Group: 9 adults, 6 Kids
Origin: NE China
Tour Duration: 14 days
This group proved an interesting challenge; though I’ve been acting as a guide and translator for Chinese groups (both small and large) here in the Pacific Northwest, thus far my trips have been of shorter duration. This would be the first group with whom I’d spend a two full weeks.
China and its people have been good to me. Many are the Chinese cities I’ve rocked up to knowing nobody or almost nobody. Kunming, Yangshuo, Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Shangri-la (to name a few). In nearly all, some local or group of locals have taken it upon themselves to make sure I had a good experience. Chinese people tend to have a strong sense of attachment and hometown pride, a natural byproduct of being able to trace your roots back over hundreds of years, and thus feel a vested interest in making sure visitors – especially chatty foreign travel writers like yours truly – leave with a good impression.
So my usual sense of professionalism was heavily tinged with a natural inclination to pay it forward. But there were a few other special points of pride motivating me to ensure my as-of-yet unmet group had the best experience possible on both coasts. Half of the tour would be in LA, and though I’ve never called the City of Angels home, I do feel a certain ambassadorial obligation towards the city, thanks to the fine folks at USC Annenberg and the Getty Foundation (who twice-upon-a-time have invested in me, personally, specifically instilling in me a professional and artistic love of their base of operations). As for the second part of the trip, we’d be ending up in my home city of New York, meaning the group would expect even more from me than in LA, thanks to my home court advantage.
I met the group along with the manager of the company who’d organized the trip, Vancouver-based Eduventures, in LAX after their flight in from China. On the bus back to the hotel, we chatted, and I learned that for most this was their first trip to America. The group was mixed fairly even between adults and children. Their English level varied from none at all to beginning and intermediate conversation, with one adult being what anyone would call professionally fluent. The kids’ English levels ranged from getting them to talk was like pulling teeth to pretty good for a kid. The oldest of them, a 13 year old girl called Yana, was actually quite good at English but a bit shy at first.
One thing I learned off the bat was that, despite their varied English levels, the whole group (the adults, at least) wanted me to speak as much English as possible.
Over the next week we traveled around greater LA together, with the kids attending morning ESL classes at a small children’s school close to Santa Monica for the first few days. Some of our activities were the obvious ones – Hollywood Boulevard, where we walked for a few hours searching for the stars of various celebrities, Disneyland and Universal Studios. Others were a bit less so, like our afternoon trip to the Getty Museum (always one of my favorite places in LA – I’d actually just been there a few months ago on a personal trip with my gal).
One of the less-heavily planned days included a full day on the beach, first in Santa Monica for the adults while the kids were in school, and then an afternoon on famously weird Venice Beach. For the previous few days, our meals had been a mixture of really authentic Chinese restaurants (LA has some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten, in or out of China!) and a few more western style buffet restaurants (though gourmets, myself included, have long knocked Hometown Buffet, for culturally American ambiance and food the franchise is a treasure trove, especially for groups with kids).
For lunch on Venice Beach, I wanted the group to have the full on Venice Beach food experience, so I introduced them to a few of the options and let them choose for themselves. Some items – like Fish and Chips, Mango Lassi & Organic Salads – though strange proved quite popular. The youngest kid, Tiger, had pizza. By the end of the trip I suspected he’d have eaten pizza every meal if given the option.
Probably the most special meal was on our last night in LA – a good Cantonese place in LA Chinatown. The food was good, but what made the event special was that a few members of the group, knowing that day was my birthday, had bought me a birthday cake.
Part two of the trip began with a small but very real complication. While the group was having fun in sunny Southern California, the eastern seaboard was being slammed by a monster snowstorm. The next day we headed out to LAX for an early morning flight to Washington for the second half of the journey. After discussing the situation with the organizers, the group decided to not let the weather hinder the trip. The snow had ended, the roads were being cleared, and the group were all hearty Northeastern folk, used to cold and snow. (Had they been from Taiwan they’d have probably opted to stay in LA a few more days.)
If anything, the snow made the second half of the trip more fun. The kids and I found a snowed-in playground across from the hotel on the first night, where we engaged in a fairly epic snow battle. Many of the monuments in DC were closed due to the weather (as was our capitol tour, which was a bummer), but we managed to have a good time and a great lunch of Indian food before heading north to spend the night (after an even more epic post-dinner snow battle) in Delaware.
In Delaware we stayed at the Staybridge Suites, among the most pleasant hotels I’ve ever stayed in. Excellent dinner, amazing breakfast, and a fireplace in the common area where the kids and I played many games of Jenga.
Philadelphia was surprisingly awesome (I say surprisingly only because, as a New Yorker, I tend to expect little from any city on the East Coast that isn’t New York). I liked the food and the overall energy of the place. The group learned a good deal about the founding of America, visiting the Liberty Bell and attending a lecture about Ben Franklin before heading to the University of Pennsylvania. Actually, I suspect the visit to Philly turned out to be a highlight for the group, as was a trip later in the day to Princeton University, which has an amazing art museum.
Following Philly, we spent two days visiting New York City, dedicating one day to downtown (including Liberty Island, Wall Street and the World Trade Center), and another to uptown (including Colombia University, Times Square and the Empire State Building).
Being from New York, I wanted to give the group a good taste of the dishes I’ve always associated with my home city. I was quite pleased with how much the group seemed to enjoy lunch at Katz’s Deli. The pastrami sandwiches were popular with children and adult alike, though the sour pickles were mostly passed up in favor of the half-sours. Of course, there was more pizza and a couple of soft NYC-style pretzels (shared on the Liberty Island ferry, naturally).
The hotel we stayed at across the river in Jersey was pretty cool. There was a bar where I introduced Mr. Liu, a group member who’d come down with a sore throat, to hot toddies, which I think he appreciated. The hotel also had a small indoor pool, where I taught the children to play the classic kid’s pool game Marco Polo.
The final day of the tour was, naturally, a full day shopping extravaganza at the Woodbury Commons Outlet Mall, a sort of miniature city on the NY/Jersey border. The place had a crazy amount of shops, and the vibe was a cross between shopping mall and planned cheerful village, a la the village in the 1960’s show The Prisoner.
The adults spent a full six hours shopping (and could have easily spent six more), hopping from shop to shop, communicating with me and the rest of the group through We Chat. The kids and I spent about half the day hanging out in the food court eating and playing Chinese Chess. I beat not one but two Chinese kids in Chinese chess, about which I’m not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed (first one, then the other, I suppose).
That night we had our final meal together before heading back to the hotel. We had steaks, but nobody in the group would order theirs anything below medium well, despite my attempt to show by example that real Americans eat our steaks rare. By the time we got back from shopping it was late, and I was too exhausted from hanging all day with the kids for Marco Polo, so we settled in for a few final Jenga battles.
The next morning we drove together to the airport, and on the bus back I taught the group to sing I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together aka Carol Burnett’s Sing Off Song, which we sang while driving through Brooklyn.
They invited me to come to Dalian and Beijing, which I’m sure I’ll do someday. I invited them to come visit the Pacific Northwest for a road trip incorporating ocean, mountains, wine, food and sales-tax free shopping, which they said they’d do.
I saw the group to the security gates and we all (mostly) hugged each other goodbye. I’d grown to like the group, especially a few of the kids, but I promised myself I wouldn’t cry so I didn’t.
Here are a few more photos from the trip:
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