To Beijing and Back


I peered out the window to find a sweeping expanse of sand, drifted into enormous dunes and extending as far as the eye could see. There was no sign of human habitation whatsoever. Yet for some reason I couldn’t take my eyes of the eerily haunting scene, and I only turned away with reluctance when the flight attendant wearily asked me to “Please shut the window, ma’am.” I looked up to see my screen announcing that we had traveled 6128 miles and had 482 to go. That was when it hit me. While my classmates were worrying about their English finals, I was on a 747 above Mongolia, headed to Beijing so I could, of all things, sing. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d gotten there, and was mildly confused as to why I was going at all. All I knew was that I spoke absolutely no Mandarin and had no idea what I was going to be doing. It was a terrifying idea, but less terrifying than the idea of never trying anything new.

So how exactly did I end up on this plane? In November, Andy, the conductor of PALS, a chorus I’m in, told me that there was a possible opportunity for awesome in December. I was psyched—I mean, until I realized it was the week of BUA finals. I told Andy that I’d talk to BUA about it, but that I highly doubted they’d let me miss exams, the climax of the academic year. This was when he mentioned that the trip would be to China.

Now that was a surprise. To say the least.

With the blessings of the BUA administration, I embarked on a whirlwind of a month. The most stressful of my life, I had interminable rehearsals, countless projects, emergency trips to the State Department for a new passport, and that little thing called finals. Throughout the whole process, I forbade myself from thinking about the fact that I might actually being going, because it wasn’t a sure thing.

Finally, the day before we left, we had confirmation we were definitely going. And so because I’d never really thought about it being real, I was rather confused as I sat in that plane and stared out at the desert. But despite all of this, the plane landed in Beijing, we went through customs, and the most incredible week of my life began.

Let me start out by saying that Beijing wasn’t fun because of the tourist spots. Honestly (spoiler alert!) they were really a letdown. The Bird’s Nest was just a ginormous stadium which looks exactly the same as it does on television. The Forbidden City is just rather large. And while I know that the Great Wall should have made me think about mankind’s great and terrible power to create and destroy, all I was thinking about was how not to fall to my death. Because one thing you don’t realize until you’re hundreds of feet up in the air on a slanted surface without handrails is that it’s fairly icy in winter. Be careful, folks.

What actually made me think about “mankind’s great and terrible power to create and destroy” were the sharp contrasts on full display during the trip.

We were there to record some songs for a New Year’s Spectacular type event for children, and that part of it was, well, spectacular. There was elaborate makeup, absurd costumes, modeling shoots, and fancy studios.

But, with glitter still in our hair and stars in our eyes, we also saw the city—not as advertised in glossy brochures, but as it really is. The city, sprawling and packed with people, slapped you in the face with the realities of megacities. A layer of grime seemed to cover everything, the air was hazy with smog. There was high rise after high rise, and it made me wonder—what were all of the people in those depressing cement buildings getting to do with their lives? And why should I, a 14 year old who stumbled into China out of sheer luck, get to travel across the world? Why did I deserve this chance?

I couldn’t answer that question, but I tried to simply make the most of my luck. What more can we do, really? I sang. Played games with some Estonian girls also there to sing. Managed to have conversations with people even when neither of us spoke each other’s language. And more than that, I thought.

Because sometimes it takes being a stranger in a strange land to realize what’s bad—and good—about your home. Sometimes it takes a week in a place without clean water to realize how lucky you are, and a week of the unexpected to realize what you’re missing in your everyday life.

I’m back in Brookline now, but my memories of Beijing are still vivid. Maybe that’s part of why we travel—even when you’re back home, you’re not the same. Traveling changes you.