I grew up as a small-town Alberta boy, so Edmonton and Calgary seemed like big cities to me. Everyone knows that China has more than a billion MORE people than the U.S., which in turn has over ten times the population we have here in Canada. We all know that that’s a lot, but it doesn’t actually register just how many people that means until you step foot out of that plane. I will never again complain about rush hour or cramped trains. In addition to the swarms of people, every building in China is on a scale that dwarfs anything we have here. Some of our largest skyscrapers downtown Edmonton are about the average size of one apartment building there, usually in a group of eight or more.
The biggest highlights for me were the people and the food. As a 6’2 white male with plenty of tattoos including a full sleeve, I was expecting people in conservative China to be wary of me if not cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I did have plenty of people want to take pictures with me, but that was something everyone from Canada experienced. There are literally so many people in their country that many of them in less tourist driven centres have never seen anyone who isn’t of Asian descent! My favorite memory is of the second day of classes. We were all partnered up with Chinese students that would help show us around, so Gary (my Chinese friend) decided to take me out for street food. When the sun sets in China, streets flood with people and restaurants expand outwards with folding tables and chairs. While eating heavily (food in China was unreal) and drinking to match, this little Chinese girl that couldn’t be more than 4 years old was peeking around her mom and staring at me, this scary intimidating foreigner with tattoos. Having had a few drinks, I stuck my tongue out at her. Instead of hiding, her little face lit up and she laughed and stuck her tongue back out at me. We spent the next hour making faces at each other while her parents laughed and encouraged her. By the end of the night, they had paid for our entire meal and her dad approached me and asked me (in Mandarin, so Gary had to translate) if I could give his daughter an English name, which ended up being the most humbling part of my entire trip (I named her Alice, by the way).
I’ve already made plans to head back to China next summer, both with the University of Alberta and CLIC, as well as to do some travelling outside of school. If funding continues to be as easy to get as it was this past summer, I will probably be in China every year until I graduate. If you’ve never gone but are planning to go to China, just go with an open mind.