Wuhan, China: June-August 2010
The first time I realized I wasn’t in Boston anymore also happened to be the first time that I tried to cross one of Wuhan’s busy roads. I started to walk across once the pedestrian light turned green, and was shocked when one car whizzed past my backside, another right before my eyes. Why are they moving, my outraged mind shouted in confusion. Pedestrians have the right of way now!
Pedestrians never have the right of way in Wuhan, as I soon figured out once I had been forced to wait in the middle of the road until there was a clearing that lasted just long enough for me to dash across to the other side, directly in front of one of the giant oncoming I-stop-for-nobody Wuhan buses that I would come to know so well in the following two months. After that, I was afraid to cross the street for the next two days, until my roommate finally convinced me that by refusing to ever face the ruthless traffic, approximately half of Wuhan would always remain practically unknown to me, no more than a vague outline of buildings that housed stores the nature of which I could only dream about. So, little by little, I overcame my fear. To this day, though, I still have nightmares about running down dark streets away from the intimidating rumble of gigantic oncoming trucks.
Despite this initial, somewhat traumatizing setback, living in Wuhan for two months brought with it far more rewards than it did nightmares. A green rookie who had never before left North America, I was shocked when I saw the traffic—but on the other hand, I got to ride a vespa for the first time in my life, catching a ride on the back of one on a busy morning when every taxi was full and I needed to be at work within the half-hour. Scary? A little. But, as I clung with dear life to my seat while struggling to answer in Chinese the driver’s onslaught of questions about the United States, I must admit that I was also more than a bit thrilled.
Of course I missed western food, but I would be crazy to deny that Wuhan’s cuisine is anything but exquisite. My breakfasts varied in the morning depending on where I was working, from meat-and-vegetable or mushroom-and-rice dumplings to the Wuhan favorite, Re Gan Mian (or Hot and Dry Noodles), to delicious vegetable buns. Lunch was always an experiment; I tried a delightful variety of dishes I never would have discovered anywhere else. For dinner most nights, I walked across the street from my hotel to a modest little place that served some of the most succulent fish I have ever had and steaming egg-fried rice. Other nights, I would go out to hot pot restaurants, where I cooked my own food in the sizzling pots in the middle of the table. Once, one of the friends I made at work, a Wuhan New Oriental teacher, brought me along with her to a wonderful western-style café where I had a ham-and-cheese sandwich dinner and also a taste of home. A small group of locals ranging in age from thirteen to fifty or so gathered around me to ask me questions about the States and my experience in Wuhan, trying to practice their English while also learning about a foreign culture. Sitting there in that cozy environment with my sandwich and an orange soda, I felt more at home than I ever could have imagined I would after that first day, when I was trapped in the middle of four lanes of rapid traffic.
One morning I woke up early and visited a park, which was as alive with people as though it were mid-day. Some pairs played badminton, while others danced with the energy of children. One group practiced Taijiquan—some wielded long swords with red tassels at the ends, but some had to make do with their umbrellas. A gorgeous blue-velvet butterfly fluttered past my eyes. Wandering deeper into the park, I realized that it entered into the back of a gorgeous red-and-gold Buddhist temple, which at this hour was still full of monks dressed in their distinguished yellow-and-red robes, sitting around tables within the multiple shrines chanting one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies I have ever heard.
On the surface, Wuhan is a noisy city with terrifying traffic and loose cobblestone. However, the city contains a plethora of treasures scattered throughout its huge area, each one a unique jewel of cultural discovery. How do you find these treasures? Just do what I did, after I determined that I wouldn’t let bad traffic dominate my memories of my experience abroad. Start looking.