I got to visit China for the first time this past week. JUMP! brought me there for a school program at Keystone Academy in Beijing, but by default I got a taste of the culture and cuisine AND made a quick trip to the Great Wall.
JUMP! School Programs are workshops run on a school’s campus. They are focused on leadership, community, personal development, and global citizenship concepts and skills. Each program has specific outcomes, which we use to develop the flow (schedule) and intentions of our activities. For this program, we were preparing the students with tools they needed to run their new boarding student orientation. My colleagues, Coco, Manuel, Peter, and Mengya were on site with me to lead the workshop. I was the only one on the team that doesn’t speak Chinese fluently. Luckily the students at Keystone speak English, so I wasn’t completely hopeless.
It surprised me how much less common English is in China. I have never traveled to a place where I felt as illiterate and foreign as I did there. Lacking the ability to read, write, or communicate through verbal language was tougher than I predicted. However, it was a wonderful lesson, which increased my capacity for empathy. I like to be self-sufficient, but when I can’t read the menu, understand the signs, or comprehend what another individual is trying to communicate with me, it feels nearly impossible to take care of myself independently. I had no SIM card and WiFi wasn’t easily accessible, so looking up how to say something or how to get somewhere wasn’t an option. This experience was a bit of a bewildering wakeup call for me. One realization of that wakeup call is my reliance on google. When I have questions like: Where is the nearest convenience store/restaurant? What’s the USD conversion for 60 CNY? What’s the word for “xxx”? Where is the nearest bus stop? How much will a taxi cost? I would usually use google or google maps and have the answers within seconds. Disconnecting from it forced me to depend on others to access the information, a process that takes a bit longer with a language barrier. Some people didn’t have the patience to aid my confusion, but many showed me grace.
Coco was especially helpful. She joined me for dinner each night and helped me decide what to order. I trusted her opinion, mostly letting her choose what we should get. We were served heaps of freshly made noodles, cold mixed salads filled with unfamiliar vegetables, sautéed cabbage, and flaky Chinese pastries. Each night our table was full of enough food to feed an entire family. Because it was all so tasty and new, we left each evening with mostly empty dishes and especially full bellies. When we got back to the hotel after dinner on the first night we each spent a couple of hours working before we let our eyes and minds rest.
On Friday evening, we had a deep chat about life on our walk back from dinner, which extended into our time at the hotel. I expressed my biggest worries in making life-decisions. Coco listened, shared her personal experience, and provided invaluable advice. She told me an ancient Chinese story that she used to read when she was younger. In the story a man receives a horse for free. His son became obsessed with riding the horse and ends up falling off and breaking both of his legs. The man was upset about what happened to his son. A few days after the accident, the army arrived to their village, recruiting young men to serve in the war. Because his son’s legs were broken he did not have to join the army and leave his family. Coco explained that the meaning behind the story is that you can never predict the goodness or badness of situations you encounter in life. It demonstrates that worrying about the future is a waste of energy, as it’s so unpredictable. As someone who finds comfort and security in having a plan and knowing my schedule months in advance, finding comfort in the unknown is one of my biggest challenges and growth opportunities. I am working hard at accepting a level of discomfort, knowing that my acceptance provides me with the opportunity to pursue a more interesting life. In working for an organization with a mission to help young people feel inspired, empowered, and engaged by leading them through personal development, I’m also getting my fair share of it.
To celebrate a few successful, jam-packed days at Keystone, our team shared a meal together downtown at a family-style Chinese vegetarian restaurant on Saturday night. The food was delicious, and the evening served as a perfect closing to our time together. We discussed the successes and opportunities for improvement of the program and ended the dinner with a round of appreciations for each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of individuals to work with for on my first JUMP! program.
Coco and Mengya took me for a stroll around a Hutong when we finished dinner. Hutongs are alleys which contain neighborhoods of tightly packed together and connected houses—I was fascinated by these small communities that exist within a gigantic population of 22 million. Hutongs were first constructed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and were developed further during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). Because of their historical significance, all of the buildings are regulated by law to only have one floor. Many of the roofs have beautiful ornamentation, unlike what’s common in construction today.
