The China Rowing Trip: Part 1

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, 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!