“Travel is a journey into one’s own ignorance.”
So writes American travel writer Frances Mayes. Truer words never spoken — especially if that travel takes you to the Middle Kingdom, a place so radically different from the U.S. — in history, culture, morals and mores, attitudes, politics, language — that if you name it, and it’s likely to be different in China.
On this, my sixth trip, one might think by now I’d be an old China hand. But no, consider Henry Kissinger’s 62 trips to China, and I bet the old statesman felt on his last time here that he was still learning about this inscrutable, contradictory, delightful, infuriating and lovely country.
Sage advice from the Lonely Planet guide to China: “Treat China as an adventure, rather than a holiday.”
What a comfort the familiar object becomes in an alien, foreign setting — amid a breakfast of Chinese dumplings rice noodles via chopsticks, my weathered dogeared Moleskine journal serves as a touchstone of home. And there are others.
The CAROLINA bumper sticker on the back fender of my host’s car.
The back-home-again perfume of mid-May blooming magnolia blossoms on campus.
And yet, home is where you make it.
Upon arriving from Beijing (polluted, dusty, overcrowded) I find distant Chongqing to be another China, a world apart. And blessedly, before work starts on Monday, I have two days to set up camp; my little environment “in the field,” as they say at National Geographic magazine, where you really are defined by how prepared you are for the unexpected, for the inevitable tiny crisis that alerts you that here, you are the alien: The ice-cold shower until you figure out that the hot and cold water faucet labels have been reversed. The airport security guards attempting to confiscate my walking stick as a “weapon.” At the vast airport arrival gate, no one speaking English in the sea of Asian faces all staring at the lone tall skinny bald western dude.
Until, magically…one face shines directly at me with an ear-to-ear grin, and it is my “dear esteemed younger brother Professor Li,” beaming and waving and then running to embrace me, unembarrassed – right in front of the gaping crowds.
And the weary world traveler knows that this sixth time to China really is, in a deeply personal sort of way, a homecoming after all. Or why else would I keep returning?
AND ONE MORE THING…
Before leaving Beijing, my host Professor Chen Kai of the Communication University of China treated me to a unique sporting spectacle: the annual faculty-staff-student campus-wide games in which the entire campus turns out for two days of track events between various cohorts, including grade-school level relays between scholastic departments.
What a hoot. Can you imagine back at UNC-CH, the faculty from the School of Media and Journalism taking on the faculty from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business?! Talk about community-building. Bring it on!