by Dennis Dalman
At times during their trip to China, Bryan Fleegel and his wife, Tanya Lindquist-Fleegel, felt as if they might as well be freaky aliens landed from another planet.
They cannot even estimate how many times Chinese people insisted on having their photos taken with them. Many times, on streets, parents would thrust their children toward the couple so they could snap photos of the kids together with the exotic foreign couple with such blonde hair and light skin.
And that was just one aspect of the culture shock the Sartell couple experienced during a 10-day whirlwind tour of Shanghai and Beijing. Other shocks included busy crowds of Chinese pushing and shoving to get where they have to go; strange and even creepy street-vendor foods; and the stunning contrasts of ancient and modern everywhere they went.
Lindquist grew up in St. Cloud and met St. John’s University student Fleegel, who hails from Bird Island, when she was a student at the College of St. Benedict. They both graduated in 2007, she with a degree in communications, he with a degree in political science. They married two years ago. She now works in the human-resources department at St. Cloud Hospital; and he owns Optimum Communications Corp. a telecommunications company based in St. Augusta.
What spurred their China trip is a former roommate of Lindquist, Sara Schneeberg, who has taught second-grade English in Shanghai for two years. She invited her friends to visit and sent them a list of recommended things to do and see while in China. The couple decided to invite another former roommate, Jessica Schwendeman, to go with them to China.
The three adventurers boarded a flight in Newark, N.J. for a direct, 14-hour flight to Shanghai. It was a long flight, to be sure, but the travelers were happy to see the airplane was equipped with movie screens at each seat, including a big selection of movies to watch and games to play.
Once they landed in China, culture shock began.
“It’s so crowded and fast-paced over there,” Tanya said. “They push and shove their way around to get to where they have to go. Later, we realized they have to do that or they would never get to where they need to go. There are bicycles, buses, taxis – all honking at each other. It’s just crazy trying to cross the street.”
Bryan laughed in agreement.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s like playing a game of ‘Frog’ trying to get safely across a street. It astonished me how many people can be in one place at one time.”
Another culture shock was the realization about how the Chinese have absorbed American culture.
“It fascinated me,” Bryan said. “American actors and actresses are on posters and magazines everywhere. American music – new music and rap and hip-hop – are everywhere. American-brand products are everywhere in stores.”
There are also lots of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. But the Chinese have one-up on Americans in that respect. Their McDonald’s and KFCs, Bryan noted, deliver to homes and businesses.
Yet another culture shock was some of the Chinese food. The couple’s stomachs became queasy when they saw, streetside, a market selling all kinds of “creepy” foods on shish-kabob sticks. The “snack fare” included scorpions (still wriggling and squirming on the sticks), beetle bugs, skinned snakes, sea horse and even bags full of bullfrogs. The vendor explained to Tanya, through Sara as interpreter, that the scorpions on the sticks are plunged in hot oil and deep-fried before serving. Tanya politely declined a chance to try such snacks.
“Everything was on sticks,” Bryan said. “It was all food-on-a-stick, like at the Minnesota State Fair.”
Bryan even quipped that, “This must be at the China State Fair.”
Some Chinese food was most appealing and tasty. They enjoyed a roast Beijing duck, which they found to be extremely delicious.
Their site-seeing trips included a 10-hour overnight train ride to see the Great Wall west of Beijing, China’s capital city.
During an interview with the Sartell Newsleader, the couple groped for words to describe their reactions to the Great Wall.
“It was just overwhelming,” Bryan said. “If you’d see that same wall in Minnesota, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s a nice wall.’ But put that same wall right up and over the tops of mountains and you think, ‘Holy crap!’ Amazing! It took hundreds of years to build it, stone by stone. We spent an afternoon on one part of the wall.”
The Great Wall, portions of which were built as early as 700 B.C., stretches for more than 5,000 miles across northern China. It was built to keep foreign invaders from the north out of China.
In Beijing, the travelers also spent time in famed Tienanmen Square, scene of the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, in which many students were killed.
Another unforgettable sight was seeing the Forbidden City, a complex of buildings in Beijing that was home to emperors for hundreds of years and that was off-limits to anyone but the royals and their servants and entourage.
“It was overwhelming to realize the government that ruled the country for centuries was located there, one emperor after another,” Bryan said. “There’s white marble sidewalks where only the emperors were allowed to walk. We both really loved the Forbidden City.”
Bryan said he had an eerie feeling when, at the entrance near the Forbidden City, he looked up and saw a huge portrait of former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. The giant poster, big as a building, conveyed the sinister impression that “We are watching you.”
The tour group included Bryan, Tanya, their friends Jessica and Sara and Sara’s fiance, a Londoner named Joe.
“Sara was a great tour guide,” Tanya said. “She took us to out-of-the-way places where tourists never go. And she’s also fluent in Chinese, which really helped a lot.”