As I boarded the plane for Bejing, China, all I could think of was the summer that I was leaving behind. To me, a proud California native, my sparse memories of the few visits from my childhood suggested nothing more than a crowded, foreign country with too many smokers, albeit nice relatives who liked to give me food and money. This time, my visit to China would be different in that I would be trapped there for two whole months.
Seeing the country through older eyes made all the difference. Beijing, with its sky-high buildings and awe-inspiring traffic jams, was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was humid, the type of humid that turns skin into adhesive tape. Armies of cicadas screeched their deafening songs of fury from their shelters in the trees. One had to constantly be vigilant for the ubiquitous bikers, zooming past with no more warning than a tinkle of their bells. I saw things that seemed ridiculously, even beautifully, out of place in such an urban city, like farmers selling their succulent fruits on street corners with no other way of marketing than good old-fashioned yelling. I saw elderly people who, instead of wasting away in a retirement home, practiced tae-kwon-do and exercised in one of the many public fitness gyms, which to me looked like adult playgrounds. The watermelon was the tastiest I had every eaten, even if I had to pause every once in a while to spit out a few black seeds. This small inconvenience was a gene I was willing to leave unaltered in order to get such a ripe burst of flavor.
Mount Jiuhua, which translates into “Nine Divine Mountains,” is a place of Buddhist worship located in Anhui Province. At the apex of each towering mountain sits a Buddhist temple. It is a popular destination for anyone seeking good fortune, such as newlyweds or new parents. Since I am neither Buddhist nor planning on having children anytime soon, I climbed the thousands of stairs and kow-towed through the first few temples with ill-humored reluctance. But even through all my grumbling I could see the breathtaking beauty of the soaring, leafy mountains wreathed in soft mist. I learned how to bow to the north, south, east, and west while holding my smoking incense stick between my palms. I observed monks chanting and praying in temples, which left me with goose-bumps. After sweating through countless miles of mountain-climbing, something extraordinary happened. While I was near the top of one of the highest mountains, a diminutive wild monkey appeared in the branches of a tree. I stared into his wise eyes, cooing quietly with bated breath while he stared boldly back. There was another fat, wrinkly, and lazy-looking one that came close enough for me to touch. Although I suffered through exhaustion and unbearable heat, Mount Jiuhua had an undoubtedly mystical aura that left me certain it really was blessed by something divine.
I left China with a sadness that I would have previously thought unimaginable. I loved it for its rich history, its refreshing nuances, and its majestic beauty. Experiencing the culture in such a way taught me that there is more to being Chinese than just eating Chinese food. I had never felt such appreciation for my heritage before, and the knowledge that this was the country that I could trace my roots to left me with an empowered feeling that will never be displaced. I am a Chinese-American, and I can now say that I am equally proud of both sides of me.
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