To continue my travelogue, I recently was on a business trip to China – Shanghai and Guilin to be exact. Most of the time was filled with meetings and dinners with clients and associates. I stayed in a Sheraton hotel and was shielded from the “real China” . One free evening, I decided to do a little exploring on my own. Turning the corner from the hotel entrance, I was overwhelmed by strange … everything !
The street signs were not helpful at all, so I had to be very careful to maintain my bearings. (my standby guide google maps is blocked in China). The street was awash with brightly colored light from neon signs of Chinese characters that provided more confusion than information. The street was crowded with local people who definitely have a different concept of personal space. I was constantly bumped and jostled as people pushed and cut in front – rude by my standards.
The metro was even more daunting – it is difficult to navigate a train system when you can’t read the signs. A few signs were politely translated into English, but “you are here” was not very helpful or perhaps more Zen than I was in the mood for.
As I continued along, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Was I fearful ? Perhaps, but grumpy probably was a better description. Then I noticed a tearful young boy, about our grandson’s age, being lectured by his stern looking mother. I noticed two young children playing peek-a-boo with fish in a vendor’s tub and giggling hysterically when the fish splashed their faces. Teenagers were walking and frenetically texting, effortlessly mastering the complexities of the Chinese keyboard. At a street vendor, a cashier was rudely talking on her cell phone while waiting on customers. The more I looked, the more familiar things I saw. I smiled at three children who turned a tree into a wonderful toy. They smiled back.
As the walk progressed, my mood improved and my tension subsided.
I got to the point where I ventured into a local restaurant, relying on “point at the picture” to order dinner. I did manage to avoid their highly recommended delicacy – winter worm, summer grass (caterpillar fungus as I later learned).
The return trip was quite different. I was comforted by familiar things and intrigued by the novelties.
My short jaunt in China was not a pilgrimage, but as with every journey, there were lessons to be learned – lessons that are applicable to more serious pilgrimage journeys.
Despite my frequent travel, my initial reaction was fear, or at least unease, at the unknown. Irritation at Chinese people for being so different was just silly. Secondly, I saw what I chose to see. Once I let go of the fear and looked again, I saw many familiar things and from this comforting viewpoint, the differences became intriguing and wonderful. Lastly, when I returned, I was changed – the lesson was learned and I was a bit wiser.
The message from the peregrinos echoed: “What we bring back is the most important” .