China is a world unto itself. Its Chinese name, “Zhong Guo,” means the Middle Kingdom after the traditional belief that China was the center of civilization.

This belief is still a major pillar in what it means to be Chinese, and while most Chinese recognize there are other parts of the world, a Chinese tourist could be in Italy or Germany and refer to Italians or Germans as foreigners. This is because Westerners and all non-Chinese are foreign to the billion-plus population of China.

The population here is relatively homogenous, and while there are many minority populations, a blond-haired girl from Colorado or a 6’6″ guy from Texas will turn heads in even the most internationalized districts of Beijing or Shanghai. In essence the Chinese are accustomed to being around people like themselves, and since that vast expanse of homogeny makes up most of the Chinese population’s worldview, it seems instinctual to call everyone else different from them a foreigner.

And for me, while I love China, no matter how hard I try, I will never blend in. My friends who are in Europe studying abroad at least have a decent chance of mastering Spanish or French and will have the fortune of being mistaken as a local … I definitely don’t have that chance. Despite that, I definitely feel welcomed in Beijing, and coming back after graduation next May would excite me to no end. I feel attached to this city and have made lots of friends and memories here.

Time for a time-out
However, I have come to the realization that every once in a while, foreigners need a break from China. Life in most Chinese cities is busy and very fast, but it has to be: With the amount of growth and change happening at every level, the well-worn term “sink or swim” applies. Even when it comes down to daily life, this maxim is quite relevant.

For example, the subway and sidewalks at rush hour look like sheer chaos and unconquerable for a first-timer to China. To stand still amid the oncoming wave of people is even scarier than the thought of keeping pace. Yet after a while, the masses of people and cars honking past turn into patterns and you begin to find your way through it all. It definitely takes energy and effort, but to make your way home during the rush of the day with nerves intact definitely carries a sense of accomplishment. This seems really basic, but it really is one of the first levels in getting used to living here. Next comes the ability to haggle prices, and it goes on from there. (If you come here without knowing the language … there are a whole other series of steps that make the entire process a million times harder.)

Bottom line, between the long hours of school and the acclimatization to China, I welcomed the hop down to Australia. It was also great because I got to see some familiar faces from home. Granted, I have made lots of new friends in Beijing, but there is something to be said for seeing people who connect me to Dallas.

Family and friends in Australia
The flight was actually really easy, even though it was still ELEVEN hours. Australia is really off on its own, but the time change is only two hours, so that made the adjustment really quick. Once I landed, I realized I was yet again in a totally different world. I also had a great welcome because my mom, Heidi and Justin welcomed me at the airport. I should probably explain who these people are and why they were already at the airport waiting for me.

My mom, Arlene, has worked at SMU for over 25 years in Student Affairs, and Heidi was one of her close students about seven years ago. I also made buds with Heidi since I used to hang out around SMU before becoming a student there, and since then our family and Heidi’s have become close family friends. (Her family also lives in the Dallas area, and her younger brother went to my high school.)

Anyways, Heidi graduated SMU and went off to Harvard Business School and is now working for one of the world’s top consulting firms. Now she is living in Sydney and invited us out to visit her whenever we had a chance. She promised that she and her boyfriend, Justin, would be happy to play host to us. Since I am in China and my mom has always wanted to go to Australia, this seemed like a perfect time to head Down Under. I think the relationship my mom and Heidi have forged is definitely an indicator of the SMU community and how tight-knit it can be, even after Mustangs graduate!

But I digress … the minute we left the airport we headed to Heidi’s apartment to drop off my bags and run on over to Sydney’s most famous beach: Bondi. Yes the beach is cool and it’s huge and in Australia they have a TV show about the lifeguards at Bondi Beach (reality show), but what really got me were the cloudless blue skies. Those were a sight for sore eyes … living in Beijing doesn’t really afford its residents many clear days, so this alone left me in awe. The people who usually hang around Bondi are also really good looking and the laid-back attitude is contagious.

Sight-seeing in Australia
After that we got ready for dinner and headed out to one of Sydney’s touristy bars, an ice bar. I know they are in other cities, but it was my first time to go to one and it was really cool. The whole bar is made of ice and there are large ice sculptures everywhere. They put you in huge parkas and your drinks are served to you in glasses made from glacier ice in New Zealand. I have to admit it was really kitschy and you’re only allowed 30 minutes in the ice chamber to prevent frostbite and to keep the crowds moving through.

I arrived on a Saturday, and that Sunday we all headed out of Sydney and up to Hunter Valley, which is Australia’s oldest wine region. From what I have been told, Australia’s wine regions, specifically Hunter Valley and the Barossa in southern Australia, definitely give Napa a run for its money and are becoming quite popular around the world. (You can find major labels such as Penfold’s and Tyrrell in the States … both really good by the way.)

