Arriving very groggy and jet-lagged, my first meal in China was not the famous local dish Shanghai noodles. After getting me set up in my loft-style Airbnb flat, my colleague was wary to recommend getting a bite at any of the local places nearby, “I don’t want you to get sick on your first day!” she protectively declared. I begrudgingly followed her “safe” suggestion, ending up in a bar-restaurant oddly called Le Chalet eating an “Italian” sandwich, however, I was adamant on the Chinese Tiger beer. Despite being filled with young Chinese locals, it felt like I could have been in Paris, New York, Milan… hardly in a “chalet” in what was supposed to be China. My four weeks in Asia were full of surprises, discoveries, but above all, I came away with a clear realization that the world is becoming an increasingly smaller place coupled with a fond appreciation of the differences which still exist. Instead of a regular travelog of my journey, I’d rather share windows of experience via the people I met/observed and what I learnt from them. Who would have guessed it would start with… some Swiss?
One of the dreams of my trip was to go to the Great Wall. My colleague gave me a tip on an excursion which visited a little-visited stretch of the Wall. The departure time of 7:00 am almost discouraged me, luckily I listened to my better judgment; this was worth pulling myself out of bed early for. I made a thermos of green tea for personal fuel and headed down to the meeting point.
Our mixed-bag group of eight piled into the slightly battered minivan and off we inched through the horrible Beijing morning traffic. Little was exchanged between the tired souls of the bus and after a smoggy two hour trek, we’d arrived. No false advertising, we were really and truly at a “secret” part of the Wall. No, we didn’t have to illegally scaled a fence (last thing I’d want is to end up in a Chinese jail!), there was an actual entrance, most people just end up at the touristy section located fifteen minutes earlier.
Our “guide” huffed and puffed with us up to the first tower, recited a few lines about its history and told us to be back by 1:30 pm. Almost immediately the three young guys of our group raced off, the older Australian men were still trying to catch their breath, the cute Chinese couple who’d tagged along were busy taking selfies and I was snapping away at the details of the tower, the view, everything. Gradually, I made my way along the stone path and soon I was completely alone on a vast stretch, an amazing feeling of freedom and wonder. The tale of building this 2000 year-old structure is certainly marred with darkness and death, however, like the Pyramids, it was nevertheless an awe-inspiring sight. Was it euphoria or pain from my over-exerted lungs?
After perhaps a kilometre I eventually caught up to one of the guys, a Dutchman traveling in China and Southeast Asia for six weeks. We had a little chat perched on the edge before he threw in the towel, he’d be heading back. Sporty is the absolute last adjective I’d use to describe myself, I was even wearing a dress as usual (yet with proper footwear), I was going to make the most of my time here, maybe I’d never come back? Upward and onward I climbed, the pathway getting more and more rundown. I aimed to make it until the next tower, plus that’s where the two other boys had reached.
Arriving at the tower, I heard them speaking French and since it didn’t sound like French-Canadian I automatically assumed they were from France. At first they spoke to me in English since they’d assumed that’s all I spoke. We made a little small talk about the view and exchanged taking some photos (see the above – they were cuties – but babies!). When I broke out my French their faces lit up, they had been struggling with English their whole trip (two months in China, South Korea and Japan) and I was the first person they’d been able to speak French to (besides to each other) in weeks. It was on our way back down the treacherous slope that I asked them where they were from, expecting to hear Paris or Nice, maybe even Toulouse, however, received the surprising answer of Switzerland. Mais bien sur! There is an area of the land of mountains and milk chocolate that’s francophone.
This was the first of several cases during the beginning of my trip of mistaken identity, either interpreted or received. Why should I have assumed they were French, just as people usually think I’m American, I should know better than to jump to conclusions. Even worse, it is a common misconception by Westerners that all Asian people look alike (which on real observation isn’t true), but do we realize that they can think the exact same about us?
After a long day walking around Beijing, my colleague and I treated ourselves to pedicures. Luckily my colleague has been living in China for almost five years and speaks Mandarin well, so she was my linguistic and geographic sherpa. She was chatting away with our beauticians learning that they’d come from smaller cities to make their fortune in the capital. They were in admiration of my “white skin,” something they sought after and something I was trying to darken. They had no idea where we could be from, just from the West, somewhere.
Another day back in Shanghai, we strolled the popular walkway along the Bund flanked on one side with refined Art Deco architecture and on the other, the river and the ultra-modern Pudong district. I attracted a certain amount of attention from fellow strollers excited to see an exotic creature, a blond girl, possibly the first they’d ever seen in person. Babies were thrown into my arms for good luck photos, others shyly asked to pose together while some snuck fleeting photos. My colleague explained that the Bund attracted a lot of Chinese tourists from the provinces so, like our beauticians in Beijing, they hadn’t had too much (or no) exposure to foreigners. I, in turn, was thrilled to see a group of older people in traditional dress. I assumed they must be Tibetan or at least from the mountains. Wrong. They were from the south, and graciously accepted my request to take a photo with them. They didn’t really care about me at all. Travel opens doorways not only onto new cities, sites, food, but especially people. Just like I desperately wanted my palate to venture beyond the Italian sandwich of my first day (I did get those Shanghai noodles and many other intriguing local dishes), I started to have a glimpse of the vast diversity of the world, sure I get a some of this living abroad in Europe, though nothing to the extent that can be gained further afield. We might not be able to immediately tell the difference between swiss chard and bok choy, but on tasting these leafy greens or on delving deeper into a culture, we get to know what makes it distinct… and go back for a second helping.