Concert Dance Cultural Exchange in China

June 2009 – After two years of planning, fundraising, and rehearsing, Concert Dance, Inc was finally on its way to China. We were at O’Hare airport waiting for our flight to China, where there was a SARS flu alert. A scratchy voice from United Air Lines over the intercom announced, ” If any of you have a fever or flu symptoms don’t get on the plane. You will be screened when you land in Shanghai. If anyone shows signs of illness the whole plane will be quarantined.”

My chin dropped and my chest heaved. I prayed to all the gods I could think of and their prophets, including Confucius.  My husband put his hand on my back. I leaned into it for comfort.  He brought his head close to mine, “I didn’t want to tell you this earlier,” he said, “but Peter called to say the authorities in China contacted him to say they thought we should cancel our trip.”  My face flushed while the veins in my neck began throbbing. “But Peter told them tickets had already been purchased; we were on the plane; and the dance company would arrive on the next direct flight from Chicago.” Peter Chang was my colleague who had helped arrange this International Dance Exchange Program at Nanjing Normal University in Nanjing, China.

My eyes shot around the waiting room searching for each member of our group. Garret, Jorge, Jamie, Amy, and Victor, who were closest to me didn’t display any flu symptoms I could detect. I had upgraded to Business class and was in the first group to be called to board. I found my seat on the plane, which was huge, carrying well over 200 passengers.  The attendant in business class served us champagne.  I accepted and drank several glasses while we waited for passengers to finish boarding.  As the plane taxied onto the runway I dropped into my seat, pulled the seat belt over my lap, and felt my head land on the head rest as I fell asleep.

Fourteen hours later, I was awakened by the sound of people in white bio-hazard suits requesting us to, “close eye please,” while they took our temperatures by scanning our foreheads with an infra-red heat detector. They moved through the plane quickly and no sick passengers were detected.

As we disembarked, I thanked all the gods and prophets.  We entered a gleaming space where young women with perfectly oval faces, small noses and petit mouths guided us. With an elegant gesture they asked, “Foreigner?” and waved us toward a line of customs inspection booths. Our documents were checked efficiently by a young man who spoke a few words of English.  On his desk were two yellow buttons.  One with a smiley face and the other with a sad face.  We were asked to rate the service by choosing one.  I smiled broadly, and with what I hoped was a dramatic flare, pressed the smiley button. We’d made it.  We’d been screened and given permission to enter the country.

people doing tai-chi and Shanghai skyline

It was early morning as we boarded our bus from the airport and drove to our first stop in the center of Shanghai. “Where are the bicycles?” I thought as we turned onto a crowded, car filled eight lane highway leading into the city.  Against a backdrop of gleaming high-rise buildings, and construction dust, hundreds of people, mostly older, practiced Tai Chi in parks and public squares. One person would lead these exercises, and everyone else would follow in perfect unison.

We checked into our hotel, and my husband and I went up to our room on the 34th floor. Pushing the window curtains aside in my Shanghai hotel room I viewed hundreds of high-rise buildings which filled the air and extended into the distance.  At home in Chicago, when I told people where I lived, they would say, “Oh you live in the city”. Now, the next time someone asked where I lived, I would have to say, “In a little town named Chicago.”