijing and ended as my head hit the pillow 28 hours later at midnight in the Eastern time zone. In the days since then, I've fended off a cold and jet lag, but am glad to finally have the opportunity to blog about my experiences in China.

China has long been one of those places which I've simultaneously wanted to visit and been afraid to visit. Since coming back, I've told people that I was glad to go, but am glad to be home. Part of my anticipation of the entire China experience hinged on China being a significant (and growing) part of the world economy. It's impossible to ignore an economy that both accounts for a significant number of sales worldwide and is growing at a faster rate than most other countries. To not have any clue about China is akin to an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

At the same time, I had been told to prepare to be shocked. All sorts of stories and tales prefaced my China visit, and the scariest fear of all was that I didn't speak a lick of Mandarin - nor could I piece together meaning from root words and recognition of letter combinations.

As it turns out, China was as shocking as it was familiar. People were manually digging holes as we walked out of the very modern subway. Everywhere there are signs of growth and a modern economy amongst remnants of an agrarian society. I got the impression from "talking" with a gentleman on the train that most Chinese people work in factories. (I use "talking" because I didn't speak Mandarin and he didn't speak much English, but through a combination of charades and the phrase book in my Lonely Planet guide and his limited English, we managed to communicate. Also, it seems obvious that everyone works in factories, given that pretty much everything is made in China these days, but it's not something that you see if you don't visit a factory.) At the same time, the Chinese people that we really hung out with were those we'd come to know through various MBA programs and exchanges, so they all had corporate marketing jobs.

What surprised me is that it wasn't the language barrier or cultural barrier that made me eager to leave China. As is the case when I visit countries where I sort of know the language, my Mandarin improved over my time in China, and I'm sure that with more time, that frustration would have gone away. Even though there were many subtle cultural differences (well, and obvious ones!), we grew accustomed to the way things were done and adapted accordingly. It's these subtleties that make travel fun and add a rich texture to visiting new places. If all you are seeking is to see the Great Wall or Forbidden City, there are certainly museums that will accomplish this... travel is about finding a way to be immersed in the culture.

In fact, what made me eager to leave China was the pollution and the cigarette smoke everywhere. The other thing that became wearisome was that even though I love Chinese food, I got tired of ordering primarily off of pictures on a menu. While I am sure that I will eat Chinese food again soon, I was definitely excited about ordering a sandwich after landing in JFK.

All in all, I'm glad that I went to China. I'm glad that a friend had already booked the flight and I wasn't tempted to head off on a tropical vacation or yet another trip to Europe. I'm glad that I went when I did - when there were classmates to meet up with and exchange students to show us around. Most importantly, even as I was there, I saw tremendous signs of growth and worry that the China of today may not be there in the next few years. I remember talking to a lady who moved from China six years ago... when I asked her if she missed it, she said that the China that is now is not the same China she left.

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