My first attempt to reach China was thwarted by my inability to dig deep enough in the rocky New England soil of our backyard, and by my father's insistence that I fill in the hole before someone stepped in it.
For days I'd worked on that hole. And as I dug, my seven-year-old imagination dreamed of that moment when I'd break through on the other side. There'd be Chinese children playing in a grassy field. I knew exactly what they'd look like, for in a book I had seen pictures of red-cheeked children with gleaming black braids and dark eyes crinkled with laughter. I imagined their open-mouthed surprise when they saw a little blue-eyed girl with blond pigtails break through the earth.
After their initial astonishment, they'd laugh, help me brush off the dirt, and invite me to join in their games. We would play all afternoon until dark, at which time they would invite me home to supper. Their parents would be delighted with me, astounded that such a little girl could have tunneled through the whole earth to visit them.
Now, decades later, I was going to China the long way around. The faster way. The easier way. I was circumnavigating the earth in an airplane. No shovels, rocks, or hard soil to contend with. I could just sit back comfortably, and in so many hours the flying machine would set me down gently in China. The reality of this, in its way, was more magical than my childhood imagination.
I hadn't really planned to go to China. But, a few weeks before, unexpected events required a major life-shift, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. Making any sort of plan for myself seemed difficult. Then, I saw a travel ad in this newspaper. It was a "buy one while they last" pitch, for the ad suggested that it might be the traveler's last chance to see the Great Gorges of the Yangtze River before a proposed dam flooded them. In addition, there would be visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I jumped at this diversion from decisionmaking, and called the travel agency. Three weeks later, I was on my way to the other side of the world.
For five days, we traveled by boat up the Yangtze River and leisurely glided by the magnificent Great Gorges shrouded in mist. Back in Beijing, we rushed in the fashion of tours designed for the traveler to see as much as possible in the least amount of time. At a fast walk, we followed our flag-bearing guide. As we raced to each new sight or back to the bus, local faces were a blur.
We bought souvenirs on the run from vendors, exchanging yuan for a hawk-shaped kite, a cloisonn turtle, a lighter with a portrait of Mao Zedong on it (it played "Mao's Song" when opened), a brightly painted box with solar-powered crickets in it.
I was disappointed at the fast pace, puffing from the effort to keep up and not get lost. I reasoned that there would be time, when I got home, to sit back with all the photographs I had taken and absorb the great sights I had seen.
However, my outlook brightened when, on the bus trip to the Great Wall, our guide took us on a surprise detour to a kindergarten for the children of workers in a military boot factory. We must have looked like invading giants to the children, as all 30 of us from the tour, in bulky winter coats, trooped into their class. We sat in little chairs arranged around three walls, as the children in brightly colored clothing sang to us.
At a signal from their teacher, the children held hands in circles of three for a coordination exercise. Singing to the accompaniment of music from a cassette, two children lifted their arms over the third, putting him in the middle. Then the child in the middle got out of the circle by stepping carefully backward over the arms of his classmates, the three never letting go of one another's hands or breaking rhythm.
The teacher then arranged the children in twos and sent each pair to choose one of us to be the third in the exercise. Two shy little girls took my hands and led me to the center of the room. When the music started, the girls looked at me expectantly. As the grownup in the trio, they assumed that I'd begin the exercise. I managed to communicate by facial expressions and a shrug that I didn't know how.
They began to sing, and I stooped low so they could reach over my head to encircle me with their tiny arms. I was at eye level with the child in front of me. She dimpled with the effort not to smile, but her sparkling eyes responded to mine.
It dawned on me that I was playing with the grandchildren (or perhaps great-grandchildren) of the children I'd wanted to reach those many years ago. This was the China that my child-heart yearned for; what was missing on the tour's mad dash to see the sights.
I returned home with the memory of children who were just as wonderful as my seven-year-old mind had imagined, and the satisfied sense that it is never too late to realize a dream. With a freshened view of possibilities before me, making decisions about my future no longer seemed so daunting.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society