The sweat pours off my forehead, my maroon polo sticking to my skin as I sit in my uncomfortable chair on the airplane, looking mournfully around me as it sets in that for the next 16 hours I will not leave this tiny space. I take in a deep breath, steadying myself. China, I think, China will be worth it.
When I was twelve, I followed in my sister’s footsteps by attending a People to People Student Ambassador program. I took the most convoluted plane ride of my life (Chicago to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Beijing) fought the urge to kiss the ground as we stepped off the plane, and prepared to spend the next seventeen days with a group of junior high students who I barely knew, in a country where I had no idea how to even say “Hello,” in the native language, was the only one with some yen in my pocket, and a completely optimistic attitude. Though it was my first experience leaving home for an extended period of time, the chance to see Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong was too incredible to pass up.
My first impression of the country was that it was hot, extremely hot. The intense jet lag coupled with food deprivation made me extremely tired, unwilling to move, and wanting nothing more than to collapse onto a hotel bed and sleep for three straight days. Instead, I was loaded onto a giant tour bus, and looked out at the city where I would be staying for the next five days. That bus ride, however, was extremely important. We saw just how many people biked around the city, but even without as many cars as there could be the sky was still gray with pollution. There would be a line of beautifully built houses, while just a little ways away sat clusters of shacks that looked like Hoovervilles. The contrast between the rich and the poor was quite dramatic, more than any textbook or guidebook could ever hope to describe.
The culture was amazing, to say the least. From seeing traditional dances, witnessing a formal welcoming ceremony at the wall of Xi’an and receiving a key to the city, seeing the Terra Cotta soldiers, climbing the Great Wall, watching acrobats perform, and eating my weight in watermelon (offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day), the trip was incredible. There is only so much a person can learn from reading a book or seeing pictures of a place; to truly understand, one must visit, to get at least a tip of the iceberg type of view. As a student ambassador, the group mostly went places tourists go. However, we did stay the night in a farming village, which was quite the challenge considering how by that point the other students and I only knew how to say “thank you,” in Mandarin. Watching the daily routine was quite interesting, the lifestyle in rural areas in China is incredibly different from that in America. The People to People group that year learned so much, and had an amazing time doing so.
On the return trip home, all I could think about was how much I wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger and Chicago style pizza, and while the fans on the plane had quite the pathetic stream of air, remembering all my experiences, and talking to my friends in my group about the amazing time we had, reminiscing about the ceremonies and performances we’d watched, made the plane ride back much better.
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