A Personal Farewell To China

The Great Wall of China at Badaling by exfordy

The Great Wall of China at Badaling by exfordy

It’s 3:35 AM Monday morning Beijing time, and I’m headed back home today.  This is going to be a loooong day.  The taxi will pick us up at 6:00 AM to take us to the airport for the first leg of our eighteen-hour flight back to Columbus.

We’ve been in Beijing for the last thirty-six hours.  We visited the Forbidden City and the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube Olympic stadiums Saturday, yesterday we took a day-long tour that included a Ming dynasty tomb and the Great Wall.  Met some great people, ate some great food.

Couldn’t really enjoy myself.

It pains me to admit that, but it’s the truth.  This last week in China has been a grind.  Instead of seizing the opportunity of travelling in a foreign land, I’ve been feeling run-down and unable to catch a good night’s sleep.

Yesterday it finally all caught up with me: I’m sick with a low-grade fever.  That’s why I’m up at this ridiculously early hour; I can’t sleep.

This has been a very different trip to China for me.  Each of the past trips was an adventure.  The sights that I saw were so different from my normal experiences, but the people were warm and friendly.  It was challenging and rewarding to travel in this amazing country.

This time has felt different.  I didn’t get to connect with most of the friends I’ve made in previous trips.  I rarely experienced the awe and wonder of discovery that I’ve felt in the past.  There has been a great deal of improvement in the hotels and roads in this country since the last time I visited – China feels gentler somehow – yet I found myself regularly annoyed at little inconveniences and disappointments.

And the more I tried to change my poor attitude, the more entrenched my feelings were.  It felt like time was running out, and I was squandering my opportunity.

Saturday morning I took time to journal in Shanghai, and the root cause of my issues was revealed: I believe this is my last trip to China.  I can’t make that claim with certainty, call it a matter of faith, but in the back of my mind, unspoken up until that point, I’ve viewed this as my final visit here.

And I realized that I needed this bad experience to allow me to let go of my attachment to this country.  My travels to China coincided with a period of profound personal growth, particularly in my faith walk.  I began prayer journalling during my first trip here.  The unfamiliarity of this place opened my heart and mind to different ways of thinking and feeling – it gave me a “beginner’s mind.”

Now that time has come to an end. 

So these last two days have been bittersweet.  I’ll miss the adventure of China, but I’m grateful I was given this understanding.  And I’m also excited knowing that every ending signals the beginning of something new.

Yesterday when we were returning from the Great Wall, I told my friend David about an experience I had on a previous trip to China.  I was travelling with my manager, and we were riding the Star Ferry on a beautiful Honk Kong morning.  An elderly local man dressed immaculately in a two-piece suit sat across from us and started a pleasant conversation.

There was something profound about this gentleman.  He spoke in a friendly, yet compelling way that captured our complete attention.  As we reached the end of the ten-minute ferry ride, he turned to me and said something that has stuck with me ever since:

“You will be very prosperous and live to a-hundred-and-five.”

“It felt like he was telling me the truth, like I could believe him.  Or maybe I just hope he’s right,” I said to David.

“Well, he got the first part right.  You certainly are prosperous,” David replied.

“Me?  Prosperous?  But I don’t have anything in my savings account.”

“Don’t mistake wealth as having a lot of money,” corrected my wise friend.

I’ve received an abundance from China, and I’m grateful for that.  A new phase of the journey is beginning just beyond today’s flight home.  The wealth I’ve received so far will be a benefit in that new phase.

It’s a matter of faith.


Thoughts On The Mountain Pass To Anxi

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong
Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Everyone sees Beauty and the Ugliness that comes into being with it.  Everyone knows Good and the Evil it creates.

High and low.  Hard and easy.  Heavy and light.  Last and first.

The Sage teaches without words.  Sees the duality of the world and knows that the beginning and the ending endlessly follow one another. 

         — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In China, the beautiful sits right next to the ugly, the pleasant next to the disgusting, the divine next to the profane.  Yin and yang exist side by side in this country.

That is a challenge to someone like me.

My attention tends to focus on those things that I judge to be poor or dirty, ugly or wrong.  My desire has been for all to be “good,” and I’ve invested huge amounts of energy imagining the “bad” could be different, or at least be gone.  This was an unconscious habit, at least until Sunday.

The day started with a phone call home to Carol; there was a distance in her voice far greater than the 7000 miles the telephone transmission had travelled.  I was brooding on the ugly parts of our marriage as we began the 2 1/2 hour drive from Xiamen to Anxi.  I reached for my iPod to be alone in a van full of people.  On a silent inspiration, I keyed the “Luv” play-list to feel closer to my distant wife.

The best discoveries are the ones you don’t expect

Never having travelled to Anxi before, I wasn’t prepared for the majestic beauty of the mountains in that region.  At first the mountains thrust up like great green teeth in the distance, visible behind the dirty, tumble-down houses and the muddy, hard-scrabble fields that vied for my attention.  The road snaked along the valley floor and the traffic did its usual crazy dance, honking and weaving to and fro.

