Orange, blue, red, yellow signs touting the taxi cabs, the restaurants, the money changing stations lined the airport terminal. The air, an acrid, foreign aroma filling my lungs, left me with an indecipherable wonderment at being 7,000 miles from home in the heart of a country I had only read about in the context of Mao, the “Little Red Book,” and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. My Chinese teacher tried to prepare us to encounter a world that in so many ways was so far from home, but riding our little bus through Beijing left me shell-shocked and baffled.
The huge apartment buildings, the towering advertisements, the confusingly hectic driving habits, all of it shockingly bathed in color and giant characters. The first day I was a sailor on land after a months-long voyage — unsteady on my feet, looking for something familiar. I managed to spot a Pizza Hut sign, one for KFC, the Michelin Man, the occasionally baffling English advertisement. At three the next morning, thanks to my constant companion jet lag, I was gazing at the skyscrapers from Beijing’s Foreign Studies University, marveling at the underground walkways and the diversity I, frankly, was not expecting. Chinese hipsters slouching with funky haircuts, riding miniature bikes, laughing on the sidewalks — it answered the question every foreign language teacher I’ve ever had asked — what do teenagers do for fun? It’s the same everywhere, whatever seems fun. Comforted, I slept, ready to awaken and look for the differences.
I found them, in abundance. Walking to the grocery store, I wanted to photograph everything, even the puddles forming next to the sewage grates seemed better, more interesting somehow, than American puddles. Running my hands along fruit with red skin, white flesh and black speckles, the strangely-flavored chips, the cartoon candies; never noticing the disinterested stares of the regular customers wondering how a 5’9, blond girl managed to appear on their grocery run.
I saw the tourist sites, the Summer Palace, the literally breathtaking Great Wall, even the Marco Polo Bridge. I spent innumerable exposures trying to take pictures of our favorite lions, only to realize that each was different, and there was no way to get all of them on film. I concentrated on hearing my teacher’s voice through the curved and nail-less wall at the Temple of Heaven and walked through the Forbidden City, past the numbered golden tiles ready for repair, counting the rows of knobs on the enormous red doors. I climbed the steep inclines of the Great Wall at Badaling and admired the enormous statues of camels, elephants, the lion-like dragons.
But after everything was taken care of on the agenda of must-sees, I remember climbing the stairs into the market to get presents for everyone at home. I opened that door to a different place where everyone was vying for my attention, yelling in English, French, Russian, things I barely recognized. I loved trying to buy a backpack and letting the salesgirls speak English, but responding in only Chinese, gaining a little respect with each question I answered right. After I had bought the bag, I spoke to the girls about where I was from, and I asked them questions. I felt more at home than I had the whole time when I was with my American schoolmates.
I began to feel that in some subtle way, though I was further from home than I had ever been, home was closer than I fathomed possible at first encounter. Everything became both more intriguing and more familiar at the same time. I realized Beijing was another microcosm; the same way every culture makes us realize, through its unique differences, the omnipresent humanity that binds us all together.
Elisabeth Moore of Richmond, Virginia won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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