Sunday, March 21, 2010

My other trip to Beijing

A long time ago, in a different life, before I was married and had kids and became a responsible member of society, I did bit of traveling. On this particular trip, I sailed on a ship as a staff member on an academic voyage around the world. Our second to last port of call was Hong Kong and from there we were welcome to sign up for trips that went to Beijing. I went with a group of 30 college students and stayed at the People's University. Our guide, Alice, was an interesting Chinese-American woman who happened to be living and taking classes at this university. She was the child of Chinese parents and was raised in the US. Her English and Mandarin were both impeccable. She understood both sides of the culture with ease and was able to guide us around the city and explain to us all the things that made no sense.

One of my biggest frustrations was being told by the tour guides of the various cultural attractions what I could and could not do. Tours are highly regulated and tour guides were less guides and more commanders. Herding us this way and that. Forbidding us from taking one different step from the group. I was never allowed to be far from the herd. Wandering off was something people did not do. Exploring was out of the question.

So imagine my surprise when Alice announced that we would have a free afternoon. We could do whatever we wanted. Alice offered to lead a group to the Beijing Zoo and all of the members of the college group I was with signed up. I couldn't bear it. More herding into buses and being led through an attraction as part of a routine rather than I real experience in China. So I asked Alice if I could borrow her bike and go for a ride. If you have ever been to Beijing, you know that the streets are almost paved with bicycles. Chinese commute by bicycle in a way that makes the puny bicycle commuting in our towns seem quaint. Everyone there owns and rides thier bikes all over the city. I was in awe of the massive display of bikes and wanted to ride in one of them.

Alice gladly lent me her bike and when another member of our group announced she wanted to ride too, Alice borrowed a bike from a friend for her, and we were able to set off through the streets. My riding companion was a delightful undergraduate by the name of Dionne who happened to be African American and wore long beaded braids in her hair. I mention this only because Dionne and I, the black girl and the white girl, riding through the streets of Beijing was just not something people there saw very often. My the heads did turn. I remember we made it to a kind of tea shop and then a department store and stopped to shop and then turned around and rode back. I have never regretted my decision not to go to the zoo that day. I will always remember that time of doing something that felt like what every Chinese man and woman was doing even if it was only for a few hours.

It occurs to me now too, seeing these pictures of myself for the first time in over 15 years, that another reason the Chinese stare is because Americans are large people. I would imagine that I will feel a bit like an Amazon again when roaming the streets of China with my family in tow.


  1. Hi there, I'm Gales sister Leslie, and she asked me to let you know a couple of things, blogger doesn't work in China and the only way to post is to email the post to someone who can do it for you (I'm doing that for Gale). Gale also wanted you to know that she wishes you the best on your journey to China. Here is Gales email feel free to email any last min questions to her. I hope you get this in time. All the best from me too - so exciting!!

  2. Oh my gosh - that is such a cool photo!!!! I love this story.

  3. Amy,

    Love the pictures of you from your Semester-at-Sea days. I forgot you had gone to China. It's really just hours now until you leave to meet Tessa and bring her home. I wish you all a wonderful trip -- one I know that will be most memorable and that will bring joy into your shared lives.



  4. bike ride vs. zoo? no contest. You chose wisely ;-)