You know when you’re little and you spend your entire Sunday at the beach trying to dig far enough to reach China? Everything about the country seemed so foreign at age five– the strange Chinese characters that resemble people, the people themselves, even the fact that it was exactly on the opposite end of the world. All of these factors and more made China a little kids dream adventure. Well, I’m happy I never dug that far; I don’t think I could have handled China on my own as a five-year-old.
Where the East meets the West: Hong Kong
One of my closest friends on the ship, Gavin, is from Hong Kong, so I spent the first two days in China with him as my tour guide. After a quick ferry ride from the port we headed to lunch on the 40th floor of a tall building in the center of the city. We were in awe of the extraordinary skyline during our meal. As we ordered, I took pleasure in watching Gavin try to explain my dietary restrictions to the waiter. I finally realized that I was very, very far away from home. The infrastructure of Hong Kong reminded me so much of New York City, but there is still such a disparity between Western and Eastern culture. Despite the abundance of similar technology and pop culture, the language barrier and different customs remained prevalent. I noticed this difference during the entirety of my time in greater China.
I was invited to dinner by Gavin’s parents that night. I was introduced to his sister (whose self-given English name is Cinderella) and to our meal: a boiling pot of water surrounded by different seafood’s, tofu, meats and vegetables. They had a very small kitchen, living room and 3 small bedrooms that attached to a bathroom. That was all—simply and happily they carried about their business and set up a dinner for us starving students. Gavin’s father handed me dessert and said it was lucky, so I scarfed it down. A second later with a huge smile on his face he said in a thick Chinese accent what sounded like ‘it’s penis balls’. With what had been offered for the previous courses it was very plausible. Thankfully his accent got the best of him as he meant to say peanut balls. I’m not going to lie, for a minute I got scared.
We spent the night at Lan Kwai Fong (LFK), the best street for nightlife in Hong Kong. Within hours, I met people from England, Australia and all over the U.S. We took the streets of Hong Kong to a whole new height and we made our way through the different hot spots. I woke up early the next morning to join Gavin as he visited his university, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). While it was no University of Florida (Go Gators!) it reminded me a lot of an American university: beautiful green campus, millions of club advertisements, and a bustling library. Gavin tried to sneak us in to some classes and when that failed we joined his friends on the lawn for the rest of the afternoon.
Barely making it to Beijing
After visiting HKUST, I met Stephanie, Eshley, Sam and Austin to start our trip to China’s capital, Beijing. The plan was to take a subway to Shenzen, one of China’s fastest growing cities, spend the night, and then catch a flight to Beijing in the morning. There have been many ups and downs throughout this trip, mainly because I love waiting until I arrive to find a place to stay and because I love making random friends to liven up my itinerary (or whatever sort of plan I concocted the night before). I truly believe that everything always works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out, it must not be the end, right? Beijing was honestly a close call.
As soon as we went through immigration in Hong Kong I noticed the difference between the city we just left and China. Technically Hong Kong is now a part of China, but we said goodbye to the little English available to us and hello to security guards around every corner.
This created a huge problem when Eshley left her passport and wallet in a taxicab because she was no longer allowed back into Hong Kong, which is still under a separate government from mainland China, couldn’t make our flight to Beijing the next morning and couldn’t meet the ship in Shanghai a few days later. Eshley was panicky and in no condition to handle the situation, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. With the American Embassy on the phone in one ear and using the other to try to understand the gentleman who was directing the cab mob, the language barrier clearly wasn’t working in our favor. Out of nowhere, a Singaporean man, Mark, walked up to me and offered his assistance as our translator. We spent the next two hours with 8 Chinese men and Mark playing back security tapes trying to find our cabs incense plate number. After rewinding millions of times I realized our chances for getting her passport back were slim to none, but I stayed calm because well, the American Embassy had me hold so I had no other option. We ended up guestimating the cab number, sending out a broadcast radio message to all the cabs in Shenzen and miraculously obtained the passport and wallet two hours later. Like I said earlier, everything always works out.
“What it means to be a student in our time”
We surprisingly found a place to stay that night, made our flight to Beijing the following morning, and headed straight for the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I can’t explain the significance of Tiananmen Square to me better than my Academic Dean and mentor on this voyage, Victor Luftig. As someone who has never taken my 1st Amendment rights for granted, I was connected to his words and hope that you too, especially my friends back at school, can find a personal meaning in the following paragraph.
“Just a quick word about one of the places that those of you going to Beijing are likely to see. If you visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh
City, you got to see evidence of how powerful and long-lasting American college students’ influence can be, and in the Arab Spring we often saw college students take the most principled, and the riskiest, positions in trying to bring about democracy in their countries. In between, in 1989, perhaps the most important such effort came in a place a lot of you will be visiting, Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Tiananmen Square is a place of great cultural significance in China: it’s been used as the gate of the nation in the past. Outside of China, it is most famous for what began in late May of 1989, when college students demonstrated there for democratic reform and were joined by millions of people from all walks of life. Then on June 3, 1989, tanks entered the square and troops began firing randomly at protesters; hundreds were killed. Tiananmen Square is only one of a number of sites SAS passengers will visit in Beijing, and of course it’s one of dozens that we’ll visit during the voyage, but it’s the one that perhaps represents most plainly the principled embrace of what it means to be a student in our time, of what it means to try to do something with what you are learning. I mention this not to encourage you to take risks but only to encourage you to be aware what you get to Tiananmen Square, and to think about what you have in common with students all over the world who are using that role-the role of student-to try to get some of what we have been relishing each day of the voyage.”