But as the music in my ears softened my heart and stilled my thoughts, the road began a steep, winding climb up a long mountain pass.  The hillside thrust skyward to dizzying heights, the slope bordering on cliff-like angles, yet completely covered with trees and lush green vegetation.  Small brooks tumbled in cascades and waterfalls down the steep mountain sides.  Occasionally, a small shrine or temple with colorful, ornate roof tile decorations shaped like dragons or fish sat serenely by the bustling roadside.

And as we travelled higher and higher, I could focus on the beauty and feel great joy and wonder.  At first, I was merely aware of the negative, without allowing it to diminish the positive.  But as time went on, I realized that both belong together.  They co-exist; you can’t have one without the other.

This gave me a new understanding – I can’t really call it respect – for the undesirable that I see here in China.  In a sense, this country is more honest than mine.  The dirty and the ugly exist in America too, but thanks to zoning laws, real estate prices, and a host of other societal controls, we can separate the rich from the poor, the coveted from the undesirable.  We can concentrate them into the ghettos and the fringes of our communities where we never pass and therefore never need to think about them.

And what of the undesirable in my life?  The perfectionist in me wants it all one way, can’t abide the half-empty part of the glass.  But without the lows there can be no highs; too much good is no good at all.

The exotic sights of the mountains mixed with the familiar songs in my ears that day, and set my heart soaring up the steep hillsides.  Even though we were separated by so great a distance, I held Carol close in my thoughts and prayers throughout the day.

I’ve not told her of my change of heart, and it’s doubtful that she’ll ever read this post.  Still, the warmth had returned to her voice in the next day’s phone call.  Asleep in her bed, did she feel me move closer that day?

The winter of our relationship is once again thawing.  Endless, the cycles of life.


Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

It’s Friday morning here in China and we’re nearly half-way through our trip already.  It’s true what Gretchen Rubin noted in her one minute movie, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Yesterday we visited a long-time supplier (at least for China) in their new factory in Jiangmen.  My friend KM works for this company.  He was one of the first people I met on my first trip to China, and we’ve grown close over the course of the past few years.

KM and his family live in Hong Kong, but he spends much of each work week at his company’s pottery factories in southern China.  KM is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese as well as English, and he has a wonderful talent for photography.  Many of the pictures I use to highlight these posts have come from KM’s Picasa account.

When I was travelling more frequently to China, I could always rely on KM.  We spent countless hours together, working at the factories as well as travelling between sites and, of course, eating (most Chinese companies insist on taking you out to a fancy lunch and dinner when you’re visiting them, but that’s another post).

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Over the span of my visits, KM and I grew to respect each other, and out of that respect our friendship grew.  We found many similarities despite our different cultures.  We share many of the same struggles in our work and our home lives.  We both enjoy travelling and hiking.  We’ve even worked for the same company at different times in the past.

On one of my early trips to China, I got very sick with bronchitis and couldn’t continue on my agenda.  KM rearranged my airline reservation and helped to get me to Hong Kong and safely home.  On my last visit, he arranged a hike for us in the mountains of Hong Kong; it was blistering hot and the trail was steep and difficult, but the view was amazing and I loved every minute of it.

We’ve kept in touch over the past year and a half via e-mail, but written words can only communicate so much.  A lot has changed in the past 18 months, and I was really looking forward to catching up with KM yesterday.  Unfortunately, while we were physically together for much of the day, the schedule of the visit and the number of people involved in our meetings prevented us from having anything but superficial conversations.

KM self-portrait

KM self-portrait

I went to sleep last night disappointed with myself for not making more of an effort to connect with my friend.  I was still reflecting on that disappointment at breakfast this morning as David, my friend and coworker who’s visiting China for the first time, was telling me about his experience at the Chinese foot massage.

“Those girls were chatting up a storm all evening, talking about the same things that the girls back home do.  Then the one that was doing my feet said something to me without gesturing or inflection, and I did what she wanted.  Our translator was surprised and asked if I understood what she said, and I told him that after so many years of being married, you just know what a woman’s thinking.”

And then he said, “People really are the same, no matter where you go.”

I’m frequently asked back home if I like to travel to China, and my answer is a guarded “yes”.  There are many pros and cons to a business trip like this, but the final deciding factor, the icing on the cake, is the friends I’ve made here. 

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Everywhere I turn, I find good people here.  Hard-working people, fun-loving people.  They have the same hopes and dreams and worries that we all do.  Yes, there are a few bad people over here who have put melamine in the milk or lead in the toy paint, but then again there are a few bad people back home who made predatory loans that have caused some major economic troubles.

People really are the same, no matter where you go.

And I’m grateful that KM understands, as I do, that our friendship will continue.