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Confucius Says: Welcome to China
June 28, 2000

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Cyclists like Skittles rolling by...
Rain falls steadily outside. From my fifth-floor hotel window, I watch the busy streets below, as a few cars and hundreds of bicycles speed by. All the cyclists have the same style of raincoat, with a flap that goes up over the handlebars, but each one is a different, bright color. It's like Skittles candies are rolling endlessly past. The air is heavy with pollution, but the streets are clean and orderly. This is modern day Communist China.


Communist - related to a form of government characterized by the collective ownership of property
populous - having a large population
vat - a large container, like a tub or barrel
unintelligible - difficult to understand; incomprehensible
imperial - related to an empire or a king, especially an emperor or empress
dynastic - related to a line of rulers from the same family or line that maintains power for several generations

I've been to over 30 countries now on the World Trek, but I still get excited and nervous with each new place. China was particularly frightening for me. It is the most populous country in the world, after all. But I know so little about it, and, of course, it's Communist. I grew up with the Cold War, when Communists were supposed to be the bad guys.

What will it be like? Are the people nice? I don't speak Chinese! Will I be able to find food I like? Will there be Internet cafés?

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Yang-Yang helps us navigate the efficient bus system home.
Lucky for us, we were met at the Kunming Airport by our newest trekker goddess, Yang-Yang (pronounced "young-young." She's also the baby of the team!), who is Chinese. Not that we couldn't have handled it ourselves with wild hand gestures and Odyssey magic, but it sure is nice to have someone who speaks Chinese here with us! After the hugs and laughter, Yang-yang led us out of the airport, into the orderly streets, onto a bus, and to our hotel. My fears dissolved into excitement and curiosity about this new world around me.

"It's just like Chinatown, only bigger!" I laughed as we explored the markets full of unidentifiable stuff. Eggs soaking in vats of strange liquids, noodles of every shape and size, and entire stores full of nothing but tea. Jasmine snapped photos while Yang-Yang patiently translated as Kavitha and I asked a million times, "what's this?"

Once in a while, Yang-yang listened to a shopkeeper, nodded, and we walked on. Then she would whisper, "I didn't understand a word he said," and we would break out into giggles. With an area of 9.5 million square kilometers (3.7 million square miles), the People's Republic of China (PRC) is the third largest country in the world. (Can you name the first two largest?) The Han, the majority group that we think of when we think "Chinese," lives in only half of that space. But even in half of what is now modern day China, not one, not two, but EIGHT Chinese languages developed, and each is unintelligible to the others. And that's not even mentioning the many different languages spoken by the minority groups in the other half of China!

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Taking a break with the locals.
Yang-Yang speaks a dialect called Mandarin, or the "Han language," which is spoken around Beijing. It is officially the national language, so most people in China, especially in big cities like this one, speak it to some extent. She coaches us as we practice saying 'Hello' (Ni hao), 'Thank-you' (Xiexie), 'toilet' (cesuo) and, of course, 'Is this vegetarian?' (Yo su da ma?)

Who are the Chinese, anyway?

Even though they only occupy 50% of China's land, the Han Chinese make up 93% of China's population. They are concentrated in the densely populated urban areas along the East Coast and on the Central Plains of China.

The Chinese culture is one of the oldest on earth, and has been shared by a people across an enormous territory. Writing started almost 4,000 years ago, and the "imperial dynastic" system of government lasted from 221 BCE until 1911 CE. To put it into perspective, Compton's Living Encyclopedia on America Online says, "It is as if the Roman Empire had lasted from the time of the Caesars to the 20th Century, and during that time had evolved a cultural system and a written language shared by all the peoples of Europe."

Looking at my history books and the maps, it's pretty clear that the Odyssey is only going to be able to cover one small part of this country's land and history. Confucius says: Cut the trekkers some slack, ok?

"Yo su da ma?" I asked the lady at the restaurant. Everywhere else in the world, this would be a "Chinese restaurant," but here in China, it's just a "restaurant!" It took me a few tries to be understood, but then she nodded and grinned at me. Yang-Yang looked on proudly as her students practiced their basic Mandarin phrases. The hardest part is that there are four different tones (or five if you count neutral). The word "ma," for example, means four different things (from 'mother' to 'horse' to 'scold') depending on the tone of your voice while saying it. Careful not to call your 'ma' a 'ma,' or she'll 'ma' you!

The waitress kept refilling our tea as our chopsticks crossed from plate to plate, piled high with spicy food and rice. "When I was a kid, I thought that if I dug a hole deep enough, it would come out in China!" Kavitha laughed. "I used to LOVE sweet and sour pork and pu-pu platters!" I remembered my favorite Chinese restaurant from my childhood. "When we were kids, if you could use your chopsticks right, you were the bomb!" Jasmine added.

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In China, this is just a restaurant, not a 'Chinese restaurant.'
"Hey!" Kavitha said when the bill came, "Where are the fortune cookies?"

"That's not really Chinese!" Yang-Yang laughed. So we set out to find something yummy for dessert that really is Chinese. I think I'm going to like it here!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - The World Trek Is Bringing It Home...Kunming, China Kicks Off The Grand Finale!
Monica's Farewell: Trekking Out of India
Yang-Yang - The World Trek in China Begins!
Kavitha - Buddhism? Here? Visiting the Yuantong Temple
Team - Dragon's Bones or Really Old Teeth? The Peking Man Site
Team - Making a Difference - Do As I Say, Not As I Do, And No, You Can't Have Any of My Weapons: Getting MAD About Nuclear Proliferation

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