When I was preparing to make my first trip to China, several years ago, a friend asked, “Why would you want to go there?” She seemed taken aback by what she apparently regarded as a foolish journey.
My initial reaction was, “Why would I not want to go there?” Obviously, we had two very different outlooks on the world, and I would have been hard put to give her a specific answer. I just wanted to go. I wanted to go almost anywhere I’d never been before, and China intrigued me with its deep history, vast spaces, ancient landmarks, and chaotic entry into the modern era.
I knew, of course, that whatever I saw in the course of my brief visit could scarcely even quality as “scratching the surface,” and I came home knowing I wanted someday to return. Fourteen years later, I did, and this second trip, though still not long enough, at least gave me a perspective on the energy and speed of growth and development in that sprawling country.
I love to travel, but the traveling, the being there, is only part of it. The reading I do before a trip enriches the experience. But the most interesting reading is done after I return. Whether novels or travel guides, history or political accounts, I can imagine so much more clearly the sights, the sounds, the smells, the attitudes that surround the story.
And suddenly news from the far reaches of Zimbabwe or Ecuador or, yes, China is interesting. Whereas in the past, I might quickly skim articles about distant places, I wasn’t invested in them. It was hard for me to care
what happened. I hadn’t mixed with the people, shopped in their markets, eaten their food, visited schools and homes. Once I’ve been there, everything changes.
I was reminded of how travel has expanded my horizons when I fell behind in checking my email not long ago. The major headlines of several days’ editions of the New York Times sat unopened in my in-box. Three of the headlined stories focused on China: one on the unsolved murder of a young British woman in Beijing (then known as Peking) in 1937; another, on censorship, and the third, on child sexual abuse. As I read, I was able to understand the context in which these stories occurred. I could visualize the hutongs where part of the unsolved murder story played out. I could remember the unwillingness of our guide on my first trip in 1999 to answer some of our sensitive questions and the more open, though still cautious, conversations with the leader on my most recent trip. And I knew (because our most recent guide had shared some personal history) that Chinese parents tend not to discuss sex with their children, a fact that the writer of the third article said contributed to abuse being greatly under reported.
My three-year-old granddaughter, who lives on the other side of the continent, recently let her father know she believes I live at the Norfolk airport. After all, that’s where she comes to pick me up. And when we talk on the phone, she’s begun to ask, “Why don’tcha come over, Grandma Marj?” It will be fun to watch her world expand.
May 7, 2014