My eyes bolted open. A mere foot away stood a masked, black-haired woman holding a gun point-blank at my forehead. My heart leapt, but not because the click of the trigger would send a bullet barreling through my brain, but because it could send me and my roommates into a locked, hospital room for two weeks or more. The Chinese nurse was holding a fever gun. With an almost reluctant nod of her head and a muffled “hao,” I knew my temperature was below the 37.2 degree Celsius range. I was safe for the next eight hours.
The daily hunt for swine flu victims was the scariest aspect of my three week trip to China last summer. Although the trip with the Portland ChinaBridge Program was to show American youth a glimpse of Chinese culture and strengthen ties between the two countries, for me it was also a journey back to the land of my childhood.
As the nurse moved on to zap my roommate, I tried to remember the China of my past. There were the piles of pigs, fat oozing over and suffocating one another, as they were driven to market. The hoards of bicycles dodging through lanes of oncoming traffic, with ducks dangling by their feet, attached at the back. And, there was the first time my mom cussed — when the taxi driver thought it would be a great idea to back up on the highway after missing the exit. However, during this trip, I quickly learned that by living in a foreigners’ compound in Shanghai, was hardly scratching the surface of truly living in China.
After passing the fever test, we ventured out onto the streets of China. On the sides of the streets, packed with mopeds and bicycles, people of all different ages stood wearing the same sad expression of hunger. They grabbed our arms, clothes and hair; begging us to buy their feather dusters, postcards and rain ponchos. My friends frantically flailed their arms, convinced that a mere touch would send us all into quarantine. As they whipped out their hand sanitizer, I gently pushed away the gadgets and slipped the pleading families my spare change.
While these unromantic facts signaled to my friends that Chinese culture was somehow inferior, to me they only proved that my past impressions were highly inaccurate.
One moment summed it up best. We were in a mall in Henan Province and there was a great commotion as we all lined up outside the bathrooms; excited that they had Western toilets. Suddenly, in the midst of our celebration, we heard a Chinese woman cursing loudly in Chinese: “How am I expected to use these damn Western toilets?” she yelled. At that moment, I realized that for this woman the squat toilets were the norm and the western toilet seats I so treasured, were inconveniences and certainly not symbols of Western superiority.
Everything came into focus. I could never label American nor Chinese culture as better, because they were two distinct entities that could not be compared. Each represented half of my heritage, and like me, both had their imperfections, but I was grateful for the chance to experience them.
Eight hours later, the nurse barged through the door yet again. Her eyes were now scouring the dorm room wildly as if the H1N1 virus was somehow smuggled within the pillows, crawling beneath the bed sheets, and in that instant she seemed much less threatening. The fever gun she held was no longer a frightening weapon but a simple thermometer. I locked eyes with my Chinese apprehender, and I smiled.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.