Friday, January 25, 2013

Who goes to China on vacation anyway?

Hello from the middle of my break.   I'm back from the other side of the planet and am currently relaxing by the pool at my parents' place in room temperature central Florida.   It's not quite pool weather here, but I'll take 68 degrees over single digits any day in January.   Until I returned from China last week, I always considered jet lag to be just an old-wives' tale at best, at worst a minor nuisance that just made you feel a little more tired when your wristwatch said midnight and your California rental car said 9 pm.   Since crossing back over the international date line the end of last week, I've found myself wide awake at 2 am and dead tired at 2 pm ever since, having been schooled firsthand that jet lag is very real.    They say you get about an hour closer to normal per day, so I hope that by the time I reopen in a few weeks, I'll be, as advertised, well rested and ready to go.

In the meantime, I thought I'd drop in here and start to tell you a few tales of my big adventure to the Far East.   As expected, this year's getaway was very different from my usual tropical escape.    I'd be lying if I didn't admit there were a couple times during my winter wander through China I fantasized about a beach, 30 sunblock, and a tropical drink.  I'd just have to remind myself, 'you're in China, how many people (who aren't Chinese) get to experience that?   I'm sure you'll be able to find a happy island next year.'   China was everything I'd hoped for, anticipated, and feared.  And then some.   It was fascinating, awe-striking, stressful, humbling, satisfying, and eye-opening.   I got to walk on the Great Wall, the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon.   I gazed across a giant sea of terracotta warriors, only recently unearthed from their sacred burial near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China back in 200 b.c.    I wanderlust'ed through the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven and climbed the Oriental Tower in the center of a vibrant downtown Shanghai.   I saw enough pagodas to last me a lifetime, ate squirrel fish, and I even got pretty good at operating chopsticks.

But none of that defines what this trip was really like for me.   Sure, all those places were amazing.   I have some great photos to share, and I learned a ton about the history of China, from the ancient emperor days to the turbulent times of the recent cultural revolution. For me, this trip was more about being out of my comfort zone for a full two weeks.    I was a complete stranger in a foreign land, able to communicate with few besides my brother and his family, my hosts.   Their housekeeper didn't even speak English.   Street signs and lunch specials sandwich boards served as constant reminders of my illiteracy in this crowded country.    

Rarely did I even see a non-Chinese person.   Simple things like telling a taxi driver where I wanted to go or ordering a plate of dumplings became daunting tasks. It was stressful and challenging, and when it was done, I felt an unexpected sense of satisfaction just for having done it and returning unscathed.

Why would I go to China in the middle of winter, you ask?   As you could probably figure out, as an ice cream shop owner, my annual travel window coincides with the cold weather you see outside your window right now.    Climbing the Great Wall required long johns and a winter hat, but being there without the summer season throngs of tourists turned out to be a blessing in disguise.    The Summer Palace in Beijing gets nearly 200,000 visitors every single day.    My tour guide described walking through the long corridor in season  - 'there are so many people, you can't stop walking because you'd be knocked over'.   The day we went felt like a midweek trip to the Holyoke Mall, just picture it full of Chinese tourists with cameras.

The other part of the decision to go to China this year was because I now have a brother living there.   He took a job with GE last year that sent him to Shanghai for three years.   About this time last year, he and his wife were packing up their house, readying their three young children, house hunting in Shanghai, and taking GE culture classes in Michigan.    It wasn't a decision to be taken lightly, but the dream job, leading a team of engineers in a joint venture with a Chinese company building a 737-like commercial jet from scratch, and the adventure of living in a foreign land proved too tempting for him and his wife Elspeth to pass up.  

GE set them up well - a beautiful, spacious house in a gated community full of ex-pats, a great international school within walking distance for each of their kids, and a healthy travel allowance for taxis and other forms of public transit (since they wouldn't be driving themselves).   I'd been keeping up with their ex-pat life experience via their blog and the occasional email and Skype, but I just had to see this new life of theirs for myself.   I'd come close a few times back in my corporate jet-setting days, but I'd never been to the Far East, and I had an open window of January travel this year, so I figured why not.   I booked a flight and ordered up a travel visa back in October, and although I surfed a little bit on it over the months leading up to my trip, I must admit I arrived in China woefully unprepared for the challenges that awaited.  

My primary travel objectives were simply 1,) get a taste of my brother Mike's new life 2.) enjoy some quality Uncle time with my two nephews and niece 3.) walk on the Great Wall and see a few temples 4.) not get sick from eating the local food.

In my next installment, I'll let you know how I did and share more photos, stories, and observations.    

Stay tuned..