Ok… the entire story begins in the summer of 2011. The reason I ended up going to China so much started back when I was first studying Chinese in high school. After that first trip, I fell in love with the culture and had so many crazy stories that I felt compelled to return periodically. Anyway, we were the guinea pigs.
My teacher was organizing the first ever educational excursion to China. Being raised in Europe, I had traveled quite a bit up to this point in time, but that did not even come close to what I was about to experience!
So we received scholarships from the Chinese government to take part in a cultural immersion program and hop on a plane to Beijing to begin our “studies”. The first day we get there and board a bus that was going to transport us across the city to the university. After about an hour in traffic watching motorcycles, people, animals, and food carts almost destroy each other on the road, our bus starts to smoke and it catches on fire. Welcome to China!
Eventually, we make it to the university and begin the program. Classes are interesting, everyone is in culture shock, and I am loving every second of it. The Chinese people are completely different from the western world. They are focused on status in society and getting married at a young age. They have the craziest customs and traditions I have ever seen (I will get to these later), as long as you don’t bad-mouth the government, there are pretty much no rules, and they absolutely love foreigners. We spent time in some street markets where I bought a Chinese Emperor robe and wore it on our trip to the Great Wall of China.
Great Wall of China section near Beijing
As the week progressed, I started to read about People’s Square and decided that we had to go there at night because I wanted to see what the real China was like and not the polished view the government was giving us through the education program. So, me and a friend snuck out of the university at night, paid the guard off with a pack of cigarettes to open the gate for us, and took a rick shaw to Tiananmen Square….bad idea. We get there and start walking towards the center to explore. Two guards run up to us and gracefully shove an AK-47 in our faces asking where we’re from and what we’re doing. I looked at my friend, handed the guards some money, and told them we were American journalists from a foreign school writing an article about Chinese culture. They smiled and let us on our merry way… whew, Chinese prison avoided – would not have been fun!
I kept my mouth shut after that night and realized that this place was absolutely insane. I loved it even more than I had before. The following week, we went to see the Shaolin monks in the mountain temple and I ended up getting interviewed on Chinese TV about my love for Buddhism and Chinese culture, which was quite a fascinating experience. We explored more and more of the city throughout the weeks and got a real feeling of the true culture this place had to offer. We goofed off with the locals, made great friends, and never backed down from an experience or refused to try something new.
Met an awesome photographer by the river gardens who showed us around the city for a day because he liked my hat
Visited various temples around the city
Famous buddha carvings in the side of a mountain Yungang Grottoes, a World Heritage Site
Great Wall of China
I did a walking handstand in the middle of the Summer Palace during a tour and attracted a massive crowd!
This was typical all over China, people would sell things out of their cars and set up small shops on the street
Friend of mine with a traditional Chinese hat, pipe, and fan
Moving on to the food. Wow, was it different! The traditional meal consisted of everyone sitting around a circular table that had a spinning mechanism in the middle and all of the dishes were shared communally. The traditional Beijing Chinese food is amazing. There are so many different regions of China that have various dishes, so there is much to choose from; however, I eventually learned that cuisine from Shanghai was my favorite. Many of the street carts and vendors outside have delicious food as well, but you always have to be careful about where they get the meat and what is in the food. I had a situation in Shanghai years later where I was eating these things called Baozi for breakfast every morning. Before work, I would stop at a street cart and buy them for 25 cents a piece. I learned later that they put rat meat in them and I needed to be more cautious. Oh well, just put some sauce on it and wash it down with a beer!
The Journey Continues…
So for the three years after this trip, I returned to China every summer on scholarship through the Chinese government to visit different cities and learn more Chinese. I spent time in the Jilin province near the Mongolian border, the Henan province in the middle of China, the Sichuan province in Chengdu where the world’s biggest Panda reserve is, the Jiangsu province where Shanghai and Nanjing are located, and finally the Zhejiang province where Hangzhou and the famous West Lake are located. By now, I know China like the back of my hand. I met countless people, made so many new friends from all over the world, and eventually secured an internship at a modern tech company in Shanghai during my last year of college back in 2015. The next blog post will be about my outrageous experiences in Shanghai!
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