To travel is to take a journey into yourself — Danny Kaye

Recently, I got a chance to take a journey both far away and inside myself. Earlier this month, I was afforded the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to travel halfway across the world.

  My role was reporter, and the trip, which was organized by Western Kentucky University's Confucius Institute and financed by Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, allowed 18 business, education and medical leaders from around the region to travel to China to interact with professionals across the globe in those same fields.

This year's excursion included four individuals from Franklin — Simpson County schools Superintendent Jim Flynn and his wife, Warren County schools teacher Natalie Flynn, as well as Franklin Bank & Trust President Alex Downing and Vice President and Director of Mortgage Lending Heidi Estes. I was chosen to be one of two documenters of the voyage, and was more than happy to be so.

Over the course of 12 days (well, 13 really; getting home was a bit of a challenge) the group from WKU learned about the Chinese culture in many different ways. We toured businesses, pharmacies and schools; we visited the some of China's most famous (and infamous) sights; and we simply observed and interacted with the people there.

During our stay, we saw Alltech, an animal nutrition manufacturing company based out of Nicholasville with a branch in Beijing; Zoller, Inc., a wastewater management company based out of Louisville with an office in Shanghai; the Agriculture Bank of China — the country's third largest bank; and many places in between.

Through our interactions with the leaders of these various businesses and industries, we learned of the challenges associated with operating a successful business in China. Many employers still don't play by all the rules, but the government is taking steps to overcome the predicament and move the business climate in the right direction. Still, we also learned that there is substantial chance for success. With millions flocking to the major cities every year, new markets are constantly being created.

Our group also learned through seeing the sights. Our first order of business (if you could call it that) was to trek through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The sight of the infamous 1989 protests, Tiananmen Square was an uncanny experience. The Forbidden City was the home of China's emperors for over 500 years. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, which lasted from approximately 1400 to 1900, the highest power of the land was located within the city's walls. The massive houses inside the gates coupled with their ever so intricate carvings made it another sight to remember.

And of course, there was one more grand view to behold — the Great Wall of China. With a cool breeze blowing under a clear blue sky, we hiked along one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There are some experiences in life that do not live up to inflated expectations, and this was not one of them. The views of the surrounding tree-covered mountains and the awe-inspiring magnitude of the structure (which at one time measured over 3,800 miles — a distance roughly equal to crossing the U.S. twice) made it an amazing scene to behold.

Not to mention, we were celebrities on that wall. Not of Asian descent, we were stopped in our tracks every few minutes and asked to take a photo. We always did, and I'm ecstatic to now be in at least 200 foreign family photo albums. This last part, though — interacting with the native people — leads me to my biggest point of all.

The third, and in my opinion most important way we learned, was through observation of and interaction with the people there. Over the course of our week and a half there, I know I missed a lot of little moments right around me. I tried to notice as many as I could though, and was able to absorb and remember a few.

On our first morning in Beijing, some members of our group went for a walk around the city. We stumbled upon a group of older women aerobically dancing in an open area to music from a portable stereo. A few of us joined in, and through we were received some smiles and a few laughs, we were ultimately welcomed in and danced (if you could call it that) along with them. On my last morning in Shanghai, I took some time to walk around a nearby park. There, I saw some groups of people walking, others playing badminton, and still more dancing. All around me, I observed people gaining joy from being outside, being active and enjoying each other's company.

Throughout my stay, I also noticed a sense of determination in many different forms. The traffic in Beijing was horrible. In Franklin, our rush hour is around the time school lets out, but in Beijing it is all hours of the day. Nevertheless, it somehow constantly moved. People there seemed to drive in sync, each as determined to move forward as the other. This persistence carried over to smaller moments as well. On that same walk the first morning in Beijing, a woman almost toppled me over as she came out and scrubbed the sidewalk (with great fervor, I might add) right in front of me. Another morning, a man literally pushed 20-foot beams on a cart through a crowded intersection as the light turned yellow. There was a spirit to press onward, to succeed, that I often sensed.

Finally, an experience that very much stuck with me resulted from one morning when we visited a primary school in Beijing. It was a fun day for the kids there — the school's first-ever Chinese culture celebration. They sat in rows outside on a warm, sunny day, and took in different musical and dance numbers performed on a stage. In the afternoon, they made paper dragons inside, created their own puppet show, and listened to some traditional Chinese music.

Amidst those activities, I observed many unique moments. Outside, I succeeded in giving upwards of 80 students a high five or a fist bump, much to both parties' delight. Inside, I witnessed a contagious enthusiasm for the opportunity to work with crafts on this fun day, and an excitement to interact with us, these strange visitors. And when posing for a photo, I saw kids giving each other bunny ears. Bunny ears, I thought — we have those too.

And so that leads me to my greatest lesson of all. Though China is certainly not without its problems, the very core of the human spirit there is so very much like ours. Like us, they gain happiness from living alongside others, from participating in an activity as a community. Like us, there are determined to move forward, resolute on achieving progress. And like us, they give each other bunny ears.

  I learned a lot on my trip, and my learning came in so many different forms. I know not all are lucky enough to receive opportunities such as the one I was afforded, and so I hope I can repay an ounce of what I received through sharing my experiences.

It was Confucius who said, "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." Whether it's traveling all the way to China or just visiting a place nearby, I hope you are soon able take a journey both away and inside, and in doing so perhaps consider that though miles and customs surely separate us, there are certainly ways in which we're all very much the same.

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