When I was small and would dig a hole in the sand at the beach, my dad would say to me, "If you keep digging, you'll end up in China." Last night as I put on a watch I had not worn since we left home and realized that I only had to move it one hour, it hit me that we truly are on the other side of the world. We've finally made it to China.
Dalian is a large port city that regards itself as cosmopolitan and international in orientation because of its proximity to Japan and Korea. Japanese is the most studied second language here. They may be cosmopolitan, but when we saw someone that looked like us, they had arrived here on the same ship we did. Because few English speaking tour groups of our size visit here, they did not even try to provide us with English speaking tour guides. Rather our tour was conducted by two college students who purportedly have studied English. The female was intelligible, but had little to say about this town. Instead she used the mic to entertain us with one Chinese song after another as we worked our way through the heavy traffic. The male spoke English so poorly that I got a headache from trying to puzzle out what on earth he was trying to say. The only job he really had was to lead us through the fish market and he didn't even get that right. We circled the building twice before he figured out where to go in.
Luckily, our tour had many highlights and we learned a lot despite the lack of leadership. We visited the home of a retired couple who served us beer, moon cakes and fruit, and showed us nice photographs of their grandchildren, who live with them but were at school. Rather than asking us to take off our shoes the way the Japanese would, they had a large supply of booties which we slipped over our shoes. The apartment building had been built in 1997, but from the outside it looked over fifty in terms of wear and tear. However, inside the small rooms were neatly maintained and a large TV provided distracting background as we chatted and tried to get to know one another a bit.
A local kindergarten was the next stop. Each classroom had a small group of five year olds, seven to ten in all, and a young teacher lead them through songs and games. They were already starting to learn English and we sang the alphabet song together. Some of the kids were attentive and enthusiastic, but others were distracted by our presence and did not focus on the task at hand. Guess some things are universal.
Next we photographed People's Park, a large grass square surrounded by massive government buildings and heavy traffic. This is the spot where people fly kites, a favorite Chinese activity and we were amazed how many of our fellow passengers bought kites from the vendors. Perhaps a flotilla of them will be bouncing around in the sky behind us when we sail out of port.
Our final stop was a Friendship Store. From our past visits here during Communist times, we expected a small government run collection of typical Chinese souvenirs. Things have certainly changed. The Friendship Store was now a gleaming modern building, ten stories tall selling genuine Gucci and Fendi purses, French perfumes, and imported foodstuffs. It would not be fair to judge all the shopping opportunities in Dalian by what we saw here, but for some folks, life is good.
Dalian is clearly a city in transition. We saw beautifully maintained European style buildings that had been constructed in the late 1800's, when the Europeans were jockeying for position and trade opportunities. We also saw buildings in serious need of renovation or perhaps even a wrecking ball that had been built during Communist times. Yet in other areas we saw impressive and massive modern buildings that would fit right in with the Chicago skyline. And on nearly every empty spot, a construction crane indicated that that spot would not remain empty for long. The roads were clogged by cars. No longer could we get the picturesque shots of a family of five perched on a bicycle or a man balancing cages of live chickens as he pedaled down the road that we had taken on a previous visits here. Some say that China will be the next super power. Believe it.