The Grand Tour

Evan Osnos leaves his post in Beijing to travel through Europe with a Chinese tour group and then write about it for the New Yorker:

We settled into coach on an Air China non-stop flight to Frankfurt, and I opened a Chinese packet of “Outbound Group Advice,” which we’d been urged to read carefully. The specificity of the instructions suggested a history of unpleasant surprises: “Don’t travel with knockoffs of European goods, because customs inspectors will seize them and penalize you.” There was an intense focus on staying safe in Europe. “You will see Gypsies begging beside the road, but do not give them any money. If they crowd around and ask to see your purse, yell for the guide.” Conversing with strangers was discouraged. “If someone asks you to help take a photo of him, watch out: this is a prime opportunity for thieves.” I’d been in and out of Europe over the years, but the instructions put it in a new light, and I was oddly reassured to be travelling with three dozen others and a guide. The notes concluded with a piece of Confucius-style advice that framed our trip as a test of character: “He who can bear hardship should carry on.”

We landed in Frankfurt in heavy fog and gathered in the terminal for the first time as a full group. We ranged in age from six-year-old Lü Keyi to his seventy-year-old grandfather, Liu Gongsheng, a retired mining engineer, who was escorting his wife, Huang Xueqing, in her wheelchair. Just about everyone belonged to the sector of Chinese society—numbering between a hundred and fifty million and two hundred million people—that qualifies as the country’s middle class: a high-school science teacher, an interior decorator, a real-estate executive, a set designer for a television station, a gaggle of students. There was nothing of the countryside about my companions—the rare glimpse of a horse grazing in a French pasture the next day sent everyone scrambling for cameras—and yet they had only begun to be at home in the world. With few exceptions, this was everybody’s first trip out of Asia.

Li introduced me, the lone non-Chinese member of the group, and everyone offered a hearty welcome. Ten-year-old Liu Yifeng, who had a bowl cut and wore a black sweatshirt covered in white stars, smiled up at me and asked, “Do all foreigners have noses that big?”

April 11, 2011 9:27 PM
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