As I stepped onto land for the first time after a seemingly endless flight, my first words were “take me home already.” For a Southern California teen living near the beach, the sheer humidity of mid-August heat in Beijing was overwhelming. My vision was blurred as the air instantly condensed on my glasses. Talk about a hazy situation. Hazy as it was at times, China was no ordinary international trip, but my first encounter with the notion that all people share the same essence.
Honorable Mention 2010 FTF Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
First impressions? Beijing, a contradictory city. An ancient land stands amidst a modern metropolis. It was misty and humid outside on day one when I ferried across the lake at the Summer Palace. As the boat moved, drops of water calmly brushed against pebbles blanketing the lake bed. Even from a distance, ornately painted designs glistened off the curved corners of the palace roof tiles. The same day, I marched through the Forbidden City snapping photos of Ming robes. There, my mom, brother, and myself stood between two slithering bronze dragon statues facing each other and took our “vacation photo,” our family picture we hang on our travel wall at home. Then to modern Tiananmen Square with red and yellow flags soaring above and one giant photo of Mr. Mao Tse Tung. Blast into the future watching the construction of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium from the tour bus. In just one day I went from mud bricks to steel stadiums.
After having adjusted to the blazing daytime heat of the city, my next stop was a moonlit walk along the Great Wall of China. At first step, I quickly learned that the Great Wall is “great” for more than one reason. These were no ordinary steps. They were less like steps and more like mini cliffs. Five steps for my mom and that was enough. After I took twenty steps, I stopped to recover while my brother was sprinting up the wall like it was downhill. Then I continued.
Finally, I stood atop one of the greatest man-made structures created, sweating. Around me, I could feel stillness and mystery, secrets of untold tales lost over time. Like a siren’s song whispering to me, I placed my hands on the risen bricks, and looked over the edge. Me, a 21st century teenager surveying the same winding hills, listening to the same hissing winds as Chinese souls generations ago.
Back at the bottom I passed a stand built of bamboo poles and a thatched roof. There I bought a rectangular, engraved brass plate that said “Justin Has Climbed the Great Wall on 2007/8/23,” in both Chinese and English.
To my surprise, my next experience would bring art alive. On our last full day in Beijing we hiked to the Red Theater to watch Kung Fu fighting, kicking, and flipping. As a black belt myself in Korean Hapkido, I was fascinated to understand the connections between different martial arts styles. After the performance, the actors gathered to speak with audience members, so I asked the only teenage performer “How did you become so skilled and motivated.” Dong Wei hushed “Chen,” which the guide next to me translated as Mandarin for “sincerity or honesty.” Two martial artists standing side by side with polar backgrounds were a testament to the understanding that skillfulness stems from character and integrity as well as practice.
My family and I headed out of the Hotel New Otani the next morning, only now I was hesitant to leave behind so much of a culture I had only begun to discover. Through the lobby, my mom asked if I would miss China. As the sliding doors opened and a morning mist pitter-pattered on my face, I could feel the air condensing on my glasses for the last time. Humorously now, I shouted, “Take me home already.”
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.