My tour of China began as most international travel does, with a long flight. From Boston to Toronto to Beijing, we spent nearly twenty-four hours in transit, twenty-four hours of exponentially building anticipation. The international airport in Beijing served as the perfect metaphor for the “new," modern China. It was immense, organized, and frenetic. Amid the sterile halls of our terminal, myriad Chinese bustled with concentrated energy at seemingly superhuman levels. Though the environments through which we traveled would vary from cosmopolitan business districts to famed historic sites to crammed poor neighborhoods, that constant energy level rarely changed.
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That strong and rushing current of frenetic energy filled each and every city we visited. It was alarming and terrifying at first and it grew natural over the course of our two week trip. In Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai, this current swept people along their daily lives: to work, into shops, and through each and every landmark. When I submerged myself into this current, when I melded into the turbulent crowds of pedestrians I felt the most in tune with China. I experienced the country with all my senses: I did not just see the country, but I felt the buildings and people as I navigated by them to get from one destination to another; I heard the invitations of merchants hawking everything under the sun; I smelled the rich, pervasive aromas of street food; I tasted the sweet juices of local fruits, bought from local cafés. The feeling of being swept up in the currents of China, the feeling of being a foreigner in an exotic land, and the feeling of existing in an unimaginable, teeming sea of human life are beyond compare, invaluable.
There were times, however, when we escaped from the currents. There are places in China where the effects of time and progress acquiesce to the culture and tradition of a people who existed for over four thousand years. We had the great fortune to visit some of these places as well. The most memorable of these, perhaps the most memorable part of the whole trip, was the Great Wall. The Great Wall both physically and metaphorically rises above the rest of China: its fame will always shine as brightly as any modern structure or economic miracle. The steep ramparts of the wall proved a challenge to climb; palpable humidity and a blazing sun bolstered its difficulty. Despite all these obstacles, I strode on, allowing myself to take in a view more majestic and grand than anything I had seen before. Having climbed over a mile of steep wall and treacherous steps and drenched in sweat, I leaned on a parapet and surveyed my surroundings. My initial doubts and concerns over allergies and asthma dissipated. Invigorated and encouraged by my accomplishment, I smiled. The Great Wall had taught me the most valuable lesson I could ever learn about myself: unrestrained by concern and driven by unflappable motivation, I am capable of anything to which I set my mind. From now on, whenever I have doubts or fears, I need only remind myself of my time in China and those fears are vanquished, replaced by a confident smile.
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