I was hunkering down in the first-class lounge at the Beijing airport with my laptop and a bottle of Johnnie Walker while I waited to catch a plane back to the States when it occurred to me. “The fact that I talked my way in here tells me either Eastern cultures find social ineptitude irresistibly charming or my charisma is temporarily bolstered by an absolutely insatiable need for social contact.”
Indeed, you can’t fully grasp the meaning of the word “alienated” until you’ve gone two weeks without any significant human interaction beyond drawing stick figures on cocktail napkins or smiling and nodding while pointing at menu items. Decades of take-out fried rice orders had led me to believe communication with the people of China would be a lot more conveniently numbered than it turned out to be.
Innocent attempts to further bridge this cultural chasm could lead to results as mildly inconvenient as turning down the wrong street or as embarrassing and unfortunate as inadvertently propositioning a hooker. (Yes, really.)
After two weeks of awkwardly navigating the social byways of foreign tourism everywhere from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the hillside cave-slums of Xi’an, I concluded my journey with a visit to the Great Wall of China.
They say the Great Wall is the only man-made object you can see from outer space (mercifully, they specify “man-made,” thereby disqualifying my forehead), which gives you a pretty good idea that this is one heck of a long wall. In fact, it stretches on for about 5,500 miles — almost twice the width of the entire United States.
What they don’t tell you is how high it goes. On my last full day in China, I visited a well-preserved, 300-plus-year-old section of the wall in Mutianyu (about 40 miles outside Beijing) that winds up, down and around the area’s mountainous landscape. I had to take a skyride just to get to the base of the wall, and once I got to that point, both directions offered a daunting uphill climb.
But, hey, I’m pretty fit for a chain-smoking alcoholic, so what the hell?
To reach the wall’s highest point, I trudged up steep inclines and haphazard steps for nearly 45 minutes without taking a break. By the time I reached the top watchtower, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, my face and arms were covered with dead bugs, and my legs and lungs were burning with the fire of conviction. I slumped down on the stone and the sun beat down, basking me in its triumphant glow. Moments later, a couple of other tourists climbed wearily over the threshold, and we exchanged tired glances and mustered half-smiles that said, “We made it!”
It was glorious.
Five days later I’m sitting at a desk in a long row of similar desks, quietly filling out time sheets and approving expense reports. It probably goes without saying that this sort of juxtaposition affords one a fair amount of what people like to call “perspective.”