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.

Maintaining Your Pace

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

It has been a little rough over the past two days.  I lost my stride, got off-pace.  Too much travelling, too many hotel rooms, I set too many priorities for my time here in China.

Too much food.

That’s the theme to this trip so far.  The African man in the seat next to me on the flight over here said those words to the stewardess when she was serving him breakfast.  He opted for a simple meal of toast and fruit; I ate the whole tray-full.

I’ve never even thought those words before, I scolded myself.

Now, nearly two weeks later, I’m tired of too many big meals and too many five star hotels.  My needs are simpler, but my time is not my own.  So you continue to push ahead, take a deep breath and keep moving, hope that you’ll catch your breath a little further down the road.

Finally, this morning, we have a small break: no meetings until noontime.  I took a walk with my friend Dave in the cold morning air.  The sunshine and the exercise set us straight again.  We’ve just a few days left in this big, baffling, incredible country, and we don’t want to squander the opportunity we’ve been given.

The best part of the trip is just beginning.  We don’t want to waste our time regretting things we’ve done and wishing we were on the way home.

Relax.

It’s the same really when I go jogging.  I often catch myself focused on how much further I have to run.  I get tense, and the running becomes more difficult, the aches and pains more intense.

Then I catch myself.  I take a deep breathe and relax my muscles.  And I remind myself that it’s the individual steps that make the run worthwhile, not reaching the distant end point. 

One step at a time.  Maintain your pace.

Enjoy the journey.

Friends

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.

China Revisited

Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province, China

It’s 1:30 AM Thursday morning and I’m up due to jet lag.  Ah, that’s a part of the price you pay to travel to China.

I’m currently located half a world away from where I was when I posted last week.  It has been eighteen months since I last visited China.  Over the past few years, I’ve made several business trips to China; so many in the early years that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here – more than six, less than ten.

Travelling to China is a real yin / yang experience.  It’s very different from home, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. 

For example, on this trip, I resolved to make some additional posts to this blog regarding China and how this current trip is going.  With internet access in my hotel room and extra time on my hands, this would be an opportunity to practice my writing. 

However, I found that I couldn’t log into my WordPress site.  It would accept my password, but would deliver an error message each time I tried to open it as the administrator.  It was two days before I realized my efforts were being blocked by Chinese computer censors. 

While that was a frustration, it forced me to think outside of the box and develop a plan to get over that road block.  It also helped me to appreciate once again all that I have.  It’s easy to get into a rut in the daily routine of your normal life; travelling to a foreign country helps you to see the world through fresh eyes.

That change in perspective is what I like best about travelling to China.  There’s a great deal I want to share about this country, too much for just a single blog post.  Now that I have a work around, I’ll be posting several more times over the next ten days as we continue our trip through China.  Feel free to post your questions, and I’ll do my best to address them in future posts.

It’s good to be back in China.  It’s hard to leave home and family for two weeks, but it’s good to see my Chinese friends again.  As different as countries and cultures can be, I find that there are good people wherever I’m privileged to travel.  That’s the greatest blessing of all.

We’re Going Home

It was late May, 1982 and I was sitting on a wooden bench at a roadside bus stop in a small Italian town.  In my mind, the Beatles’ song “Two Of Us” was playing on repeat loop as I silently watched the traffic lurch and weave, honk and gesture in that aggressive way Italian drivers have perfected.

I was twenty-one at the time and halfway through my seven-month study abroad trip.  This was my third journey into Italy.  My travel partner this time was John Edmund, a fellow exchange student from Alfred University and the valedictorian of our class.  John and I “knew” each other in a small college kind of way, but we weren’t particularly close.

Let’s Visit Uncle Joe

It was John’s fault that we were sitting there waiting for a bus.  John and I had been sharing a room in the international student dormitory for the past month.  As our mid-term holiday approached, John surprised me by asking if I’d travel with him to Italy. 

I remember agreeing with some reluctance.  I had a poor opinion of Italy; I felt it was dirty and coarse.  I preferred the clean and punctual northern-European countries.  Still, I had no better plans for the holiday, and I knew the loneliness of travelling alone.

We had travelled first to Florence, then to Rome, and it had been a good trip so far.  The art, the architecture, the history – I was seeing a better side of Italy.  Even the bustle of the city streets and the volitile way the Italians acted seemed less threatening to me.  I had to admit, it had been a good trip, right up until that morning when John said, “Let’s go visit my great-uncle Joseph.”

