I've never been to China before, or Asia, or anywhere near the Eastern part of our world. I don't know what's over there. I've watched Apocalypse Now several times this year to get to know where I'm going, imagining that sometime, inevitably, I will be in Vietnam chugging up a brown jungle river on my way to kill someone. Besides that, I feel mostly unprepared.
It scares me to think of the 1.3 billion people in China, though I know I will meet very few of them. Drops from a trough, you know. But looking at the map and the strange shape the border makes, I wonder what life is like there. I doubt it is too far different from life in Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara County, but I know it's human habit to emphasize the particulars. One particular I have heard of since childhood is its brush stroked alphabet and its languages. They are supposed to be so different from our own that few of us know any of them and, as many adults have told me, speaking as natives do is nearly impossible. We'll see. Another is the food. Someone told me that Chinese food has to be the most popular food in the world because you can get it almost anywhere but, delicious as it is, it is different everywhere you go. I wonder if they have Chinese buffets there. Another is the history, which I know nothing about. I'll leave that alone, but I do know that theirs is much longer than ours and Europe's. It is old like Egypt's but still living, and in about ten years will dominate future textbooks, as someone told me or I overheard. Everything I know is from someone else's mouth.
I'm going to Beijing first for four days. It will be for my study abroad program orientation, though I will spend the rest of my four months in Hong Kong. Someone told me that I have to fly there first to be indoctrinated. "They'll give you a commie uniform," he said, "And you should ask for a gas mask." From there, I will fly to Hong Kong, which is very beautiful from what I've been told. One person told me to scuba dive; another, to find a girl with an amazingly common name-May Li (tell me if you know her)-and someone else suggested I go to McDonald's because they serve beer.
"Everything I know is from someone else's mouth."
I was told to beware of the girls, and I will, but I can't wait to meet them. One comment I hear very often is that the bright lights and loud music in the cities are unbelievable. I hope they won't dull my village boy senses, because when I think of China I imagine the people's subtlety, which I like to think exists. But I also imagine that the most meaningful treasures hide from foreigners under humility that, in the cities, is nearly impossible to find under the construction rattle and the deafening enjoyment.
I want to learn all I can in the short time I am there to see and know it. My goal is to meet people and introduce myself. I want to learn what they like and dislike, and what we agree on, and I want to remember their reasoning for their opinions when I disagree with them. If our opinions are pure enough, the disagreements could take a lifetime to understand, and I want to get them in writing.
For the first time in my life, I've visited relatives and far-away friends to say goodbye, that I won't see them until Christmas, and that I will miss them. It's very strange to me. I am going somewhere I know nothing about, friendless and alone. I can imagine the Christmas music I will hear at home if I survive this trip and right now I badly want to already hear it. Soon, I will be in China. But today I'm packing, and tomorrow at 1:40 AM my bags will be in the belly of the plane. My shoulders are reaching for my ears.
But this will all disappear when I land, I know! In my gut I know I'm ready and I can't wait to get out there and figure out things for myself. I'll update this often and assume that I have a loyal fanbase because, what's the point of all this if no one reads it? Tell your friends! If anyone is interested in anything particular, leave me a comment below and I will search, investigate, and report all I see. And finally, if any of you works for or knows anyone at National Geographic or its sister magazines, Explorer or Traveler, I am looking for work ;)
Time to zip up my bags and wait. Lord or whoever it is that listens to us, when I stumble over something that is terrible and new, or so strange that when I find it I want to ignore it and wish it never existed, let me live it or outrun it.