Chen Chong, known by her American tour groups as Mary, waited patiently in the hotel lobby, yellow stuffed-animal duck in hand.
Mary was in Beijing, the bustling capital of China, preparing herself for day two of what would be a week long adventure in her home country.
When all 19 members of her group had assembled before her, already dressed and fed with a delicious authentic Chinese meal, she began the day with warm greetings and by escorting them outside to locate their tour bus.
The day was warm with a thick, moist humidity to boot. Mary had anticipated her tour group’s discomfort and had brought along a large silk Chinese fan for each of them.
Mary’s tour group contained five high schoolers from North Carolina and their leader, along with ten middle school boys from Texas accompanied by three leaders of their own. When all of her charges were seated on the bus, Mary picked up the microphone, plugged in at the front and called ‘Ni hao.’
The group called a discordant but enthusiastic ‘Ni hao’ back.
“Your Chinese is very good!” Mary assured her guests. They smiled, and some of the boys repeated the word tasting its unfamiliar inflections. Mary laughed. “Yes,” she said and began to explain the agenda for the day.
Their first stop was to the Temple of Heaven. On the bus ride over, Mary told of the custom of students in Beijing to travel home during the holidays. “The city is very crowded, so it is very hard to purchase a train ticket home. So, during the holidays, when they greet someone, instead of the customary ‘Ni Hao’ (hello) or ‘Chile ma’ (have you eaten) they say ‘Have you gotten a ticket?’” She tittered at the amused expressions and with a final, “Yes,” assured them it was true.
She held her yellow duck, perched atop its metal pointer, high, as a soft breeze, whispered of oncoming rain. They wound their way through the tree-punctuated temple courtyard until Mary greeted, in Mandarin, the Tai Chi master who stood waiting for them. Mary watched as her group took a 45-minute lesson in traditional Tai Chi, occasionally translating the instructor’s commands.
After the lesson, Mary directed the tour group to a section of the courtyard where a gathering of retired Chinese locals was playing hacky sack or else guarding laminated slips of paper displayed on the ground in front of them.
Mary stopped walking and beckoned her group to gather around her. “As you can see, many retired parents or grandparents will come to this courtyard with their children’s resumes during the day.” She indicated a nearby piece of paper. “The resume will tell about the son or daughter’s education, personality, and even health. The adults will walk around the courtyard reading the resumes, and they will set up dates for their children.”
Mary looked around at the faces of the American group; they looked bewildered and surprised at such a method of socialization, and she smiled to herself, knowing what reaction the next bit of information she was going to give would cause.
“In America, you might ask if someone is single or married, but here in China, people ask if someone has ‘solved their personal problem.’” Sure enough, the group gasped, and some laughed in surprise. She then allowed them to wander among the resumes and soon many of the children began playing hacky sack with a group of the elderly folks.
After touring the Temple of Heaven, the tour group crowded back onto the bus and Mary directed the driver to take them to Tiananmen Square.
As they crossed the street toward the square, a troop of soldiers in pressed, green uniforms marched past, their young faces focused ahead and their gait disciplined. Mary let her group explore Tiananmen Square, reminding herself to explain to them the reason why many of the Chinese tourists asked to take pictures with the Americans. It was due to their fair skin, a trait considered highly attractive in China.
They entered the Forbidden City under the enormous portrait of Communist leader Mao. Once inside, Mary explained about the concubines of the emperors of old. The girls would be chosen between ages 12 and 17 and would live out their lives in the Forbidden City with no contact with the outside world. She also told them about a prime minister who disapproved of the next heir to China. When the Emperor died, the prime minister altered his Will, so it demanded that the firstborn son commit suicide. Such was the importance of respect for and obedience to authority during those days that the firstborn obeyed and his brother became Emperor.
As she got to know her group, she looked forward to seeing her husband again. Her husband of only a few years would be eagerly awaiting her return home. Mary directed her tour with excellent language skills and social experience through China for the rest of the day and following week, endearing herself to the group with her jokes, sweet mannerisms, and patient explanations of Chinese culture.