At my recent book launch, I was asked what, after all these years of traveling to China, do I first notice when I arrive there. That stopped me for a bit. But then it became clear to me. As soon as I’ve checked into my lodging, I head for the streets–whether in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Xi’an, or farther flung places. Day or night, I walk for blocks and blocks.
Adjusting my pace to China’s, I slow my quick, tense American stride. I move with the flow of pedestrians, look in shop windows, navigate intersections, and listen. Stores selling CDs and DVDs pipe loud music into the streets—sounding to me like romantic modern pop. Vendors peddle by calling their ancient cries of services rendered.
In late evening, my favorite time, pedestrians gather around sidewalk grills and small restaurants for meat on skewers or noodles salted with red-hot sauce, squinting through the smoke of the grill or squatting at the edge of the sidewalk relishing the noodles and chatting. But most of all, I soak up the sound of thousands of people talking to each other in Chinese. As I walk, the river of sound, rising and falling in cadences so different from English or Spanish, captivates me and carries me along. It pulls me away from the long flight and hectic trip preparations and draws me into China.
Finally saturated, I head back to my room to hook up my computer, call friends and colleagues to let them know I’ve arrived, and get ready for days of meetings, interviews, and classroom visits. But those first hours of walking have gotten me ready.