After watching sunset over the Forbidden City we attempted to find a hostel to spend the night. We unknowingly came to China during one of their biggest holidays. After calling about 15 places we finally realized we were stuck, homeless and hungry. So what else is a Jewish girl to do but call the local Chabad? Eshley called Dini, the rabbi’s wife, who told us to come right over. We pulled up to the Chabad and were astounded by what a lovely building, café and restaurant encompassed the synagogue. It seemed weird that in a country where religious freedom didn’t exist, this type of establishment was open in the middle of the street and welcomed everyone inside.
Regardless of the six children running around, the other visiting family from New York, the ringing phone and the Passover preparations, we were invited to sit down and have the Rabbi cook us hot dogs and hamburgers while Dini set up potential accommodations for us to stay that night, without me even having to ask. I felt a rush of warmth and comfort that almost brought me to tears.
Rabbi Shimon was the first Rabbi to move to Beijing and brought his wife, Dini and children with him to start the establishment, which has grown immensely. I was still confused as to how they maintain such a vibrant Jewish community in a place where freedom of religion is limited. Like any good Rabbi would do, he began to answer my question with another question: because of freedom of speech, how many people in the U.S. hate the government? There is so much hatred that stems out of the ability to speak freely—this question is how he introduced the reasons he appreciated the Chinese government. He had seen the government changes in the last 10 years and people were able to speak negatively about the government but not in the degrading and negative ways American journalists do—its not about what they said but how they said it. The rabbi stressed the importance of the Chinese government making slow incremental changes and highlighted the changes that had been made.
“If everyone thinks there is no religious freedom, how is it possible that I am here now? You have to understand what we are dealing with here.”
The Rabbi spent an hour answering our questions about everything from China’s relations with Iran to the one child policy to the Jewish community to his experience as the official rabbi at the Beijing Olympics. Staying up late to talk with us, they had us set up in a hotel across the street, arranged a tour for the following day, and somehow thanked us for our presence. We joined their family for the next three meals of our trip. Needless to say, I am so happy we called them.
The Great Wall and beyond
The following day in Beijing we began our trek to the Great Wall. After a cable car ride up and an intense hike, we finally made it to the tallest point. The 5,500 miles of this massive monument were surrounding me. I expected to feel small and miniscule compared to this ginormous wall, but instead I felt empowered. The Great Wall was a border used as a protection barrier for the Chinese empire from the East to the West. Various emperors attempted to prevent influence from the outside world in order to maintain complete control and power inside. Well, over the past three months I have crossed countless borders. Thankfully today I live in a society where outside influence is not only permitted, but encouraged. Today, political, economic and social development are so clearly linked to globalization; which is why, while standing atop the highest point of the Great Wall of China I felt confidence in the potential of our international community. While the Great Wall may still tall, its ideals no longer do.
Sami and Shelley take Shanghai
When I think of my Sami, my roommate from Gainesville, I immediately think of China. I think of the Mandarin she speaks around the house even though no one can understand her and of her obsession for the few Asian restaurants in our college town. Naturally, as I chose to study abroad around the world she headed straight for Shanghai and I was so excited that my ship was making a stop in her new hometown.
As someone who has made airport hopping a major hobby over the years, I don’t believe there is a greater feeling than having someone wait for you after a flight. When I saw Sami waiting for me at the airport, I leaped into her arms. We took a cab straight to her apartment at Fudon University, got ready in about 10 minutes and headed straight for G Plus, this upscale nightclub on the top floor in a mall (only in China) and brought a little bit of Gainesville to Shanghai.
We woke up early the next morning to tour the city. Well, I was the only one doing the touring. She showed me the beautiful pearl tour, a local market, noodle lunches for less than a dollar, and how she, one of the sweetest girls I know, makes it through the subway where manners and smiles seem to be inexistent. We made it back to her apartment early to get ready for our Passover seder.
Next year in Jerusalem, but this year in Shanghai
The shul was gorgeous, but because of strict government regulations, is only open six days out of the year. We were surrounded by about 500 other Jews in the middle of Shanghai, China celebrating our exodus from Egypt. At our table was a family from Israel, a man from France, the two of us from Miami and a group of guys from New York who weren’t actually assigned to our table. Observing each Jew individually and then interacting with each other was quite the spectacle as we drank our four cups of wine and ate too much matzah. A conglomeration of global Jews around the Seder table in China – I wish someone had a video camera.
After a full week in China traveling through Hong Kong, Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai I felt as if I had broken down many barriers. While my Mandarin is very, very limited, I still managed to communicate with every local I encountered. While freedom of speech is not fully granted, I managed to find the truth about how people felt towards their communist government. Just like the notion that the Great Wall still stands but its ideals no longer so too the belief that barriers, from political to personal, are everlasting.