My parents planned the trip of a lifetime – four weeks in China including the Olympics. I was 14 and not quite sure I wanted to spend an entire month in the same room with them. But off we went early one morning from Pittsburgh to Toronto, then straight on to Hong Kong. Fifteen hours on a plane…in coach! I was the only one who managed to sleep, but I was still exhausted when we arrived. Food, some sightseeing, then more sleep. There was only a twelve hour time difference.
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What a fantastic place! Laser light show set to music every night, the ferries (only 30 cents to ride across to Hong Kong Island!), the crowded street markets full of stuff we didn’t even know we wanted, great food, little old ladies with twig brooms sweeping fallen leaves from the public areas, and factory workers biking to work. Every time I turned my head there was something new and different. It was such a world of contrast. We went to Kowloon Park with our bathing suits, had to figure out how the coin-operated lockers worked, then into the water. I looked around and saw we were the only non-Asians in the pool. This was quite a different experience from home. But we enjoyed ourselves, in spite of the stares we got. But I didn’t know what awaited me in mainland China.
Soon it was off to the airport and the “real” China. We landed in Guilin, and the first hint I had that things were different were the Army men staffing the immigration lines. They were a little intimidating when I walked up with my passport, but I smiled and answered their questions, and off we went. The ride from the airport was an experience. It seems like there are no traffic rules in China – whoever gets through the rugby scrum at intersections first wins, and you kind of pop out the other side. Looking out the van windows at mopeds and bicycles holding entire families, three-wheeled bicycle-carts loaded with everything from plastic water jugs to vegetables, buses with beautiful graphics on the sides that I couldn’t read, and tiny cars all just inches from our vehicle, I realized that this was a whole other world that I had only read about in my geography book. Shops on the first floor, with a room or two upstairs, with garage-type rollup doors open for business. We saw an entire street with shops selling PVC pipe, toilets, doors, etc. – kind of like Home Depot but made up of all different shops. We saw shop after shop selling clothing, shoes, computers, and water, ice cream and snacks, and street vendors with vegetables that I did not recognize and giant peaches as big as a softball. All of the shops were busy all day and up till 11PM when we would go to bed. I have never seen such activity.
What I really wasn’t prepared for was people staring at me. And teenagers slyly taking my picture with their cell phones, like I was some sort of celebrity but maybe they weren’t really sure so they took my picture anyway. When we asked our guide, he said that perhaps they were on vacation from some other part of China where westerners never travel, so we were unusual. Until then, I had never thought of myself as unusual to anyone else. The trip changed my life by helping me choose my future career in international business. I want to live in China and know the people who live beside me.
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