Summer Palace, Beijing
By Matt Carroll & Elaine Cushman Carroll
This story originally appeared in the Boston Globe on Oct. 20, 2017.
It was the offer of a lifetime: Did we want to tour China for two weeks with a Chinese family that we know? We took a nanosecond to consider: Yes, absolutely.
Since eighth grade, our “niece” Grace had navigated her way through a local school, figuring out learning with mostly American peers, doing homework in English, communicating in English.
For the past four years she had lived in our very American home. We were able to watch her grow and she shared her culture with us in small ways. Quiet and determined, we knew she had spunk. We were happy the first time she rolled her eyes at a corny statement and when she teased one of us.
It was an easy decision. We knew Grace well and had met her mom Qi when she had visited. We knew we would be in caring and extremely competent hands.
But the tables were turned. The trip Qi and Grace planned was ambitious and gracious. It was designed to introduce us to as many cultural and historical highlights of a country that has about 2,500 more years of recorded history than our own. Not for the faint of heart, we would be crisscrossing the country, from Beijing in the north, to Xi’an in the center, and to Hangzhou in the south, with a lot of side trips.
We had concerns before we left. There’s the language barrier. Matt’s Chinese language “skills” are limited. Let’s just say he aspires to one day reach a “Dick and Jane” level. Elaine spoke no Chinese. And the food. We both like Chinese food in America, but knew from Grace’s cooking that the food in China would be very different. Lastly, we were concerned about the weather. Everyone we knew who’d been to China in summer shook their head and muttered: “Hot. Very hot.”
We needn’t have worried. We managed with the little Chinese we knew, and younger Chinese people have taken English in school, so we could go to a store and manage to buy a drink or a snack. We never had to order (Grace and Qi handled that) and the food in restaurants was delicious, if sometimes odd looking to American eyes. (The fried fish looked, um, very fishy. Chickens were served with the heads still attached.)
One night I said to Elaine over dinner, “Best food yet.” She said, “That’s the third straight night you’ve said that.” And the heat? Beijing was a little cooler than normal, meaning under 100, but for the second half of the the trip the temps were well above 100 degrees every day, with high humidity. We used umbrellas for sun, hats, and resigned ourselves to sweating.
The trip was exhilarating, if exhausting. “China is not for wimps,” said Elaine.
Going with a family made all the difference. Grace and Qi smoothed out the rough spots, from buying tickets to arranging transportation, from picking restaurants to helping us jaywalk across six lanes of insane city traffic. (Think Boston traffic is bad? It’s kindergarten compared with Beijing.)
We have a million thoughts and memories about the trip, but three main takeaways: the ever-present, almost intimidating weight of thousands of years of history; the delicious and amazingly varied cuisines, as we traveled from spicy and hot north to the sweeter south; and the incredible energy of the people, whose cities are growing at an astounding rate.
History is everywhere in China, and can be a little daunting. Coming from a country that was founded less than 400 years ago, it’s humbling to realize China has been civilized for 3,000 years.
We visited many of the standard tourist icons, such as the amazing Great Wall, but also spent time visiting other places that are less well known, if still impressive in their own ways, such as “The Garden of the Humble Administrator” in Suzhou.
And for every place that drew massive, expected crowds, such as the Forbidden Palace City in Beijing, we walked through beautiful tea farms near the famous city of Hanzhou, where we were alone except for a handful of farmers in the fields. Layers of bright green tea plants spread over gently rolling fields and up and down small hills.
We spent a delightful couple of hours wandering down dirt roads threading past the neat rows of tea bushes that went on for miles. In a village, we were seated on a patio under the shade of a massive tree. Even though it was over 100 degrees we were served superb green tea in tall clear glasses, and watched the tea leaves drift up and down each time our glass was refreshed with hot water. A dish of striped sunflower seeds and a cool breeze completed the treat.
A meal at a country style restaurant followed with deep flavors of a dish that featured bamboo shoots, and others with fresh vegetables and tender meats. Outside, the staff was making homemade dumplings.
Grace had always enjoyed our huge extended families, and family is deeply valued in China as well. At restaurants, it was common to see three generations sitting together — grandparents, parents, and their children. We had a four-generation meal with Grace’s extended family.
We were treated to a Beijing’s best regional dishes, all selected by her father, chatting with everyone from her grandmother to the youngest member of the family, Kaka, a bright, active 2-year-old. We never ordered at any meal, but always found the food amazing. Grace, who understands food and knew what we would be likely to enjoy and would warn us if she thought it would be out of our comfort zone.
Shopping was interesting. There are the regular malls, just like in the United States. But there are thousands upon thousands of small shops, some only the size of a walk-in closet.
In Beijing and Shanghai, we visited old shopping areas filled with these shops, where you could buy everything from silver bracelets made in front of you to candy, also made in front of you, and sometimes twisted amusingly into animal shapes. In the malls, the prices are fixed. In the small shops, it pays to have skilled negotiators like Qi and Grace.
Qi told us in before shopping: “Don’t buy anything. Let us handle it.” And they did. Elaine wanted to buy a silk robe in a Silk Street shop in Beijing. Asking price: about $200.
Qi and Grace took over. They kept shaking their heads at the clerk and walking away. The clerk kept dropping the price. Finally, after many back and forths, they arrived at a final price: About $80.
The clerk was smiling but pointed as she beautifully wrapped the item. “You are lucky you have one tough Chinese momma with you,” she said. We smiled and said, yes, isn’t she amazing?
We had no issues traveling in a Communist country. But we didn’t forget where we were either. Each time we checked into a hotel or bought train tickets, we had to show our passport so they could register our names.
Some popular American websites are blocked by the Chinese government — for instance, The New York Times, Facebook, Twitter, and Google. (Although I did get an occasional dump of Gmail, somehow) On the other hand, we had no trouble visiting the sites of the Globe or the Washington Post.
Traveling was an adventure. Traffic in the cities can be a nightmare. Beijing has a population of better than 20 million. Think about it: That’s triple the population of Massachusetts — in one city. And Beijing is only the third largest city in the country.
Most of that population seemed to be on the road, all the time, in cars, three-wheelers, bicycles, and scooters or motorcycles. The roads are intense. Drivers weaved from one lane to the next, cutting one another off, one hand peppering the horn. Turn signals are an urban legend.
We took a high-speed “bullet” train from Beijing to Xi’an. The dramatic change in scenery was interesting and very different from the East Coast, at least from what we saw. Beijing didn’t seem to have much in the way of suburbs. Rather than a gradual turn from big city to suburbs to rural, Beijing’s big buildings just seemed to end abruptly and turn into farmland as far as the horizon.
The people were wonderful and friendly. People asked to have their pictures taken with us. Children especially wanted to practice English speaking with us. We always made friends whenever we were standing in line.
We only had one complaint — we left too soon. Two weeks goes by fast. We’re looking forward to our next trip.
Matt Carroll is a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Twitter: @MattCData. All photos copyright by Matt Carroll