TOKYO — I left Beijing this morning, after living there for 27 days.
I felt no sadness seeing the sprawling city of 13 million wave to me in the cab's rearview mirror. I felt only gratitude for the incredible time the city and its people showed me during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As I write this, I'm sitting in the American Airlines lounge at Tokyo Narita International Airport, awaiting my big-hop-over-the-top flight to Chicago. (The sushi is incredible.) I'm looking at big, fluffy, white clouds and blue skies on a beautiful afternoon, wishing I could go outside and get a taste of Japan.
That is the loveliest gift China gave me during my travels, the assurance that I, too, could become a more knowledgeable citizen of the world. The language barrier in China was real but not insurmountable. The country was authoritarian but its people not so rigid. We were watched, even in our hotels, but able to do our work, mostly untethered. All this small-town girl had to do to take part was open her arms wide, then hug as much of it as she could.
So much of what I saw was foreign to my American eyes, but so much was comfortingly familiar.
Foreign, like the goosebumps I had hearing some 18,000 Chinese proudly sing their national anthem prior to the USA-China men's basketball game at the Wukesong arena on the first day of that event, knowing some 300,000,000 other people were watching around the globe and hearing the same love and passion the Chinese pour into that song.
Familiar, like that wetness in the eyes I had watching that woman from Bahrain win her 200m qualifying heat out at the Bird's Nest one night wearing a full body suit and hood to retain her modesty, as required by the Muslim faith. As she jumped up and down and pumped her fist, I thought of watching my brother Mikey run his leg of the 4x100 relay during his own victory at the California State Junior Olympics when he was 11 or 12 years old.
Foreign, like the congee (kinda congealed porridge-like rice and not my cup of tea). Familiar, like McDonald's.
Foreign, like constant smiles from all the wonderful college-aged Olympic volunteers who were so eager to practice their English and so willing to help. Familiar, like the constant pecking away at their phones and BlackBerrys those students did while sending text messages to friends.
Foreign, like the little boy proudly marching like a soldier near the actual sentries manning Tiananmen Square. Familiar, like his mother egging him on and capturing every moment on film.
Foreign, like the Beijing Shooting Range Hall, where it took me 20 minutes to figure out how the men's 50m prone rifle event worked but, by that time, realizing American Matthew Emmons had won a silver medal.
Familiar, like the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, which sounded like every other basketball arena I've ever entered with American hip hop music blaring at great decibels.
Foreign, like having to brush up on my Spanish to interview Spain's Ricky Rubio and Argentina's Carlos Delfino during the basketball competition.
Familiar, like hearing a relieved and overwhelmed USA coach Mike Krzyzewski finally letting a curse word slip during the USA's post-gold medal winning press conference, "We're so thankful for the opportunity to represent our country ... so any of you want a few athletes to talk or whatever the hell you want. I'm about talked out."
I second that emotion.
As I wave goodbye to Asia, I say this with a full heart: It was the trip of a lifetime. I hope I'm lucky enough to do it again some day.