My exposure to China before I went to college was limited. My grandparents were some of the first civilian Americans to go to China after it reopened. They went as part of a doctors' tour of the country. As a child, my grandparents and parents had a couple Chinese artworks which my great great uncle had brought back from China early in the twentieth century. I was not really aware of China in the news until June 4, 1989 when Tiananmen Square "incident" coincided with graduation at my high school. I was a sophomore and ironically, one of the most significant historical events in modern China occurred after my course in non-Western history had ended.
I began studying Chinese at the College of William and Mary. Often I am asked why. The simple answer is "Because German was full." The complete story is that before registering for classes at William and Mary, I read a flier encouraging students to study Chinese. It seemed interesting and I thought it would be amusing to study Chinese and then as a joke write a letter to Sally (one of my best friends from Culver, who was from Hong Kong). The idea was to surprise her with this letter (I could not call and talk to her in Chinese since she spoke Cantonese and not Mandarin). I quickly came to my senses and decided that studying Chinese and German simultaneously would be too difficult since foreign languages were my weakest subject. I made my schedule and prepared to register.
It seems fate was on the side of Chinese since I was in the last group to register for my classes. The German classes had been filled to capacity and then overfilled before I had even gotten into the building. Once inside the registration area, I completely redid my schedule so that I could take Chinese and complete my foreign language requirement on time. Since I decided before going to college that I absolutely wanted to spend time abroad learning whatever language I chose, I knew I would be headed for China soon.
About 21 months later I was in Beijing studying at Beijing Normal University through an excellent exchange program from William and Mary (even if you are not a student from William and Mary, if you are interested in studying abroad in China, I highly recommend you check out the program). The program included a three week tour of China. A number of the pictures that are scattered throughout the site are from that trip, including one of my favorites - Tom changing lens in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
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After returning from China on that first trip, I have made seven or eight additional trips to China (I am excluding Hong Kong from China here, though technically it became part of China while I was there). All of those were short (less than a day to about one week). While I am less familiar with places of China than Hong Kong (where I spent considerably more time), I am still more familiar with much of the culture of the mainland, particularly its food and principle language.