It doesn’t seem real until it happens to you.
My heart pounded against my chest as I looked out into the rainbow horizon. The uneven stone walkway moved up and down, curving into the mountain, and coming back to sit on top. And there, the Great Wall of China sat. Her towering gaze looked down at all of the tourists coming in and out of the city, but I liked to imagine that she was looking at me, and only me. Watching my every move, waiting for me to misstep, or stumble and fall over like a clumsy American tourist. But I refused to give her the satisfaction. I looked Chinese. I spoke Chinese. Hell, I was Chinese.
“安娜，你走吗？” My aunt called out to me over the rumbling of the tourist groups, walking in one direction, then turning around to check out something else. I crowds shifted, jostling me from one side of the wall to the other. “孩子, coming?,” she asked again in her broken English, as if I hadn’t understood her the first time.
I pushed through the masses of people, who, to my foreign ears, sounded almost like a herd of angry chickens, clucking at everything in sight. My eyes followed the plain white shirt my aunt wore, trying to get close enough to tap her on the back and tell her to slow down. I was concentrating on not getting lost, and my surroundings were a blur. I was only focused on her, and my attempts to get to her.
“扇子，扇子。两块钱一个。” The vendors waved their fans in my face, trying to get me to buy something. They were persistent. The slight breeze their fans created blew into my eyes, and soothed my sweating face. Distracted, I slowed down my pace and tried to enjoy the free bursts of wind in the toasting heat of summer. I looked around, appreciating the stunning sights. But now I realized I was the only one wearing red in a sea of white.
Where was my aunt? I elbowed my way through, trying to find any sign that she hadn’t left me behind. I skipped up the stairs two by two. Where was she? I was seriously starting to freak out. My gaze went from left to right to left, frantically trying to track her down. I kept walking up and up and up. It seemed that my earlier fatigue was fading away, replaced with a much better motivator than just the sightseeing: fear. I had never ever been alone in China before. What should I do? I could hear my mom’s voice clearly in my head now. If you ever get lost, find a police station, or just stay where you are. I was so stupid. Of course, stay where you are. It seemed as though I had already walked the entire length of the Great Wall, and the advice I finally remembered was the opposite of what I had done.
I stood on my tippy toes, looking down at the rainbow crowd, trying to find a familiar face, any familiar face. I saw the street vendors who had shoved fans in my face, a few tourist group leaders, but no aunt.
I looked around, letting out a sigh of relief. They found me! But I apparently couldn’t find them.
“安娜!” The voice called out to me again, but this time louder. The sound came from behind me. I turned around, and I saw the familiar tight bun with streaks of grey running through it.
“Auntie!” I ran towards her, my heart bursting with overwhelming emotions crammed in me all at once. I hugged her tightly, and I finally felt safe again: in the warm embrace of chocolate chip cookies, homemade dumplings, and plain white t-shirts.
I swore to myself I would never get lost again, and I would try to be more aware of my surroundings. But coming away from such a scary experience of getting lost in thirteen thousand miles of wall with crowds of people who couldn’t care less who I was, I took away more from that day than I probably did in a whole summer. I thought I knew everything about China when I went there. Just some partying and fun. Obviously, I was wrong. China was more than just fun, there was the good and the bad. The bad was learned, and the good was to be experienced in the next few years when I came back again.
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