“Who?” I asked, my mind still struggling to shake off the last cobwebs of sleep.  Uncle Joe was John’s grandfather’s brother.  He lived in a town not far away from where we were staying in Rome.  John had met Uncle Joe once back when John was a young boy. 

I asked some further questions, alarm rising in the pit of my stomach, and John replied: no, he hadn’t kept contact with Uncle Joe after that visit; no, Uncle Joe didn’t know that John was currently in Europe; yes, he was sure that Uncle Joe would remember him and would love to have us visit.

This did not sound like a good idea to me.  Being self-sufficient and shy to a fault, I was sure that John’s distant relatives would want very little to do with him, and nothing to do with me.  I tried to explain my concerns to John, but my words just weren’t getting through.  The idea of visiting his ancestral home had taken hold on him.  There was no stopping him from going to visit his great-uncle, and I couldn’t keep myself from going along too, as if sucked along in his wake.

Homecoming

We had to take a local train to a small town to catch a bus to his Uncle’s even smaller town.  By the time John led me to the bus stop, I had resigned myself to a painful death by embarrassment.  No doubt I’d burst into flames under the withering stares of a group of Italian strangers as they guarded their home from the unwelcome American stranger.  The final straw came when John read the posted bus schedule and commented that there was only one bus to his Uncle’s village scheduled for that day.

“My mind screamed, “You’ve got no way back to Rome tonight!  Leave!  Now!  Before it’s too late.”

John sat down on the bench to wait for the bus.  Then a strange thing happened: my butt sat down next to John.

This surprised me so much that my thoughts were stunned into silence.  For half a minute, maybe more, all was still in my mind.  Then quietly, that Beatles’ song rose out of my memory, its words half remembered, its melody soothing and calming me.

…Two of us sunday driving/ not arriving/ on our way back home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re going home.

 That song played like a theme song for me as we waited on the bench for the bus.  It played as we rode that bus, watching all the other passengers exit until only the two of us and the driver remained.  The bus climbed up steep mountain roads, weaving between pastures and fields as we drove far out into the countryside.  Finally, our bus turned off the country road and onto a lane made of ancient stone pavers, turning a corner and coming to a stop in a small town plaza circled by a dozen stone houses.

John was out the bus door as soon as it openned.  I made my way off the bus at a more reasonable pace.  By the time I stepped down from the bus, John was already surrounded by two dozen people.  Half the town had turned out to gawk at the strangers from the bus. 

John was valiantly wading through the crowd pointing at a piece of paper he was holding with his great uncle’s name written on it and asking, “Do you know my Uncle Joe?”  No one in the crowd spoke English, not that it mattered that much.  It was all but impossible to hear anybody speaking over the noise and bluster of the gathering crowd.  We were apparently the most excitement that these villagers had seen in a long time.  More doors were opening, more people were joining the fray.

Then, just when all looked lost, a young man not much older than us was hustled into the center of the crowd where we stood.  The crowd grew quieter as he explained that he was attending the university and was studying English.  Then he listened as John explained why we were there. 

It took a couple of tries, he wasn’t used to John’s American accent, but eventually the man’s eyes grew wide, and he turned and spoke to the crowd in Italian.  They roared and cheered.  He turned back to us and explained that yes, Uncle Joe lived in their village.  John was also related to the English speaking man and a good portion of the crowd there in the plaza.

Uncle Joe was the Postmaster.  He was hurried out to the plaza and he greeted both John and I as long-lost family.  It was immediately decided that they would shut down the post office and the town one store early, and prepare a feast for us.  The women in the crowd bustled off to their homes to prepare the meal.  Meanwhile, some of the men and a number of curious boys gave us a grand tour of the town, which dated back to early Roman times.

Soon it was time to eat, and we sat crowded around a long table with at least twenty of John’s relatives.  We had a tasty, traditional Italian meal: pasta as the first course, meat for the second, and wine through out.  What a happy gathering!  We bonded quickly with our new-found family.  By the end of the meal, we were laughing at each others’ jokes, correctly interpreting them through hand gestures and inflection before John’s cousin could interpret.

That visit meant more to me than I could express at the time.  John’s family welcomed a stranger into their home and adopted him as a son.  Years later, their open acceptance stands out clearest of all of my travelling memories.  I couldn’t repay their gift to me, I couldn’t even properly thank them, but I’ll always remember them.  And perhaps it’s not too late to work at taking after my adopted side of the family.