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Postcard from Beijing: Following in Mom's Footsteps on the Great Wall of China

I was raised on my mother’s stories of her travels during the Fall 1981 voyage. The impact that Semester at Sea voyage had on her life has had significant effects on my upbringing. When hungry, my brother and I were never allowed claim we were “starving” because our mother remembered the truly starving children she saw on the streets in India. As we watched news reports of hurricanes and typhoons in faraway places, my mother would wonder about the fate of the people who warmly welcomed her into those countries many years ago. And since 1981, the collection of Coke bottles from around the world has been steadily growing in our living room.

Rebecca’s mother found the perfect lion statue to hug 33 years ago on her SAS voyage. This photo has been a part of Rebecca’s upbringing along with all of her mother’s stories.

My mother always spoke about the Forbidden City in Beijing. She was separated from her tour group and spent nearly an hour, terrified, wandering the City before finding her friends. Other than that fear, she described the grandeur of the City, of being in awe of the significance of the place and overcome with appreciation for China’s history and culture.

I always knew I wanted to sail with Semester at Sea, and in the final weeks leading up to my voyage I spent hours flipping through her still unfinished scrapbook, reading and rereading her entry on China. Of all the photos I stared at, I remembered very distinctly the picture of her hugging a bronze lion in the Forbidden City with her arms outstretched, red hair ruffled, and smile wide. 

I signed up to travel with a Semester at Sea field program to Beijing to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City. I was overjoyed by the prospect of being able to walk in my mother’s footsteps 33 years later, to be in awe of the same City, to hug the same lion, and to feel the same sense of wonderment.

Through the masses of people in Tian’men Square, I immediately saw what I thought was the lion statue standing outside the main gates of the Forbidden City. However, I also saw a metal gate surrounding it, preventing me from wrapping my arms around it. Disappointed but undeterred, I set my eyes on entering the City that had made such a profound impact upon my mother. 

This lion statue was one of many that Rebecca found in the Forbidden City. She would have taken a picture with it but it was, unfortunately, fenced off.

After an hour of shivering in the shadows of enormous halls, I was in a daze of disappointment as we left the City and returned to the heat of our bus. Why didn’t I have that profound moment my mother told me about? Why didn’t I feel it? Was I doing something wrong? 

The next morning, my trip visited the Temple of Heaven, a place I had not heard about in my mother’s stories.

As soon as I climbed the steps to the Temple, I felt overcome by a sense of peace and wonderment, realizing I was walking the same steps as the Emperor of China on his way to pray for the prosperity of his nation. As I stood in this place that is older than my country and brimming with importance that I can only begin to comprehend, I drank in the bright colors of the Temple and intricacy of the carvings, and as my tour group began to file out, I stretched my neck to look over my shoulder for one final taste. I realized that this is the story I will be telling in twenty, thirty years, maybe to my own children before they embark on their own voyage around the world. 

I would soon come to learn that what I thought was a lion was actually a dragon, and when I later looked at the photo of my mother, I realized that what I thought was her dragon was a completely different statue entirely. I learned that statues like those are very common in China, and around the Forbidden City in particular.

I had built up the Forbidden City so much in my mind that I had nearly forgotten that the Spring 2014 voyage was my own experience and not my mother’s. I may be following in her footsteps, but her shoes don’t fit my feet. When I get home, I will have my own stories as unique and wonderful as hers, and I am excited to share them with her.

  • Life at Sea

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