Friday, November 25, 2011

How has China changed me?

How will China change me? What little piece of me needs to be adjusted, corrected, expanded, modified? What preconceived notions do I have that will be remedied? When I look back six months from now, how will my thinking have changed? I've been grappling with this over the weekend as my wait starts to dwindle and I start to think about actually being there as opposed to all that's done to get there.
Back in August, that was what I was thinking.  I was so unsure of what I was about to undertake and so influenced by what others had said that I was worried that this was all going to go horribly wrong.

What have I learned about myself?  What has changed about the way I think?

Now that I have had time to think and clear my head of jetlag, I realize that I grew as a person and as a human being.  I think I overcame a lot of mental hurdles and challenges that were hurdles and challenges just in my own head.  Never in a million years would I have thought I'd survive squatty potties (I mean, really, I was wiping spattered pee off the inside of my legs...that was not exactly on my bucket list).  I took on the cuisine and not only survived, I actually enjoyed a lot of it; I ate hot and spicy, I tried to eat things I would never have tried at home and I managed to eat a sustainable diet, not just sample things to say I did so.  I saw little kids peeing on the steps of shops, on sidewalks, on front stoops.  I saw people working with tools and farming implements that were rendered obsolete in America sometime in the 1800s.  I'm not saying I necessarily processed all of this well, of course there was initially some shock, but this is why I travel.

I was much more tolerant than I expected.  I normally do not process pollution or crowds or less-than-ideal conditions well.  So either I didn't encounter pollution or crowds or less-than-ideal conditions as I had expected to, or they weren't that bad to begin with.  Or I just became more tolerant.

Eye opening experiences are generally mind-opening experiences.  The woman who was shucking corn by painstakingly picking it off the cob one kernel at a time? Sure, I actually did say that Kitchens Etc. has a kitchen tool for that and it's probably in my gadget drawer at home where it sits relatively unused.  But there's no Kitchens Etc. in China and certainly not in the back roads of Sichuan province.  This was the only way the woman knew how to do it, so that's how she was doing it.  Is there another way?  Perhaps for us.  But is our way better?  Who knows.

I also learned that there is joy to be found in small encounters and in surrounding myself with positive people.  Going into this trip, I thought that it might be nice to hold a panda and it might be fun to work with them, feed them, sit and watch them by the hour. Never did I realize how overcome with emotion I would be by feeling the heft of a squirmy one year old cub on my lap or being held captive by a handsome 15 year old male bear who I still swear to this day was flirting with me.  What gorgeous, gentle, sweet creatures they are and what a relaxing, joyous vibe do they give off.  I can think back to every encounter still, and smile.  I try to enjoy the smaller things to elicit that same feeling, like visiting zoos, museums, walking the beach, reveling in a little peace and quiet.  I know I don't have to go all the way to China to find a moment like that, but sometimes it's work to get there mentally.

Even more so though, I realized that traveling with a group of strangers ain't all bad.  In fact, our group was pretty darn amazing.  Everyone was so positive and upbeat and supportive and friendly.  As an uptight Yankee with a pretty pessimistic, cynical streak, I found it almost dream-like to spend almost 2 weeks with hardly a complaint, a negative vibe or a reason to see the glass as anything less than half full.  I've tried to carry that feeling over to my post-China life, ridding myself where I can of negativity, bad vibes and pessimism.  It's harder than I thought but overall a good practice.  I'd go so far as to say I'd definitely travel with another group, but I'm not sure I'll ever find another to top the "Best Tour Group Ever" that I found in China.  So to Dan, Naomi, Kim, Bev, Paula, Linda, Tracy, Margie and Marcia, I say thank you for being part of one of the best experiences of my life.  We all made this trip what it was!

Finally, and perhaps a little strange, I have an all new respect for the color red.  I hadn't realized while I was in China how pervasive it is and it becomes more apparent when I flip through the 2000+ photos I have, especially on the darker, rainier days it seems that the only color is red.  Now I can be drawn back to China any time I unexpectedly come across red like that, whether it's a flag, a lantern, a bright red jacket.  Funny how those things stay with you.

There are still too many snapshots like that that I have to process. I need to think about it all and let it sink in longer.  Already though, I feel stronger, I feel more open-minded.  China was as foreign a place as I have ever been but I took it on and survived, which, looking back now, I'm surprised I ever doubted myself.

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