The first time I traveled overseas, it changed my life.
I was on my way to the Weifang International Kite Festival and the adrenaline rush had kept me awake most of the flight. After fifteen hours in the air, we landed in Beijing and then connected directly to the train station for a twelve hour train ride to Weifang. It was dark when we arrived at our hotel and I was tired. Really tired.
I decided to take a short walk before bed. But as I stepped out of the hotel, I noticed that there was a crowd of Chinese standing at the edge of the parking lot. It was as if an invisible line was holding them at a respectful distance and they were all staring.
So suddenly it dawns on me. I’ve come to a city of eight million people. There are only one hundred Caucasians. These people had never seen anyone like me before!! As I walked to the edge of the parking lot, the crowd parted like the Red Sea and a group of maybe fifty politely followed me down the street. It was a very eerie feeling. A block away, another international guest was on his way back to the hotel with his own entourage in tow. We met on the sidewalk and the two crowds edged closer around us to see two foreigners up close and listen to us talk.
The other fellow had been in China before and was an old hand at these situations. He pulled a cyalume “light stick” from his pocket, unwrapped the foil cover, and dramatically snapped it on. The crowd surged back as the green glow appeared. He then handed it to a young boy and we walked on together, followed again by the crowd.
I will never forget that sensation, surrounded by friendly strangers in the eye of a Chinese human hurricane. It was typical of my time in China, but more important, it introduced me to international kiting and the special and unique experiences that I had never imagined at home.
We marched in parades for the festival opening ceremonies that rivaled anything seen at the Olympics. Each delegation was led by a young woman carrying a sign naming our country as masses of people cheered. We flew kites on a specially constructed field, complete with permanent viewing stands, surrounded by so many spectators that from the distance, they looked a forest of trees, not like people.
We watched enormous fireworks programs and marveled at the fellow whose job it was to light everything. He held a small flare in one hand and a cardboard box over his head with the other.
We bartered with Chinese kitemakers for incredible handcrafted silk and bamboo treasures and then tried to figure out how to get them home.
We flew kites in solitude in the swirling winds over the Great Wall and wandered in awe through Beijing’s historic Forbidden City.
During my wandering in Weifang, I often went to the huge Weifang Kite Museum. A group of students were working there during the festival to practice their English and I formed a quick rapport with them. There were twenty-three girls in the class and five boys. That fall, they graduated and went to work in tourist areas around the city.
The next year, I returned to Weifang with my wife. Everywhere we went, in hotels, restaurants, and even in banks to change money, young women rushed up to say “Hello Mr. David!, Remember me?”
I had a heck of a time explaining to Susan.