I didn’t realize how many preconceived ideas I had. Right now I can’t tell you what they were. I only know that traveling in Beijing surprised me. My last two trips to China were group excursions into the New Territories and Canton from Hong Kong, before the turnover to Chinese rule. All communication with the people had been guarded and guided.
For me, traveling is about connections. Forget the schedules for planes, trains and buses; give me the people. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Friendly eye contact and a nod in a foreign country equal acceptance for me. Everywhere in Beijing there were open or curious faces of all ages. Some met my smile with radiant smiles of their own. People on buses waved. The sound of “Hello” as we walked in the streets and alleys accompanied proud sidelong glances as we bowed and responded “nǐ hǎo”.
And there is so much more. Memories of the Chinese people have changed my view of their country forever.
Our first hotel was in a hudong. Its red lanterns, traditional courtyard and neighborhood teeming with everyday city life held such fascination that we were reluctant to leave. There was constant traffic in the alley where so many carts and bicycles carried produce that we went to explore. We discovered the local marketplace which was so far from a tourist area that we caused a stir wandering among tanks of fish, eels, chickens and pork. As we were contemplating the aromatic teas two women who greeted us in English. They were identical twins: one was a medical doctor and the other a massage therapist. We took photos with the cell phone and exchanged phone numbers and email. Their knowledge of English allowed us to feel like new best friends and help us realize how much we are alike.
Still wandering the back streets near our hostel we met two boys in their early adolescent years. They smiled happily when my daughter-in-law blurted out, “Twins!”
Searching for dinner we entered a neighborhood shop that looked popular. People were crowded around the counter ordering and every table and small bench was filled with people with heads lowered over bowls of noodles. Helpless, we looked at the menu on the wall and walked back out the door. We looked at a restaurant that had pictures of the food but it seemed less authentic and infinitely less appealing. Returning to the shop we crowded to the counter and tried to point. A man took pity on us, indicated his own tray and ordered the same for us. He was kindness personified and the meal was delicious: noodles, spicy cucumbers, a cabbage dish and boiled peanuts.
Exhausted from climbing the hills and stairs of the Summer Palace we were following Suzhou Market Street to the exit. We stopped for noodles (recurring theme) at a stall. The waiter was a bonus. He gave us lessons in Chinese language. He was worried about whether we liked our noodles and was prepared to remove all of the scrambled egg with chopsticks in order to make us happy. A sense of good will emanated from him.
There was the sense of peace surrounding the elderly man who wielded his caligraphy brush with the grace of a dancer. He spoke no English to us other than to offer a “photo” after completing our scroll, yet was so perceptive and intuitive that he gently provided us with an umbrella as we left in the pounding rain.
As we walked through the ancient Hudong area, a woman emerged from an older house carrying a shopping bag. She smiled and greeted us in Chinese. When my granddaughter (who is studying the language here) responded, her face lit up. Chatting happily, she joined us in our walk through the winding alleys. Before she eventually left us for her errand, she directed us to a lovely street with shops, restaurants and strolling pedestrians that could have been in Ashland, Oregon; Seoul, or Antigua.
Everywhere there were children: dark-haired babies peering from the arms of their parents; toddlers with their split-back pants waddling in the alleys, four-year-old girls in sparkling dresses; teens still holding their mothers’ hands but looking over their shoulders at the boys walking by.
At the Temple of Heaven I watched as a young woman lifted a small older woman aloft to help her see inside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. I made a motion as if to sweep the crowds aside for her and we all grinned. A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the same woman holding the arm of an older man who was gesturing to me. I finally saw that he was holding his pinkie finger out to me to show an extended fingernail. He waggled his hand back and forth between us smiling broadly and repeating “old”. He knew what connected us.
China? Italy? Mexico? Korea? Canada?
My daughter-in-law said it best, “It’s good to travel to realize we are all the same.”