Traveling across northern China in 1982 was an intense experience. So much so that we did not talk about what was happening, even to each other. My brother-in-law was immersed in translating dialect so that we could manage to purchase tickets and somehow pass through officials who weren’t quite sure whether we should be where we were. Finding lodging and food were more difficult the further west we went. Each one of us seemed to be enveloped in an isolated unit, not uncomfortable or ever frightening but inwardly absorbing the immensity of our situation.
There were always people curious to move close to us − to touch our clothes, watch us with awe.
My head and my heart, too, were full, brimming with a continual silent interaction of experiencing an existence without speaking, without a useful language. Looking into warm and welcoming, inquisitive eyes seemed to allow an understanding of how we, as strangers might be similar.
Having my sketchbook gave wonderful space to interact quietly on my own. Always someone was willing to sit, and always an engrossed crowd to enjoy the occasion. I would hand the book to the models and indicate that they sign their name. Most of the time that was sufficient input for them, and I could keep the drawing in the book. I found I was reluctant and sad to complete a drawing and move on. The kinship with the group was palpable. I felt this longing to linger in such a gentle shared experience all across China.
We did not talk about any of this until much later. We returned to north Florida and immediately began making plans to move to Dominica. I say, with no pun intended, China paled when we arrived in the West Indies.
National Geographic Society photographer Bruce Dale was working on an article on Dominica with editor Robert Booth, and they showed us the extraordinary piece on China they’d done the year before. This began the conversation, revisiting that marvelous summer traversing the north country of mainland China.
We had the “Chinese” good fortune to meet Kristin and David Congdon in 2007 and somehow established that our travels and Kristin’s could converge in ChinaVine.
We were not students or scholars and yet this wonderful, incredible opportunity came into our lives. We partook of it with every ounce of our being. We met our fellow human beings in a foreign land and loved them for accepting us. They gave us, without words, an understanding of the necessity of each human being to recognize similarities, respect differences and take responsibility to meet each other well
This was a trip of a lifetime. To be able to witness the people, culture, and places before China opened its doors to the world. It was an incredible learning experience. The people were honest, hard working and happy from east to west. They held a strong family bond and seemed true to their values. I was so impressed that nearly 30 years later it remains clear in my mind.