A flustered stewardess comes on the PA while we’re in Newark. “The officials in Shanghai will come onto the plane and check your temperature.” A sea of hands flew to foreheads as worried parents looked at each other and children. The PA instructed us to leave in the next five minutes if anyone was worried that the 50 people around them were running a fever. Quite a hefty decision. A few masks went on but more common were the accusing eyes scanning fellow passengers. My paradoxal whopping cough (that had been treated) earned me a few dirty looks.
Once we arrived in Shanghai, our group of students, two teachers, and a tour guide made it through the H1N1 temperature testing and were off to Suzhou. The trip was not going according to plan. This was the summer of 2009 and the swine flu threat was a main concern in China, for whom an epidemic would be devastating in both crowded urban areas and poorer rural regions. I was one of fourteen Carrboro High International Academy students who participated in an exchange program with China. My high school has a sister program in Guilin, China, a beautiful river city in southern China. The city of Guilin had banned all foreigners from entering the city within six days of their arrival in China, so the Guilin school arranged for a six-day tour of Shanghai and surrounding areas until the quarantine expired.
We were like a swarm of hungry butterflies released into a greenhouse and told to help themselves. We shopped and toured and ate and riskily explored strange neighborhoods. Although this part of the trip was educational and entertaining, a real change for me was made later, when we met our host families in Guilin.
Despite our training in Chinese customs, we were completely hopeless when it came to social etiquette. We listened to bizarre music, ate the wrong end of the fish, and apologized when it wasn’t necessary. If it hadn’t been for the Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, a total divide would have existed between the Chinese and American students. Travel brought us together with our host students in unexpected ways. Many of us briefly lost our bags and were worried together that we would have to live in the same clothes for eight more days in the sticky, humid climate. Locating our luggage was a moment of relief that everyone could enjoy together.
Upon our return to Guilin, many social barriers had been broken down between the two groups of students. I was received into my student’s home like family; Yang Xu actually called me her sister. They taught me how to make dumplings and served me delicious traditional southern-Chinese meals. I still made clumsy mistakes when it came to etiquette but now they became something to laugh about. Being a guest in their home was full-blown generosity to a level I had never experienced before. I received many gifts and at their insistence the only room with air conditioning.
My trip to China was not just an exploration of Chinese culture, but also a way to create relationships with diverse individuals. After two more swine flu tests, I got onto the American Airlines plane brimming with knowledge, experiences, and emotions. But I knew this wasn’t the end of the exchange. In two months I would get to host Yang Xu in my home and show her my world.
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