Ten years ago, nearly to the day, I was wrapping up the end of a year in China and preparing to visit my language partner’s hometown, Chengde. I’d been there once before, as a grumpy 16-year-old, awkward in the sweltering heat, bored and restless as we wandered the old imperial grounds where the court used to sometimes go to escape Beijing. What I remember most from that first trip was that Chengde had been gripped in drought, such that their major tourist attractions dried up and the town was feeling the impact of a severe tourism drop-off. At 16, I guess you could call it my first real brush with poverty, and while I was pretty excited to be immersed in Chinese 24/7 (because, let’s face it, I’ve been a Chinese language geek for as long as I can remember, seeing as I have very few memories pre-bilingual school), it was also a sobering experience.
Also, when you’re 16, all temples start to look the same after awhile. (I cannot lie, sometimes, even now, at twice 16, I still feel that way)
But travel is always different when you’re visiting with a local, and this trip was no exception. By that point, I thought I had a pretty good handle on China and Chinese. Dare I say I was a wee bit smug at my ability to blend into a crowd? China remains one of the few places on earth where I am just another anonymous face, and I hadn’t realized how much I would cherish that anonymity until I lived there. Yet this trip also gave me a rare glimpse into the country that I would not have otherwise been able to see.
You can read the piece in Oregon Humanities‘ summer issue, Edge.