Writing now, on April 6th, I can still feel the daily upheavals and surprises of that prequel: the planning, the itineraries proposed and ignored, the paperwork completed, the trips to embassies and prefectures completed. The sponsors sought, courted, and pinned down, the jackets designed and embroidered. The missing uniforms reordered, the sweatshirts reprinted. The yuan illicitly brought to us from China and distributed as pocket money.
And then finally, March 28 arrived…and we were boarding a bus! We were now 24 people…the Americans would join us in China. Everything went smoothly…San Miniato to Florence, Florence to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Shanghai, Shanghai to the Thousand Islands Lake by interminable busride. We arrived in the crisp clear air of this protected park in time for dinner.
Now…for me, my story can begin. This was my 11th time in China! My boys were with me and were already ahead of me in line at the mess hall: they were loading the Bakelite cafeteria trays with noodles and rice and weird chicken and strange beef and unknown veggies and they grabbed their two chopsticks from the vat of chopsticks and headed to the table. Before I had even deciphered the steam table offerings in front of me they were back for seconds, standing in line between the 6’5” Chinese rowers.
I could now watch with a mixture of amusement and motherly anxiety as the Italian kids ventured towards these strange offerings without any helpful menu cards to guide them. They tried the weird things, and told each other the results of their experiments, then headed back for tons of white rice which they drenched in soy sauce. What looked like drumsticks proved to be duck heads and I got to watch and giggle as they discovered this. (I had already fobbed my own off on Elaine). The Chinese rowers devoured gigantic quantities of food in 15 minutes flat, at 6:45 the mess hall had only our group still eating. We were Italians, after all…we tried to be quick and hoped the Chinese appreciated our efforts to leave the table by 7pm—barely aperitivo time for us!
As we all settled into our rooms the boys...mine and others…explored the elevators, learned where the girls were, swapped leftover plane snacks and discovered a commissary with ice cream, drinks, and toilet paper. For most of the group it was the first time using foreign money: they’d only ever stayed within Europe and don’t remember a time when France had francs and Germany had marks.
Finally…we were all tucked in. The boys had received handmade pillowcases with dinosaurs and constellations from Kat and had set up their room with them on their pillows and each boy’s stuff in drawers: snack drawer, book drawer, undie drawer. The long preparation, the long day of travelling, the build-up of curiosity and apprehension was finally sated. Even the cockroach slept, deciding to wait until the next day to meet us.
Keep reading...Part 3.