A throw away comment can be worth saving. I learned that last week in Beijing, exploring one of the top sights in China with an old friend Sherry Chen.
I’d already planned to visit The Forbidden City when Sherry sent me a message, “May we join you? Sightseeing in the morning? We can drive.’
It was my first time in Beijing and I wasn’t about to turn down the offer of a lift in a nice warm car. When she added ‘Do you have time for lunch as well?’ I didn’t hesitate to agree. I was excited. I was looking forward to seeing Sherry and meeting her boss Tony. I had a feeling I was going to have a day full of Chinese culture and generosity.
As it turned out, I experienced more than generosity, good company, and a visit to one of the top tourist sights in China – I also got a free dose of Chinese wisdom.
Sherry and her boss Tony picked me up at my hotel, and we all went to The Forbidden City together. Tony had been a couple of times before and was a useful source of information as well as a helpful tour guide. Sherry and I chatted in English as we wandered round the vast grounds, marveling at the beautiful buildings, the ornate painting and white jade carvings. It was a bitterly cold day as Sherry and I huddled together, linking arms to keep warm. We could see our breath in the icy air as Tony explained the deeper significance of the décor and the symbols around the Palaces. I loved learning more about Chinese history, and the ongoing work to reclaim what was lost during The Cultural Revolution.
As we talked about my plans to visit other tourist sites in Beijing, Sherry told me about all the places she’d been to when she’d last visited the UK.
‘Have you been to the National Museum in London? What did you think of it?’
‘I haven’t been.’ I replied.
‘Have you been to Stratford upon Avon?’
‘No, I haven’t been there either.’
‘What about The National Gallery? It’s wonderful.’
‘No, I haven’t been there either.’ By now I was starting to feel really embarrassed. Sherry could sense my discomfort, and could probably see my face redden.
She turned to face me and, holding my hand in hers, said ‘There’s no scenery in your own garden.’ I felt myself smile limply as I took in her words. ‘It an old Chinese saying. And Chinese sayings have several layers of meaning.’ I remember thinking at the time ‘Wise words from a very young lady.’
That night I thought about what she’d said. The more I turned it over in my mind, the more I felt really ignorant of my own scenery, my own culture and my own identity.
I realize I haven’t spent time getting to know my own country. I can name the places, maybe the locations too, but I don’t really know what’s inside. I haven’t seen beneath the surface, beyond the pictures, into the context, the beauty, or the story. I’ve made assumptions; I don’t have to explore it, feel it or appreciate it because I know it’s there.
Sherry’s simple one liner has helped me realize how much more I want to get to know my own country, my own culture, my own character.
Now I’m back in the UK, I’m taking myself on some ‘dates’, being a tourist in my own country, enjoying learning about my own scenery, my own beauty, my own art. I’m getting to know my self.