The boy on the bus glared at me like a tiger stalking its prey. We call that “mean muggin” where I’m from.
(Backgrounder: Tianjin is a metropolis in northern China with a population of over 13 million people. The citizens of Tianjin are infamous throughout China for their boisterous behavior and distinct accent – similar to that of New Jerseyans.)
People often ask me, “Joe, how can I experience the Tianjin lifestyle?”
You plan to join the Master’s program at a nearby university with your friend from high school. While filling out applications at his place, he hands you a brochure for the university’s Great Wall program. It looks like an interesting opportunity, but you think it’s not possible. The next week, you’re in the Dean’s office. He asks you if you’ve ever thought of studying abroad. Before you can respond, he asks you “how would you like to study in the world’s fastest growing economy?” He had you at “abroad,” and you reply “of course.” He offers you a scholarship to study in Tianjin, China. You immediately accept his offer and then ask yourself, “where the hell is Tianjin?” However, the answer doesn’t really matter. You’re already thrilled about the chance to live overseas – so much so that you quit your job at the consulting firm and fly out a few weeks later.
After what feels like an eternity on the plane, you disembark in a weird and wild place – Tianjin, China. It is the first time you’ve lined up in the “Foreigners” section at immigration. It’s also the first time in your life, you are an outsider – thousands of miles away from the comforts of home. And while your classmates start their first day trying to map out the closest McDonald’s and Starbucks, you hit the local markets trying to use the rudimentary Mandarin you picked up in the past couple of hours. The local people gawk at your white complexion, and whisper among each other. Obviously, you can’t understand a word they are saying, so you assume they are talking about how devilishly handsome you are, or wondering if you’re a celebrity or rock star.
On the first night, you sit at a large circular table with your classmates – looking at food you’ve only seen on the Food Channel. In order to prove to the locals that you belong here, you grab a pair of chopsticks and attempt to pick up a piece of gong bao ji ding. But you squeeze the chopsticks too tight, and a piece of chicken goes flying towards your Chinese host’s face. It’s the first time you experience the Chinese meaning of losing face – but it won’t be the last. After several weeks, you’re still getting accustomed to the flavors and textures of the local cuisine. Your stomach is having a difficult time adapting to the massive amount of bacteria. After losing 10 pounds, you find a jar of peanut butter at the local grocery store and dine on PB&Js twice a day for the next several weeks.
After spending two months in dreary Tianjin, you and your classmates are ready to explore, so you book a train ticket and head to Beijing. You visit all of the famous tourist sites including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Once there, you’re enveloped in a mystic fog – which you later find out is pollution. After that, you head to Tiananmen Square, which turns out to be the biggest disappointment of the trip. Unimpressed by this barren square, you decide to recreate the infamous tank scene, and ask your classmates to snap a shot before the guards seize you. After roaming around Beijing, you realize that it is not any different from any other metropolis in the U.S. – countless skyscrapers and littered with Caucasians.
(Warning: If you’re an aspiring animal activist, or own a dog you may want to refrain from reading the following.)
During the first week, you and your classmates are escorted around the neighborhood. You narrowly try to avoid the bathtub-sized potholes, and cover your mouth to evade the stench of garbage and dust. In the distance, you see a group of old men congregating around a telephone pole. Wearing stained tank tops, they yell while a shadowy figure hangs on the pole. Your curiosity takes control and you run ahead of the group to get a closer look at the action. Now within a few footsteps, you realize what the large object is – it’s a husky dog – resembling a Saint Bernard – hung by belt around its neck. Most of your classmates look away in disgust – others got the dry heaves. You, on the other hand, walk away nonchalantly and think to yourself “welcome to China.”
Rough terrain combined with climbs and uphill runs of more than 30 km make the Great Wall marathon one of the toughest marathons in the world. One of the runners, who had ran in a marathon on every continent (including the one in Antarctica), said that this was the most difficult marathon he had ever competed in.
Of the over 2,000 runners present at the beginning of the race, only 879 participated in the full marathon (26.2 miles). Among those, less than 500 were able to finish as many succumbed to exhaustion or were unable to finish within the time limit.
After more than six hours of pain and agony, it was finally time to savor the sweet taste of victory. (Josh, my running guru, and I at the finish line)
To check out the video of the 2011 Great Wall Marathon, click here.