4 months of daily planning. Ten years of telling everyone we meet how fun it would be. 6 days on the ground. Where does the story start?
12 years ago, on a secluded part of West Lake in Hangzhou, China. Enzo and I manage to find a rowing club and through gestures, pointing to calluses and boat bites, and lots of determined pointing, we finally get out on the water. Enzo with his Western hairy legs making the preteens giggle, Eliza taking pictures of the oogling.
Still relying on gestures, the conversation stalls and someone makes a phone call. Apparently there is a translator! By phone we learn she is Elaine, Wu Yu Lin to her comrades, and the club is part of the provincial sports bureau. An appointment is made. We come back the next day and meet her, some masters rowers, more teens and preteens: we are already in love with Hangzhou and this ices the cake.
Elaine proves to be capable, friendly, and dynamic. We propose a Sister Agreement and two years later we actually sign it. It is official, overly official: we sign it in the office of the Hangzhou Foreign Affairs Bureau and not with the little local club but the university in charge of them. Tiny San Miniato is now twinned with the regional sports university!
The next year they visit us and the exchanges are a haze of good feelings, few words, boats shared, hands shaken, and photos galore. The Chinese rowers for the first time saw rowing as a fun activity that people all over the world do for free...no, that they PAY to do! They saw our moms and dads preparing lunch for the team – no state cafeteria preparing their meals. They saw kids much younger than they were rowing beautifully, and kids totally inept at sports still being given the chance to participate. Elaine, now a necessary part of any Chinese event or meeting I attend, is ineffably perfect in her role, smoothly translating the emotional Italian-into-English into words the Chinese can comprehend. Vice versa, she adds intuited passion to the English that I then convey to the Italians.
Everyone goes home…the Italians to their dinners, the Chinese back to China. Promises are made but the Italian parents never quite digest the idea of sending their kids halfway around Earth to return the visit.
Meanwhile, we promote the trip on our website and many people are interest but none commit. Rowing in China seems too unreal perhaps, a mixture of something incredibly familiar with something incredibly foreign. Conflicting images might overtake the imagination, of Third World filth and the purity of rowing.
Enter Francesco. Wang to his boatmates. First-generation Italian-Chinese, he is kind, tall, handsome, and strong. He is simply a rower...and slowly in the collective mindview of the Italian parents the Chinese people are not quite as alien as they seemed before. And then: the breakthrough! Friends from America, Kat and Carl, book a “Row the Dragon” China Tour with us. We are going! We will be organizing rowing stuff! Fun rowing stuff with fun Chinese rowing friends!
The ball is rolling: we call a meeting of all our rowers! We check flight prices, imagine a schedule. We let our Chinese colleagues know we’re coming. We prebook 12 spots, imagining that about 7 rowers would come. Some of the bigger kids, the boys who row with Francesco Wang, maybe a girl or two with well-travelled parents.
China replies...no one is left who remembers us. Elaine gets involved and finds the new leader. We know of each other: I helped him organize a kayak race a few years before. He is keen for the trip to be a success: he is an Olympic champion and his yellow star is swiftly rising on a red background.
And then the rowers reply: everyone is coming! Kids, preteens, teens. Some adults. Some officials. The list keeps growing, the airlines fib, I sweat...a new booking is made for 17, then 20, then 23, then 27. We are a gigantic group of Italians…plus the original Americans! Even more want to come but a line is finally drawn and we settle in to finalizing air tickets. Just before paying for 27 tickets to China I check, again, with China: we are many many people, this is fine, right? I list the creds of those coming in order to show them I understand how they will need to present the delegation, to show off who is coming. China replies: it’s fine. I figure I will have time to work on their enthusiasm levels.
Tickets are bought. 22 out of 29 people have no passports: they apply. Paperwork consumes us with unaccompanied minors requiring epic certification, signatures requiring three different levels, in three cities, of verification. Parenthood is certified, the certification then certified, that certification then undergoes inspection and approval.
One morning an email arrives…China did not remember that our original agreement was to host 15 people. They regret to inform us that our expenses would therefore not be fully covered. They have no idea what the extra expenses will amount to. Under pressure, they lobby an absurd price…the price of a 4-star hotel in the center of Hangzhou.
Elaine is brought in. She brings in her friends. Reassurances arrives that this is a bluff, that our Rising Star is “making face” as being tough on wasteful spending.
Read on...Part 2.