by Rasheeda Smith

My experience in China to say the least has been invaluable. I traveled to places far and wide, boldly, and with the cover of solidarity. The silence allows me to move at my own pace, hear the heartbeat of cities, the murmuring of foreign tongues, the scents of spiced unfamiliar foods. I trekked across the rich histories of Xian walking in the tombs and palaces of Emperors. I wandered through the Muslim mosques and meandered through the crowds in the market places watching the locals create their masterpieces of traditional foods and selling trinkets and brightly colored cloths. In Hong Kong, I sailed the harbor on a glistening, sparkling night via the Star Ferry . On the boat I felt the tepid winds and ocean breeze against my face, watching the city lights flicker off in a distance. In Hong Kong, I tasted foods from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and in Beijing I explored rich palaces of great Chinese leaders and wandered lost on a snowy night taking in the sights while unable to find my hotel in the growing darkness.  The growing panic soon subsided as I stopped along a bridge to watch the bright white flurries float in the warmth of  glowing orange street lights. I heard the fireworks of the Chinese New Year far away, marking a new beginning.

My biggest feat, however, that changed me the most was my experience on The Great Wall. I challenged myself and my fears by braving something that has gripped me all my life: A fear of heights. As a person who is extremely petrified of heights and doesn't even like climbing a small ladder or flying in airplanes or walking up high mountain trails, I was proud to finally face my fear not once, but twice. I ended up riding a cable car and braving the heights of the Great Wall where I partnered with an intrepid young German man in my tour group named Jan who was a tall and quick of foot.  He easily took on the hills and stairs that even the natives were stumbling over. Despite my pace, which was slow and uneasy, we reached a tall tower in the distance. He was patient as I stumbled painfully along huffing and puffing up greatly steep hills and uneven, crumbly, shifty stone stairs lightly spotted with leftover snow. 

The words of Chairman Mao that my tour guide chanted to me, rang through my head. “'Chairman Mao said, ‘When you climb the Great Wall, you become a hero' so today you are a hero! You are here!" 

Jam wanted to go up to the high point of the mountain in the tower seen in these pictures. I did not want to slow down someone else or dampen their first Beijing experience. But also I did not want to disappoint myself. Forty-five minutes later we made it to the top of the first peak along our side of the trail. The view took my breath away as the sweat drops on my head cooled in the mountain air. 

It was through my holiday travels, I found out about the heart of China; its beat, its rhythm, its pulse, its flow. I felt like a part of an ancient past with a premonition of a vast, unfolding future still traditional in its roots. But also, I tasted and experienced a bit of the world in different ways, meeting different people, hearing the stories of the past, tales of the present, and hopes for the future in the encounters I made with friendly strangers along the way. It was then I realized that China is one place and China is many places. China is many people and China is a reflection of myself. #Chinaisalotlikeme

I encountered so much culture and history during February and it was really exciting and totally made this experience of being in China much valuable. Even when I faced adversities, troubles, and difficulties along the way, the generosity, kindness and guidance of the local people was really touching.

Despite cultural differences and language barriers, the strength of human compassion and graciousness is perhaps the real story of behind this entire experience.

I've learned so much and learned to handle crazy difficulties in the face of solitude and with relying on often nothing but the help of kind strangers. It has been truly humbling, truly incredible.

And so, if I could leave you with one thing that has inspired me the most on this journey of mine thus far, I will leave you today with the words of the great late Maya Angelou:

“Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you've got. Love it with a passion, because life truly does give back, many times over, what you put into it.”