If you were to ask me — say, three years ago — where China stood on my list of places to visit in my lifetime, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top. I have to be honest — I had dreams of riding a gondola in Venice, riding a mule in Greece or even eating freshly made sushi in Japan before ever going to China. But everything changed when I went to grad school to pursue a degree in journalism.
During my first year of grad school in 2011, I lived with Tian, a then 23-year-old China native from the Sichuan province. While living with her, she was always so eager to divulge her fondest memories relating to life in Chengdu: It was like I had my own personal ambassador to share everything from Sichuanese food — she cooked up some delicious spicy noodles — to TV shows to what boys were like.
One of the professors at my school, Andrew, proudly took her under his wing as his graduate assistant since he had a strong interest in international business journalism — specifically relating to China. Every year, he would take a group of students with him on a two-week study abroad trip to China. Tian encouraged me to not only enroll in Andrew’s business journalism course in the spring, but to consider actually signing up for the course.
After consulting with friends and family, we agreed that it was in my best interest to take this opportunity to see and learn more about a country that has one of the richest histories and fastest developing economies in the world.
I admit that I had qualms about traveling with a group of students I hardly knew to a country that was extremely foreign to me — other than knowing a bit about the food, I couldn’t even say one word in Chinese besides “ni hao.”
Little did I know how much I would soon learn in the weeks ahead. On May 7, 2012, I left Phoenix for a world unknown to me, also known as Beijing.
Although I was on a business journalism tour, the professors guiding our tour (Andrew and his China counterpart Wu) knew that a trip to China wouldn’t be complete without the addition of a few culturally significant sights to our itinerary. Our first destination was the Forbidden City where we would enter through Tiananmen Square — best known for the student-led protests of 1989.
As my classmates and I walked through the massive open space to reach the entrance of the Forbidden City, various groups of Chinese-looking people stopped us to pose in photos with them. Most of my classmates were either Caucasian or Hispanic, so I assumed that these tourists were enamored by their westernized look — something that they probably hadn’t seen much of in person.
They were certainly not flocking to me — with my Asian face that probably blended in with the natives. I just stood back and watched; it was quite amusing.
The Forbidden City
Walking through the main entrance of the Forbidden City — China’s imperial palace for more than five centuries — felt taking a journey back into time. The architecture of the buildings epitomized everything I envisioned about imperial China with the palace’s red walls and yellow curved roofs.
The professors gave us about an hour to meet at the back end of the Forbidden City. An hour would be too much time, I initially thought. But the entire span of the complex seemed to stretch on for miles — it was an endless walk through palace doors and wide open spaces. An hour simply wasn’t enough time.
Whenever I think about the 2008 Olympics, I always visualize that prominent silver Bird’s Nest stadium standing at the center of it all, so seeing this Olympic landmark with my own two eyes was beyond exciting. The park itself was spacious and buildings spread far apart, but I could only imagine how chaotic it would’ve been at the time of the Olympics.
Seeing the main attractions of Beijing was one of the best parts about my trip, but I don’t think it could ever surpass what I learned about its culture, food and media…