As a five-year-old, I remember sitting on the salty shore and contemplating whether or not my friends could have been right when they told me that if I shoveled long and hard, I would hit China. Now, I have hollowed out some pretty great holes in my life, and not once has my shovel hit anything larger than a pesky sand crab-or fifty. No red and gold oriental designs or fanged New Year’s dragons unveiled themselves to me on any of my digging escapades. It is funny to think about, though; why would our young minds pick China as our digging destination? I suppose China has just always been that seemingly unreachable, far away land. China, with its population peeking over one billion and its intricate, esteemed history, was a place we American children could only journey to by way of our imaginations. In many children’s minds, it has been one of the most foreign and unreachable places across the sea, so naturally, we would peg it as a target on our hole-scooping adventures.
â–º honorable mention 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
As I began to sprout up and out of my imaginative innocence, leaving my dollies to take care of themselves and my Disney princesses to twirl on without their number one fan, my curiosity for the world beyond me continued to thrive. So, last spring when my friend Madeleine begged me to come visit her and her host family in Beijing (she lived there for nine months with a Chinese family), I endured no indecision or qualms about the lengthy venture. After all, I had been trying to merely get a glimpse of the place my whole life.
Upon my arrival, I found that even once I hit the country’s land, digging, although of a different sort, was still necessary. From the moment I landed at Beijing Capital International Airport, I could feel the people’s sense of honor tidying the air around them. The businessmen on the shuttle stood with their arms at precise right angles as the motion threated to shake them free but never did. The stewardess gave me a controlled line of a smile and motioned with her with her long-fingered hands when I asked her how to reach the exit. The children, with their round moon faces, held their mothers’ hands as they scurried through the terminal. Everyone was polite and composed, aware of what parts of themselves they were sharing with the world.
Coming from Los Angeles, where decorum and composure are replaced by complete freedom of expression, I thought this behavior was sort of refreshing but still missed the personal warmth of home. Then, as I stepped out into the smoggy city and could barely make out a sun in the gray sky, Madeleine’s Chinese father caught me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “Helloo, Lauren! We are sooo happy you came!” In the stretching city of respect and poise, I had found my niche. I already felt as if I were an integral member of his abnormally large family of five (six, including Madeleine and seven, including me).
In my wondering and discovering as a child, I learned that China was the country that only let its families have one baby. In my young mind, this fact was a sorrowful one, as I have two younger brothers, but I didn’t see the one-child policy as something truly distressing until I knew the pain of its implications first hand. Madeleine’s host family was of a rare breed. Not just two, but three children were members of the Chu family. When Mrs. Chu was in labor with her second child, the hospital down the road scarcely allowed her to give birth to Moses, and Michael, her third, had to be delivered at home without any medical assistance. These two warrior boys were feisty even at the tender ages of eight and five, but I looked at them in heartache. I knew that their being second and third children would cause them many hardships as men. Applying for steady jobs, gaining raises, acquiring social insurance, and even making friends was already destined to be many times more difficult for these two, and they had not even blown out ten candles on a birthday cake yet.
At first, I saw Mrs. Chu as someone to be blamed. Her young ones were growing in a world that did not accept them or have any promises for them. How could she allow that? I wondered through her house, gazing at the piles of blocks on the floor, the white board scattered with American and Chinese characters, and the wok piled with wholesome greens and browns. I drifted into the living room and saw Mr. Chu piling up story blocks with pictures of an octopus, magician’s hat, shell, and pen as he related them all together in some whimsical way. I drew in the sight of three joyous faces laughing at their father, who clearly shared his love with them in every way his honor allowed. I had a sudden change of heart. The Chus were people I could admire. Their government didn’t recognize nearly half of their family, but even in their “non-existence,” they were growing, nurturing each other, and doing much more than the mere “getting by” that I had seen so many do in America.
On my last day, we awoke in a haze, but not a soothing or softening one. The Beijing sky was so corrupted with a yearning for Westernization that not even a commercial jet or high-rise could be made out in the ashen blue thickness. Seeking room to breathe, the three Chu children, Madeleine, and I sauntered down to a nearby park. Every mother-and-daughter (or son) duo from the community gave the Chus a quick wink and “Ni hao” as the youngsters conquered the sandbox, digging away.
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