China Observations – getting lost

The scariest thing about traveling in a foreign country (for almost everyone I talk to) is getting lost. What do you do? How do you communicate where you want to go and how to get there?

It’s one of those things that once you do it, no matter how scary it is, you feel like a GD super hero. Hell, these days, if I get ANYWHERE without my gps- I feel like a GD super hero!

I give you another story from my aunt- who experienced this very thing… In China.

Each Sunday the school takes a field trip into different parts of Shanghai so that the students who don’t live nearby can get off campus once a week. Unfortunately, Jim had a meeting yesterday, so I was left to venture forth with the students on my own.

We went to Qi Bao, a very old section of the city. Its streets are approximately twenty-feet wide with hundreds of small shops on each side. The streets are not laid out in a grid, but wind around onto each other (which reminded me a lot of Prague). At first the shops all seemed to sell the same things, but on closer inspection, there were subtle differences. The most interesting of them sold wooden products: chairs and stools, but also wooden buckets, wash tubs, and bath tubs! They were gorgeous works of art! I wondered how much they were, just as two students passed me saying hi. I waved and looked back at the tubs. Each stave was about 4” wide. I wondered what type of wood they were. I turned to ask the two students to translate my questions for me, but they had vanished into a sea of people. Oh well.

I continued my “window shopping” (except there weren’t any windows). At the end of the street I had to decide to turn right or left? Left. After a short block, there was another intersection, turn right or go straight? Right.

After a few more of these arbitrary directional decisions, I looked into a coffee shop. It was tiny and had only two tables with chairs and pillows. One of the pillows was embroidered in English and said: “Contrary to previous instructions NOW is the time to PANIC.”

Panic? I laughed, why panic? But at that very moment I realized I didn’t have any of the students’ cell phone numbers and they didn’t have mine. I had broken my own “buddy system” rule. (My own buddy was in a meeting and I was alone.) If I got lost, I wouldn’t know how to ask these local people for directions or explain where I needed to go. I couldn’t remember how many corners I had turned, or which direction I had taken. Panicking suddenly seemed like a perfectly reasonable response.

I turned around and desperately tried to remember how to retrace my steps. All the shops now looked EXACTLY alike. Nothing jumped out at me as a familiar site or landmark.

I had an Aunt who died with Alzheimer’s disease. As an actor I’d often wondered what it must have felt like for her to be in a world where she was confused, flustered, and even panicked at not knowing where she was or how to express that to anyone. I was now living our shared nightmare.

I started walking and turned, once again arbitrarily, in nearly any direction. The streets were crowded. The electronic bikes and motorcycles beeped their horns warning all to get out of their way. Being claustrophobic certainly didn’t help. I wanted the entire world (or at least this small corner of it) to freeze motionless for just a second while I had a chance to figure it all out.

And then a miracle occurred. I ran into two of my Chinese students. I suddenly felt safe, secure, and protected in the hands of two teenaged boys I barely knew.

It was my most frightening moment in China. But as I followed them through the streets, I thought about our sudden reversal of roles. In the classroom, I was the one with knowledge, carefully leading them through the intricacies of building a character, speaking clearly, communicating with an audience. Yet here, on the streets of this strange city, I was the student, safe in their hands as they guided me around through the world they knew so well. Age may confer wisdom, but knowledge is given to each of us in small corners that we can share with one another.



  • I got lost in Kyiv, and remember the slight panic when I couldn’t read any signs. The skies were so overcast, I couldn’t tell which direction was which.

    At least I had a map, torn from my guidebook, so I stopped to ask directions by pointing to my target. Everyone was so friendly!

    It took me two hours to walk (I couldn’t do the subway as I was afraid of missing the stop), but I made it to the Lavra and spent time with pilgrims holding candles and walking through the caves where the monk mummies lay. It was beautiful.

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