More than a week ago, we arrived in Beijing for a program which to our surprise had been named the Happy Chinese Camp for Sweet Family. It probably should have been called the Grumpy Chinese Camp for Irritable Family, because it turned out that we were staying in a dorm—one that would probably represent luxury for your average Chinese student, but not so much for your typical middle-aged Americans too tall to stand under showers mounted on the wall at a height suitable for a Chinese two-year-old.
Our dorm room came with a service guide that explained that smoking “in elevator, in bed, and in suitcase is prohibited.” It also reminded us that we were not allowed to have a birthday party in the lobby or breed poultry in our rooms. Our teachers were concerned if we didn’t ask for permission to leave campus on our own, and at every meal we had to beg for drinking water before someone finally brought us a pitcher of hot water fresh from being boiled because the Chinese believe that cold water is unhealthy, too much of a shock to the system.
The real shock to our systems was the schedule, eight nonstop days of compressed introductions to Chinese language, culture, and history. A sign outside a museum we visited requested, “Please be self-restraint and be a good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination.” I tend to think that imaginations should be somewhat ill-mannered, charging around heedlessly, and we did enjoy art projects more when we embraced our friend Lee’s philosophy: “I am not attached to the outcome,” she kept repeating, giving us permission during paper cut class to cut out slightly uneven characters for double happiness and, in my case, a scraggly butterfly. Pottery painting and folk dancing were a lot more fun when we weren’t attached to the outcome, and the tai chi lessons would have been, too, except that the instructor was very attached to the outcome, walking around adjusting our arm positions for fifteen minutes at a time until the children got so bored they were lying on the floor or turning cartwheels.
In some ways, I thought, we were too westernized to fully get the Chinese perspective, since its educational system is all about rote memorization and recitation of facts and sharing and respecting rules, while our cultural values lean much more toward individualism and thinking outside the box. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that while rules seem to proliferate in China, no one pays much attention to them, leaping up to open overhead compartments while the plane taxis down the runway, barreling right through red lights, eating ice cream as they stroll through exhibits at the Beijing Capitol Museum, smoking beneath no smoking signs. That inspired me, so during the lesson on painting opera masks, when the instructor reminded us every couple of minutes that we must, absolutely must, be sure to stay inside the lines, I followed all directions before succumbing to a little moment of rebellion in which I gave the fierce face of my loyal, brave, and hot-blooded warrior some dangly earrings.
And so the week continued as we took lessons in cooking dumplings and Chinese language instruction in pronunciation, making introductions, telling time, writing characters, and asking acquaintances what their sign is on the Chinese zodiac, which as far as I can tell is mostly a sneaky way of figuring out other people’s ages. We took a field trip to Olympic venues, where Sophie and her friend Grace, both on western Pennsylvania gymnastics teams, did the splits in front of the Bird’s Nest, bridges in front of the water cube, and handstands in front of the gymnastics gym.
We were late to a colorful show called “The Legend of Kung Fu,” arriving right about when Chun Yi, distracted from his Buddhist discipline by a beautiful illusion, finally manages to demonstrate his strength and courage and free himself of his ego to enter the gates of the temple and achieve warrior monk status. We spent hours fighting crowds at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but the Temple of Heaven was oddly silent. The folk and ballroom dancers, the ribbon dancers, the tai chi practitioners, the kite fliers, the community groups singing opera, the lively games involving shuttlecocks had all been cleared out of the historic site that once doubled as a park for locals. According to our guide, the locals were getting in the way of the tourists, so these activities had been banned from the park. There were many groups of men playing cards and checkers, but it wasn’t quite the same.
A Peking Opera performance involved a sampler of scenes from various classics, tales of loyalty and revenge where there were many tears that fermented the wine, abysses of misery, and years of secret sorrow. As was traditional, men played the female parts, their falsetto voices sounding like chipmunks, making our children giggle. I wondered what our kids would make of these shows, of these intensely male traditions where women are still played by men and in Kung Fu women are nothing but a beautiful illusion. Our guide was disappointed by our inability to fully understand the beauty of these ancient art forms, and I felt torn between wanting to understand and not wanting to fully embrace aspects of Chinese culture that I wouldn’t be willing to embrace in my own culture, either.
I had signed us up for the camp because I wanted a chance to connect with other families like ours while avoiding a traditional tour. It was difficult for us to adjust to the lack of independence and free time, but in the end, we made new friends and learned a lot about Chinese culture and language—and even more about differences between our cultural mindsets and the reasons that misunderstandings arise.
Sophie was proud of herself for being able to explain to a woman selling fruit that she didn’t understand Chinese and that she and the other girls were Americans and Canadians. And I was proud of myself for making extensive use of my days-of-the-week vocabulary acquired in Guilin when, convinced at dinner one night that it was Wednesday but told by everyone else that it was Thursday, I figured out how to ask someone at the next table whether jin tian was xing qi yi or xing qi er. Turned out that it was Thursday. I was pleased at remembering a little bit of Chinese, but then a little sad at how fast the time was speeding by. In just a few days, we would have to cram six weeks of dirty laundry and souvenirs into our overweight luggage before heading on to our last stops in Zhejiang Province, Sophie’s birthplace.