It was my first time to go wine tasting, and it was a great experience to learn how that whole process works and a bit about wine. Aussies know their wine and it has a serious following. Despite the fact it is wintertime down there, their winters are extremely moderate and the Hunter Valley was still really green and a great sight to see.

The Great Barrier Reef
Monday marked the start of our mini-trip in Australia. My mom and I headed north to the tropical North Queensland to visit the Great Barrier Reef and then on to Ayers Rock. After all, this was our first trip down under so we had to hit up the big stuff first.

In Tropical North Queensland we stayed outside of Cairns on an amazing beach called Palm Cove. Our hotel sat in the rainforest and on the beach, so we had great access to the water or walking around the forest. We had about five days there, so we took advantage of the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest in our hotel’s back yard. The highlight of this leg was definitely the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef was an amazing sight and really an escape to another world. After an hour-long boat ride straight out from the coast, we stopped at a mooring and jumped off the back to snorkel around one of the many reefs. (The Great Barrier Reef isn’t one continuous entity, but a chain of reefs spanning the northeast coast of Australia.)

I’m really glad we opted for snorkeling because we really got to see more than the scuba divers. The reefs are for the most part shallow, and you get some great views from overhead. And, if you ever want a closer look you can duck dive down closer, but the views are great either way. We saw two sea turtles and fish that I could not even imagine. The reefs looked just like the shows on the Discovery Channel, and they were massive. I did feel awfully large, though, compared to the reef; I guess it was because I was swimming among all these fish that were obviously much smaller than me.

The boat’s staff recommended we look for sharks, and they said it in a nonchalant way without caution or fear. I wasn’t too nervous, and they said that the sharks that hang out there aren’t dangerous. Luckily, though, we didn’t come across any.

Ayers Rock and big skies
Next on our itinerary was Ayers Rock, which was again another world unto itself. We flew direct from the Cairns in tropical North Queensland down to the Rock. The vast change that occurred as we flew from the rainforests of the northeast coast into Australia’s red center was amazing. The coastal rainforests quickly gave way to drier plains and then into a red desert with not a road or a house in sight. (Australia’s 20 million-plus population resides around the coast, especially in the southeast in Sydney and Melbourne.) So, when we landed at Ayers Rock I realized that there is next to nobody out there. The Ayers Rock Resort itself is a self-contained town that exists only because the Rock is there. The hotels and staff are all imported from other parts of the country and the world.

ben3.jpgAyers Rock was a really cool experience. Our first night there we went stargazing. The sights were incredible because there was no light pollution to speak of and the southern hemisphere enjoys the best views of the Milky Way. In comparison, the northern hemisphere can only see the tail end of the galaxy, so we miss the best part of the night sky. There was also a powerful telescope on hand and we could clearly see Saturn.

The next morning we got up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at Ayers Rock. It was amazing to see the dramatic changes that happen to the entire landscape as the sun comes up over the horizon. The centerpiece is obviously the rock itself as the sun causes it to change colors, but the sky and the red sand around the rock also change as the sun comes up. The landscape is simple, but its vast expanse and the stark contrasts between the red ground and the blue sky make for an amazing view that changes with the position of the sun.

After the sunrise we made our way over to the Ayers Rock/ Olgas Cultural Center. To clarify, the Olgas are another set of rocks that shoot out of the ground not far from Ayers Rock. The Olgas are a series of mini “Ayers Rocks” that comprise an area greater than Ayers itself. It is also interesting to note that Ayers Rock and The Olgas are the names the Westerners gave the rocks. The Aborigines call Ayers “Uluru” and the Olgas “Kata Tjuta.” And the staff at the resort calls the rocks by their native names instead of the Western ones out of respect for the Aborigines.

At the Cultural Center, we learned a lot about the Aboriginal history in the area and the relatively recent handover of Ayers Rock National Park back to the Aborigines from the Australian government. However, the Aborigines don’t have the know-how or capacity to manage the tourism that comes to the park so they lease the land back to the government – provided they still hold a majority vote in the area’s governance.

That same day, we also headed back to Ayers Rock for sunset, which was a lot more captivating than sunrise, and the changes in the sky and rock felt more pronounced and vivid. I had to stop for a minute and remind myself that there are hundreds of people hanging out staring at a rock, which seems kind of odd. I have to say, though, the view really is captivating and the simplicity of the environment only adds to that wonder.

As we left Ayers Rock the next day, I noticed how restrictive the regulations were around the rocks. There were signs everywhere saying “Don’t go off the road,” and some areas were off-limits to tourists and they asked that some areas not be photographed out of respect for the Aboriginal culture. I understand the rules, and most have logic, but there seemed to be more you could not do than could.

