Yang Si Lang Changes My Life

Welcome to my travel journal describing my June-July 2006 trip to China. The trip was part summer “study abroad” course, part vacation sightseeing, and part — well, something else completely. I will say this right off: the two most incredibly memorable parts of this journey were presenting a bouquet on stage to the lead actor of a play in Shanghai, and walking on the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Between these two events, one at the beginning and the other at the end of my stay in China, I saw and did a lot of really amazing things and met some truly wonderful people.

The source of the section title above will be clear to some of my prospective readers, but to the rest of you, it’s a referencial homage to the Chinese opera Yang Si Lang Visits His Mother [Si Lang Tan Mu], based on a Ming dynasty historical novel relating the exploits (real and fictional) of the Yang family of warriors. Tales of the Song dynasty Yang generals, and their equally formidable wives and daughters, have been told many times in novels, operas, films and television series over the years. Recently, one of these versions made its way into my life, and the title’s relevance should become clear if you read on ....

13 June 2006
United flight #857
en route: San Francisco to Shanghai
I still can’t quite believe it: I am on my way to China, listening to Mandopop on my new iPod Nano, and waiting to be served what will likely be the least tasty meal I’ll have for the next 25 days. This morning a bunch of wonderful friends (from London, Toronto, Australia, Malaysia, Vancouver, Florida) “saw” me off to the airport, via an instant messenger group chat. I miss them already — though none of us have actually met — and I promised them this full report of my trip. I also promised everybody else I know, so ... let’s start at the beginning.


August 2005

It’s my birthday, and I’m standing on a headland on the Cornish coast, looking back at the ruins of Tintagel castle. A beautiful, sunny — even hot — day, and my two companions and I have each gone our separate ways of exploration. For me it’s a return: 19 years ago I spent three weeks poking into every mythical nook and cranny in the SW counties of England.

Anyway, standing alone gazing at this magical place, I was rather jarringly seized by an image of the opening credits scene of Yang Men Hu Jiang [Warriors of the Yang Clan] — possibly because I rewatched the first episode the night before, curled up in bed with my laptop — and I said to myself, “I want to see the Great Wall of China.” When I got back home to San Francisco a few weeks later, I proceeded to work on plans to do just that. But first ...

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