Proposition one: China is bigger than you think. Even when you think: China is big. It's still bigger.
Proposition two: You can never imagine, not really, what you're in for when you go to China. Where you're the foreigner--really, really the foreigner, the true Other.
China just isn't China without the Great Wall, said my son. To which I wholeheartedly agreed. In a conversation I had this morning, a man I work with said, It's like when you've seen pictures of things your whole life, and then you go see them in reality. It's like when I saw the Eiffel Tower. I was pretty much, Yeah, that's what I thought the Eiffel Tower would be like.
The Great Wall is not like that, not really. I don't care what you think it will be like. I don't care what you've read, what homework you've done, what history you've assembled, what pictures you've seen, how many times you've viewed Mulan. I don't care. If you are on that wall, you are in another place entirely than the place you imagined. It is much grander and much, much more difficult.
Proposition three, corollary to Proposition One: You will not see everything. Not remotely.
Proposition four, corollary to Proposition Two: You will hunger for home and home comforts--the internet, ice in your drink, a sandwich--and you might feel a little bit ashamed of this longing, but that won't change the fact of it. And you will confront your limits, also a non-negotiable element of being in China.
I looked up at the steps, the stone steps ahead of me. They seemed almost vertical. I had not imagined them. Even though my son had told me about this--had said, it's pretty strenuous, mom, words meant to warn me and encourage me to prepare--I nonetheless found myself looking up those steps and thinking, I don't want to have a heart attack on the steps of the Great Wall and also I don't want to fall down the steps of the Great Wall, and sometimes I thought those thoughts simultaneously.
I said, I don't want to... and my son finished my sentence: ...have a heart attack?
Exactly, I said. And also I don't want to fall.
He said, but think about being able to say that: I had a heart attack on the Great Wall!
Funny, definitely. I found myself thinking, plenty of times during this trip, that despite the great anticipation I had had for this trip--despite the planning and the itineraries and everything we had done to get ready to go--I found myself thinking that China might kick my ass. If that's what adventures are supposed to do: dominate you and make you, basically, submit to them.
Well, the people, I did. I submitted, at least sort of, to China. I climbed the steps and rested when I had to so I wouldn't have a heart attack and/or fall. When we got to the towers, we rested and drank water and leaned up against the cool stone. And then climbed some more. To be clear, I was the main person who needed the resting. The historian and my son were, comparatively speaking, nimble mountain goats. But it was so worth it to be there. To look and see the wall snake away from us, over the next mountain ridge, and the next and the next after that. To be humbled by my limits and still press on.