Also, Ayers Rock has a strong Aboriginal community, but we didn’t see a single one while we were out there. We even used the Aboriginal-owned tour company, but our Western tour guide and interpreter said he could not find anyone to help lead us on our tour. I do know that they like to keep to themselves, but it seems to me that in a place like Ayers Rock, which is so significant to their culture, they would want to be around to protect and educate others about the land. This was my first encounter with Aboriginal culture so I can’t say much more except for my own speculation. I am sure there are reasons for it all but they’re certainly unknown to me.

The view from Sydney Harbor Bridge
ben2.jpgAfter our mini-tour, we headed back to Heidi’s in Sydney and dove deeper into that city. The two big highlights were climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge and going to a show at the Sydney Opera House. The bridge climb was really cool; we did a night tour that took us up around sunset and we came down in the darkness with the city’s skyline lighting in front of us. It was a great view up there of the Sydney Harbour and the Opera House. We also were lucky because it had been raining the whole day, so we were afraid that we would have to climb in the rain. (They go rain or shine, provided that there are no heavy winds or lightning.)

Ben1.jpgThe Opera House was also cool; my mom wanted to go to a show there and we saw lots of advertisements for Edward Scissorhands. We thought it was going to be a musical, which I can sit through, but when the show started we didn’t hear any words for a while – then I realized it was a dance performance. It was interesting how they could convey the story in dance, but I don’t think I would have gone if I had known that it was a dance performance. I overheard a lady behind us as we were leaving say, “That was weird.” Those weren’t my words, but I’m definitely not going to argue against them.

After that my mom headed back to the States so she could catch my brother’s high school graduation. It was sad to see her go, and it made me realize that I still have another two months before I actually head back to the States. But, that feeling didn’t last too long because I headed on with Heidi and Justin to Melbourne for a national holiday weekend. Australia is still a part of the commonwealth of the UK, so they celebrate the Queen’s birthday in June with a holiday on a Monday.

Aussie rules football in Melbourne
Melbourne is a very different city from Sydney but still well worth the visit. Sydney is defined by its harbour, vistas and icons while Melbourne is defined by its culture, sports and architecture. Bottom line, you go to Sydney for the sights and Melbourne for the culture. Melbourne sits on a harbour and river, but it doesn’t define the city. It is also a more industrial town that is not as glamorous as Sydney, but still just as interesting.

For example, in the downtown area there are these alleyways that seem to appear out of nowhere and they are filled with cafes and bars. Each venue’s tables pour out into the street and they are always packed with people. It’s a very communal experience and you see every walk of life hanging out sipping on a latte and engaged in conversation. I got lost for hours wandering around through these lanes – it was really cool.

The highlight of the Melbourne trip was The Queen’s Game: an Aussie rules football match honoring the Queen’s birthday. The two teams that head off in this game are always Melbourne FC and Collingwood. It’s a historic game that can only be compared to the Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving Day. It was also a major year because Melbourne FC was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Heidi has connections through work with a board member of the Melbourne team, and we were invited to the Chairman’s Luncheon before the game began.

Aussie Rules Football originated in Melbourne’s state, Victoria, and most of the teams come from Melbourne. Melbourne FC is one of, if not, the oldest and its devoted fans definitely have long family ties so this anniversary was definitely a landmark. The game itself was really fun to watch: it’s a blend of US football, rugby and soccer. It’s also a fast-paced game that rivals hockey in its speed. I have to say I think the Aussies made a fan out of me for this sport. A really big tradition of note is that each team has its own scarf, and fans faithfully sport theirs at the games; it reminded me of the house scarves warn by each house in Harry Potter.

Back to Beijing
After the Melbourne trip I headed back to Sydney and left for Beijing the next day. Writing this from Beijing, I really miss Australia; it’s a fantastic country for both its scenery and its people. Not only was the country breathtaking, but also the people were genuinely nice. The idea of “mateship” and camaraderie are really strong there and people look out for each other – even for the foreigners. I would be in line or waiting somewhere and Aussies would just strike up conversations with me. This took me aback at first, but then I got used to it and started to appreciate the concept.

Australia really is a laid-back country and the people seem happy and content with life – it was a great experience and a departure from the chaotic way of life in China. It was also great to see my mom, Heidi and Justin – they made the whole experience amazing.

But, I have to say I was really happy to get back to Beijing. Landing at the Capital airport, it was great to have that feeling that I was returning somewhere I know. It’s not home, but it will definitely do. I was happy to get in the cab and have a conversation with the driver in Chinese, and when I ran into teachers I felt excited about being back. Granted I do miss softer beds and cleaner air, but I like it here and I’m looking forward to the excitement of a Beijing summer. (The Olympics are around the corner!!)

I have about 10 days until school starts up again. Not too sure what I’ll be up to, but I’ll report back soon.