On our walk, we saw a group of 6 middle aged men and women fighting with each other, many children running around (as I’m sure their parents were trying to get them to sleep), and a group of elderly men with round bellies exposed playing Chinese chess outside. Bikes and small vehicles lined the sides of the tiny streets in the Hutong. There are public toilets every 100 meters or so. Coco told me that many of the houses don’t have toilets in them, so they all use community bathrooms. They looked pretty nice and are cleaned regularly by government employees. I would find it tough leaving the comfort of my bed to walk down the street when nature calls in the middle of the night, but I appreciate the access to toilets! As someone with a small bladder, it’s always a relief to have access to free public toilets.
Exhausted from the day, Coco and I ended the evening in silence as we rode back to the hotel. She was flying home the next morning, and I had a busy day planned with my trip to the Great Wall.
I was determined not to fall into a Great Wall tourist trap. I could have hired a driver for 500 CNY or taken a group tour from central Beijing for about 200 CNY, but I decided to work the system and do it less expensively. I ended up spending a total of 31 CNY on transportation. I love finding budget friendly ways to have cool experiences, even if spending a little more cash would make it less complicated. Mengya helped me figure out which busses to take and stops transfer at. The total travel time took a little over 2 hours each way. But it was so worth it. After taking the first bus to the stop where I needed to make a transfer, I met a guy named Silas from Germany and a couple from Russia who were all trying to get to the Great Wall. We decided to split a taxi between the four of us, which only cost a little more than the bus and significantly cut our travel time. When we arrived I was starving, so I got an egg pancake with a crunchy cracker in the center. The warm pancake with a savory crunch was just what I needed to satisfy my hunger and give me energy to hike around for several hours.
Ready to make a move, I headed over to the ticket counter. It cost 15 CNY for a round trip shuttle to the entrance of the wall where you can take a gondola or make the climb and 45 to enter the area to climb up. I opted for the climbing experience and quickly made a friend, Sandra. She also arrived to the wall alone. She’s studying law at a university in Beijing and her program starts in five days. Her parents encouraged her to leave home early and see some of the greatest sights in Beijing before her demanding classes begin. Her family lives four hours outside of the city. Sandra has never left China, and Beijing is the farthest she’s ever been from home. She’s really close with her family, something we bonded over. She and her brother were both born during the one child policy in China and since her brother is younger, her parents had to pay extra bills when he was born.
About 10 minutes into our walk together, Sandra said to me, “Thank you for giving me the motivation to make it up to the wall. Before you started talking to me, I was considering giving up.” I was so surprised to hear her say that. I don’t think I was able to express the power of those two sentences and what they meant to me, but it served as a beautiful reminder of the value of basic human connection. I didn’t do anything special to serve as her motivator, I just started chatting with her and so we began to climb in sync.
Sandra and I ended up walking up to and along the wall for two and a half hours together. It was such a wonderful and unexpected treat to get to share my time at the Great Wall with someone else. While we walked, we discussed the Chinese-American Commercial War, stories of our families, the history of China, gun policies in the United States, what we each like to do for fun, and our hopes for the future. At one point, she asked me if I wanted to marry a Chinese man, and I laughingly replied “Oh, I am not sure! Maybe, but I am in no hurry to get married.” She told me she has many attractive male friends that she could set me up with. Only a couple hours into meeting her she was already a great wing-woman. Throughout our hike, we stopped to take photos and appreciate the scenery. It’s breathtaking. The mountains surrounding the wall and the vastness of its length were mesmerizing. I understand why it’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Sandra told me that in China, if you make it to the Great Wall then you can be a hero. When we made it back down to the shuttle she reminded me that we now have the potential to be heroes for life.
On the two busses that I took to get back to the hotel, I reflected on my good fortune for getting to travel to China, for working with JUMP!, for seeing the Great Wall, and for meeting Sandra. I also thought about my friends and family back in the U.S. and how much I wish I could share those experiences with them. For me, it’s a nearly constant internal battle between my love for the world and my love for physical closeness to the people I care for most. Sometimes I find it difficult to be so far, but I am enamored by the cultural, political, and historical perspectives and life-lessons that I am getting on a daily basis through being abroad.
Thanks to a quick trip to China, I’m beginning this week with a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude. Wishing the same for all of my friends, near and far!