By Ava Andrews, '22
I grimaced as a student in the group crunched down on the last leg of the fried tarantula she had in her mouth, the leg protruding from her lips seemed to be trying to escape. We were in the famous “snack street” in Beijing, home to an array of bugs you could buy to eat, some still wiggling on their sticks. This was our second week of the trip, and the eleven of us had been released into Beijing to explore places around the hotel. As I walked around with my camera, taking everything in through my lens, I had to keep telling myself that I was really in China. The street brimmed with a crowd so unlike New York, talking in rushed and urgent Mandarin, shoving things in your hands to buy, and occasionally grabbing your arm for a picture, but enough so that you felt like a celebrity. We were all exhilarated by our surroundings, picking up things we did not even want just to engage in bargaining with giddy grins on our faces.
I learned so much through the meals we had as a group. In Beijing I tried my first ever Peking duck, so soft it just melted in my mouth. I learned to not stick chopsticks in rice, as it is a reminder of funerals. I learned that putting soy sauce on rice is as uncommon as putting ketchup on eggs. I learned the most important person at the table when eating is the person who sits directly across from the door for they can see what dish is coming first, and are usually the oldest and will pay for the meal.
We were to stay with our host families after school and experience their lives for the first half of our two-week trip, sightseeing while they were in school. Upon arriving my first night, I had dinner with my student host, Annie, and her family. It is typical to choose an English name to use when introducing yourself to foreigners, and all of our hosts had done it. Annie taught me her family’s timeless technique of making handmade dumplings, the soft dough folded to form a perfect satchel of beef. Piping pork buns and soft-boiled eggs steamed up our small plastic bags on our way to school. During our commute to school, the subway was so pristine that if you dropped a crumb, you had to pick it up!
The second week arrived, and we said goodbye to our host families. The eleven of us then travelled to various landmark destinations in Beijing, Suzhou, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. We visited temples where you could spark red sticks and let a sweet smoke fill your lungs, not cough-inducing, but sacred, like a birthday candle. We stood at the base of a 50-foot tall, golden Buddha, feeling very small and humbled to witness such a central part of Chinese life. We rode a boat down the Grand Canal and literally saw right into people’s “backyards.” Their socks and underwear clipped to clotheslines and an old man got a haircut on his balcony overlooking the river.
In Hangzhou, we went to a tea garden was an expanse of verdant, rolling hills. We snacked on cucumbers and Sprites after an arduous, steep hike up to the top of a hill. We watched expertly-trained, veined hands pluck tea leaves and add them to the growing pile in their basket. The women struck up lively conversations with each other, their straw hats dotted the hills for miles.
The highlight of the trip also turned out to be where I challenged my comfort zone. As our last event, we took a toboggan ride down the Great Wall. The ride was half a metal pipe embedded into the hill of the Great Wall where everyone had their own platform with wheels, complete with a lever enabling you to stop completely. I am not a person who loves anything even close to a rollercoaster, so I had been a little apprehensive about this event. But as I shot down the metal tube, I laughed and whooped. I’m in China
I though again to myself. The Great Wall disappeared from view. A few days later I was in a different metal tube heading home, thumbing through the pictures on my camera and reminiscing about the past two, incredible weeks.