Chinese Buffet – Part 19: Visit is Over. Memories Remain.

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

I wish I could have experienced China on a bicycle. Riding through the streets, forced to lay my camera aside for awhile, I’m sure I would have viewed aspects of the country differently from a two-wheeled perspective.

But I am a horrible bike rider!

This was as close as I got to riding my own bike in China. On my last day in Shanghai, we rented a bicycle-made-for-three in Century Park. With four wheels and no traffic, it was smooth sailing during our early morning ride:

And then there was my rickshaw driver in Suzhou, who gave me a taste of what authentic bike riding in China is all about. He did the pedaling work while I simply enjoyed the view and cool breeze. When the ride was over, he totally tried to swindle me out of more money than we had agreed upon, but I couldn’t care less. Just look at the smile on this guy:

He must have been one of the most jovial pedicab drivers in town, and kept me laughing the entire time. And that’s what I’ll remember most.

So what if I didn’t get to do everything I wanted? It’s really all about who you meet in the end. The more I travel, the more I believe that it’s not really about the places at all — it’s about the people you encounter.

I don’t want to spend my life trying to check off sites from a list of places I should see before I die. I just want to visit different countries and see what each reveals to me, no matter if it’s mundane or extraordinary.

Take Maurice, for example. Just an ordinary guy visiting Suzhou the same day I was there:

This tall funny Frenchman appeared like a mirage — walking towards me in his bright qipao shirt with a mobile phone in his hand at the exact moment when I was frantically searching for a payphone. He was such a cheerful champ when I asked if I could borrow his phone. We chatted briefly and parted ways, but several hours later I ran into him again in one of Suzhou’s gardens. We talked a bit more, and I asked for a photo, to capture our memorable meeting.

More often though, it was the other way around — people would approach me and ask if they could take a photo together. When this happened, I sometimes asked if we could also take one on my camera, so I could remember them. Usually I was approached by Chinese tourists who were making their first visit to the big city:

This Chinese woman was visiting Beijing for the very first time with her husband and son. She approached me in the rose garden at the Temple of Heaven.

“Excuse me? You take picture with me?”


“Thank you. And welcome to China! You are a very beautiful woman.”

I’ll miss these unsolicited “beautiful woman” compliments!

I also met Heng Yi Ling at the same park, a sweet 18 year-old visiting Beijing with her dad. While we listened to women singing opera, Heng Yi’s dad encouraged her to practice speaking English with me. Talking to Chinese children was especially amusing and enjoyable.

In Shanghai, a woman making her first visit to the city sat next to me while we ate dumplings. When we were finished eating, she asked for a photo…and I asked for one too:

There was usually limited conversation with the older Chinese tourists I met, but they were encounters just the same, and interactions with people always seem to linger longest in my mind.

As I type this, I’m remembering other folks too — there was Cedric from Philadelphia, who I said hello to at the Forbidden City because I noticed he was wearing a tee shirt from the school I used to work at. After chatting for a few moments, he snapped a photo of me too!

I met lots of expats also, and was grateful for the perspective they shared — my Couchsurfing host, the folks at The Bookworm and True Run Media, my Shanghai friends and their network of international pals.

So… I didn’t get to ride a bike through the hutongs of Beijing, or try some hot pot, or visit a tea house or do the touristy thing and buy a latte at the Forbidden City Starbucks in the final days before it closed!

But I met a whole bunch of interesting people. And learned that the world is full of a lot of snappy happy folks, including myself! Which is not such a bad thing, because I now have a virtual memory box of faces, names and interactions that shaped my first look at China.

There is one more special person I met on my way out of the country. I’ll wrap up the Chinese Buffet series tomorrow with a story about the adventure we shared…