A Spartan in China, West Contra Costa’s Global Ambassador Program

Ryan Tomas, Staff Writer

My summer trip to China was an experience I will never forget. Every single aspect of life is different there. From the culture to the geography and even the trains, everything is different in some way.

I had never left the USA before. I had been on planes for a couple of hours, but nothing even close to the 12 hours it takes to fly between China and the USA. The first thing that I noticed when I landed was the time difference. During the flight, I had traveled forward 15 hours. I left the US at 10:30 on Friday and landed in China around 1 on Sunday. The security process is a lot more stringent in China. They take fingerprints, there are cameras everywhere, and you need a visa to get in at all. 

After going through security, we got on a bus and started the three-hour drive to the hotel. The hotel was familiar, just like the ones I’d stayed in many times before. On our first full day, we went out to a popular mall. It was an otherwise ordinary experience except people were staring at us the whole time. 

The second day, we went to the Great Wall. There was a bus that took us to the bottom, but we had to climb stairs for about 20 minutes to get onto it. The stairs leading up to the wall run through a forest which is almost tropical, due to the humidity. There were huge bees, ants, and millipedes flying and crawling around. The section we visited was restored, but thankfully it wasn’t crowded. The views were like pictures from textbook covers. You could see the surrounding forest for miles, the rolling hills, the rest of the wall stretching off into the distance. You don’t truly know the scale until you have been there in person. The size alone was breathtaking. I won’t ever forget how amazing it was, being there in person. 

Third, we went to the forbidden city. It’s a huge connection of courtyards separated by traditionally styled walls and doors. These doors have nine rows of nine gold-painted decorative knobs on them to signify royalty. Like the Great Wall, the scale of the forbidden city is massive. It took us at least an hour to walk all the way through. Because the whole thing is made of wood, there are massive pots of water in each courtyard in case of a fire. 

After the sightseeing portion of the trip, we moved from our comfortable hotel in Langfang to a boarding school a few hours away. The rooms at the school were narrow, with four bunk beds, two Asian style toilets, and a shower room. The mattresses were hard, so we laid on the blankets to make the beds comfy. The one upside to these dorms was that the air conditioning was great, so as long as it was turned on, we were alright. 

The classrooms at this school were old, they had cages around the windows, blackboards, and the air conditioning was obviously retrofitted. The desks and stools were old and worn out, like most things in this massive school. 

It wouldn’t have been very tough, except we weren’t aware of how different it was going to be. In China, even though it’s very hot in the summer, all the drinking water is hot, so we had to buy refrigerated drinks from the in-school store every day. The “Asian style” toilets I mentioned earlier are a big change. They aren’t really toilets, but more like sinks in the floor, so to use one, you have to squat like a Russian gangster. 

After a couple of days In this school, we moved a few hours away to another, much larger and newer boarding school. It was the opposite of the first one, the dorms were really old and beat up, while the classrooms were new and comfortable.

This school was close to a huge city, many times bigger than San Francisco. They had malls and restaurants just like here, but it was very different. In America, Pizza Hut is just another pizza delivery place, but in China, it’s a sit-down restaurant. The servers have pitchers of hot water that they fill your cups with. One interesting thing is that the English translations on the menus aren’t very accurate. There was a pizza called “Tomato Bacon” which came with baked potato and bacon on it. This pizza was the only one I ordered at this restaurant, and it was great. There was no tomato sauce on it like usual pizza, it was some cheese or maybe egg sauce. This combined with the slices of baked potato was great, a good break from the cafeteria food. 

Later, we went to an underground mall, where “What Does the Fox Say?” was playing on the radio. At one of the food stores, we found some crazy flavors of Lays chips, including Italian Red Meat and Cucumber. Later, we found a stand with chairs with fish tanks in front of them. This was so the fish in these tanks could eat all the dead skin off of your feet. My friends and II bought half an hour of this and the fish went right to work. It was a crazy sensation, like a light scratching, but after about 5 minutes we got used to it. By the end, my feet felt like new.

 By this point, the trip started to feel like it wouldn’t end. Everyone wanted to go home. We started counting the days. The lack of conveniences like clean clothes, drinking water, and normal toilets was starting to irritate us, but the promise of a nice hotel in the future kept us going.

The ride from the boarding school to the last hotel was about six hours. This one wasn’t as nice as the one we were at in the beginning, but it was lightyears ahead of the moldy dorms we’d been in for the past two weeks. We finally had access to hot showers, soap, soft mattresses, and sit-down toilets. I got right in the shower and washed my hair six times. We all went to sleep at about 9:30, it was the best sleep I’d had in weeks. We woke up the next morning and got on the bus for our final ride back to the airport. 

The security made me open a box with a snow globe in it, but thankfully they let me keep it. In the boarding tunnel right before the door to the plane, another Chinese security officer stopped me and checked my bags again. I was  On the flight back to the USA, I grabbed some headphones and watched Iron Man 1 and Infinity War. I tried to get some sleep at least, but the loud jet, upright seat, and anticipation of being back home kept me awake. 

I could not get off that plane fast enough. I almost ran down the hallways to baggage claim and got right into the passport check line. On the way out, a security officer asked: “Do you have any fruit or meat with you?” Of course I didn’t, so I continued out the door into the waiting area, where my parents were waiting for me. I was home. 

China was an experience of a lifetime, and the history and culture truly come to life once you’ve seen it in person. It was great to meet the Chinese kids, experience what their lives are like, and give them the chance to talk to people from six thousand miles away. I’m glad I went.