The Day We Sneaked Out of the Summer Palace

Foreign guests are invited each year to join a fall walk at the beautiful summer palace in Beijing. Everyone was given identifying stickers, a bright yellow backpack, and a jacket to wear, and encouraged to mingle with hundreds of foreigners and Chinese hosts as they make their way around the palace grounds via a marked path.

Our university invited us again this year (our third year) to join the group. We had another commitment in the afternoon, but thought we would attend just the opening ceremony of the walk before quietly and unobtrusively leaving.

To our surprise, however, before the walk started we were honored on stage with big colorful “longevity” banners as the announcer said, “Charles and Laraine Chamberlain, American experts, are recognized for being the most outstanding walkers.” Apparently, we were the only ones who’d attended the event for three years straight.

After this honor, we felt so guilty about walking away, we stayed for at least some of the walk, then skulked away from the marked path and plethora of organizers by ripping off our stickers and hiding our bright banners as much as we could. Our hearts were beating fast as we sneaked away. “Outstanding walkers” indeed!

China does an outstanding job of opening up opportunities for dialogue with foreigners. It is obvious that a great deal of focus, energy, and money is spent on presenting a friendly face to the world. For instance, when an important global trade or government meeting is to be held in China, it is very common for the meeting to be held in one of China’s “tier two” cities. This gives the country an “excuse” and a deadline to renovate and upgrade that city. Travel anywhere in China and you’ll see massive road and landscaping projects in addition to the building boom. It reminds us of families who hold a daughter’s wedding reception in their backyard. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see the family remodel the living room, family room, and back patio in preparation. Now if we could just get more attention to those bathrooms!