Tour de China

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I realize I’ve been somewhat remiss in describing my current life. As such, this is more of a “what-I-was-doing-last-month-and-why-I-didn’t-come-home-for-New-Year’s-(sorry-Mom-and-Dad!)”-style post, containing non- (or less-) introspective or self-examinatory writing. This is also for the benefit of CAIS parents, who are probably wondering what I did for nearly a month in China. The next post will probably be similar, but about life in SF.

As some of you know, I went to China for several weeks in December. This venture was motivated by a delightful combination of necessity, interest, and desire – and resulted in a most excellent combination of work and fun. As I learned more about the current international programs at my school and possibilities for rich future partnerships in Western China, I found that there were numerous issues and questions that would be extremely difficult to resolve without actual in-person discussions with Chinese partners. As such, my main reason for traveling to China was to meet with current and future partner schools and organizations to discuss this and future years’ international programs for 7th and 8th grade students at my school.

However, just as (if not more) compelling was the chance to spend time in Qi$ghai,  to visit friends and students and spend some time relaxing on the plateau. This was an entirely selfish goal; however, after four months feeling strangely confined in San Francisco, I really needed some time in the countryside, as well as in an entirely different environment, to gain space and perspective. So after getting the school’s approval and organizing meetings with partners, I found myself getting yet another Chinese visa (as well as a new passport) and boarding yet another plane to Beijing in what has, for me, become a sort of habitual yet ritualized transition.

I spent three beautifully pollution-free days in Beijing, meeting with partners and organizing activities for our current 7th grade program, eating 煎饼 jianbing (the best breakfast ever), visiting a new micro-brewpub, and spending time with friends. Unusually for my trips to Beijing, I also was able to go running. Due to new restrictions on car usage, as well as the government moving most factories and power plants farther away from the city (enjoy your new smog, farmers!), the air quality seems to be improving. As a result, I had some chilly but beautiful runs along Beijing’s canals and lakes, as well as through the vast, imperial-scale Olympic complex.

My visit was, in short, relaxing and uneventful – at least until my departure for the southwestern city of Kunming. Despite being known as the “spring city”, and famous for a gentle 四季如春 (“four seasons like spring”) climate, Kunming had recently been in the throes of a cold snap, and had just received several inches of snow – the first time this had happened in well over a decade. As such, after I had checked in and gone through security at the Beijing airport – and then, after I had waited two hours for the flight – we passengers heading for Kunming were told that our flight was cancelled and that we would have to leave the terminal and pick up our bags, but also that we would be provided with a free airport hotel.

I spent the night in the airport hotel with a friendly Kunming native currently attending the University of Delaware. We were told that we would have to leave the hotel at 5:00am for our flight to Kunming. The next morning, we were bussed to the terminal at 5:00am, where we once again went through security. After waiting at the gate for two hours, we were told that the Kunming airport was still closed, but that our flight would probably leave in the early afternoon. Hainan Airlines, they said, would again provide us with an airport hotel in which we could rest. We once again boarded a bus and headed to another airport hotel. It was not yet 10:00am.

Around noon, we were once again bussed to the airport, where we went through security for a third time. This time, upon arrival at the gate, we were told our plane wouldn’t leave until at least 6:30pm, but that Hainan Airlines would provide us with (you guessed it) yet another airport hotel. And so, half and hour later, we found ourselves at a third airport hotel (located, of course, right next to the other two at which we had previously ‘stayed’). I went outside to explore the neighborhood, a quaintly captivating mix of jet fuel silos, truck repair shops, and by-the-hour hotels, all enveloped by a film of dust stirred up by landing aircraft.

We finally ended up boarding our plane at approximately 7:00pm. Once aboard, the captain threatened that we would spend another three hours waiting on the tarmac for take-off due to problems in Kunming – but, after outbursts of anger from the passengers, and seemingly more out of fear of passenger revolt than any communications with individuals in Kunming or respect for current conditions on the ground, the captain decided to take off immediately.

In Kunming, the roadside plantings and decorative shrubberies surrounding the airport held several inches of wet snow. There was no snow on the ground. I made it into the city after midnight.

I spent several days meeting with a school in Kunming with whom we might partner for future international programs. The school was both large and impressive, with over 4,000 students on a vast and spankingly shiningly new campus in the northern suburbs, and seems to have the resources and connections needed to create an intensive-language-learning program based on experiential, contextualized learning. In addition to meetings, I also spent time in a frigid hostel with friends currently living in Dali, all of whom – due to similar weather-related delays – fortuitously ended up in Kunming at the same time.

I eventually left the wintry Spring City for the wintry Winter City, i.e. Xining, where morning and evening temperatures descended well into the negatives. As my plane descended into Xining, however, I was seized with an unanticipated nostalgia-tinged excitement, a feeling of anticipatory belonging which made the entire unwieldly city and its traffic and construction sites and chaos seem as warm and comforting and homely (or home-like) as a open-fire-warmed, snowcovered cabin complete with hot chocolate and cookies.

My time in Xining was mostly spent organizing the structure of the 8th grade trip, which will be a service- and activity-based two-week whirlwind introduction to the region (and for which I am extremely excited), but also spent with friends: ice-biking, visiting parks, shopping for gifts, and going to hotpot dinners. Partway through my time in the city, I traveled down to RG for a week to visit students and have a relaxing holiday – which, despite frigid hotel rooms in which water, bottled drinks, and contact solution all froze, was absolutely delightful.

Subsequently, I returned to Xining, where I taught a short course on basic first aid to a group of tour guides. The best part of this was the final scenario, in which I had two students who had fallen down an unstable slope due to a landslide – one patient with volume shock due to severe internal bleeding, the other with increasing intracranial pressure from a head injury – make quite a scene in a streetside garden acting out their injuries as the other students came to ‘rescue’ them. Unanticipated, it was lunchtime, and a crowd of onlookers – passers-by, professionals, students from a nearby school – soon gathered, worriedly speaking under their breath, wondering what might be going on. After assuring them that it was a training (the screams of the ‘patients’ didn’t help), the onlookers gave me some raised eyebrows but nevertheless stayed to watch out of curiosity.

In case you’re wondering, both patients were correctly diagnosed and subsequently rescued, carried backboard-less into a nearby building where they were laid down onto couches in the lobby. The security guard looked on in wonder and curiosity, certain that these Tibe$ans and foreigners were completely insane.

Eventually, though, I had to leave; winter break was almost over and I would have to return to school! I flew from Xining to Chengdu, where I left my luggage in the airport and had a fun 24 hours walking around the city and catching up with the employees and Sim’s Hostel (now Hello Chengdu), all of whom – amazingly – still remembered me despite the fact that I’ve only visited once a year. The next day, I left for San Francisco via Tokyo – a transfer which, as one piece of carry-on luggage was oversize in Japan but not in China, required me to go through customs and officially enter Japan (with free 90-day visa!), check the piece of luggage, and go through security and customs again before boarding my second flight. Easy.

Ultimately, the trip was relaxing and centering; it helped me redefine my reasons for living in SF and think about the purpose and focus of my current work. And while things are going well here, I’m already looking forward to visiting China again (twice!) in the spring!

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