Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 20, 2024

What’s not in the picture: the Great Wall

By JOCELYN SHAN | December 7, 2022



Recalling a memory of a trip with her friend, Shan reconciles her intimate view of China from a familial perspective with a more impersonal view from a foreign lens.

“Do you think you can see the wall from outer space?”

“I feel like you can, right? I think I read something about that.”

Our cable car was cushioned and stable, so much so that if I closed my eyes, I could convince myself that we were not hovering hundreds of meters in the air and that instead I was on the couch in my lao lao’s apartment. 

Carson peered outside the glass of the gondola, lowering her camera after each shot to check her photos as if they would end up anywhere other than a dusty SD card in the back of her desk. Biting my tongue, I shifted to look outside. Tourist groups wielding little flags and neon yellow caps scurried below us. They looked like ants. 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so the intensity of the sun felt like a sadistic toddler shining a magnifying glass down on us. The heat was pressing in against the walls of the car, eagerly waiting for us to open the doors, so it could suffocate us in sweat and grime. 

Who in their right mind would want to be at the Great Wall of China in 35°C?

She had brought the idea up. We were in the car, driving back to the city earlier that week. A close friend of mine since first grade, Carson had joined my family’s trip to China, marking her first time outside of the U.S. 

“When can we go see the Great Wall?” 

I was surprised at her question. We sat through a 20-hour flight to get here, we were only in China for three weeks, my parents hadn’t seen their family in four years and she wanted to go to this tourist hotspot? I thought about it for a total of 10 seconds and offered back a brief, “I’m not sure if we’ll have time.” She stiffened. 

“But we are going to go at some point, right?”

My skin began to itch. Why was she even asking this? Going to China means being in Beijing to see my mom’s parents, my lao lao and lao ye, who we have not seen in four years. It means joking around in Chinglish with my jiu jiu and fawning over shiny barrettes with my jiu ma. We still had to see my dad’s family in Zhejiang, which was a five-hour train ride away. I still hadn’t seen my cousin who just got engaged nor my other cousin who just gave birth to an entire human being. 

But Carson kept insisting that we go. My face grew hot. Her proposal to go see the Great Wall felt silly. It just didn’t compute in my brain. When placed next to my priorities of seeing family that I haven’t been able to in years, her quest to see the wall fell sorely out of place. 

I was angry that her touristy desires were taking my parents away from time with their family. I was angry that my parents were so quick to accommodate her desires and had already begun to look up tickets. Angry at my anger, I felt trapped in my inability to communicate how I was feeling.

She kept talking. She didn’t pay money to come all the way here and not see the Great Wall, for crying out loud. She wasn’t asking for much and —


I had peeled my phone screen protector off and cracked it in half. 

She stopped. Her demeanor was nervous, a laugh escaping her mouth to soften the tense air between us. 

Embarrassed, I also let out a laugh. I didn’t know what to say. I usually don’t wield strong preferences about where to go and what to see. I hated making others uncomfortable, so I conceded.  

“Actually, it’s okay. We can make time to go see it.”

As I sat there, I realized that, for me, China isn’t the Great Wall. It’s not Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City or even eating Peking duck. 

It’s strategically positioning myself under the AC unit in my lao lao’s 700-square-foot apartment while eating flat peaches and lychee. It’s going to Carrefour and picking out snacks and jellies to eat on the walk to my jiu jiu’s apartment. It’s sitting around a mahjong table with my aunts and uncles and cousins, not fully understanding what they’re saying but feeling fully at home.

Talking to Carson, I saw that this is not what China is for everyone. For her, it was these landmarks. It was waiting in line to try foods that were new to her but old to me. I don’t think it’s wrong or bad. It’s fresh, like treating everything with child-like fascination. 

So there we were on the Great Wall of China, climbing hundreds of steps under the direct heat of the sun. And it was beautiful. The wall went on for miles, craning and dipping with the mountains. How did people build this? I looked behind me and saw my parents marveling at the vastness of the wall and snapping silly pictures of each other.

I suddenly felt very, very small. 

Flushed, I was embarrassed at how opposed I was against visiting this amazing landmark. Why was I so resistant to it? Had I labeled the Great Wall as stereotypical, not-worth-it or something “just for tourists”?

My China is China, and Carson’s China is China. I don’t think that one is better than the other. My China is precious and full of familial ties, but there is yet another version, maybe thousands of versions, that are equally as important. Carson’s foreigner perspective didn’t corrupt this place; it just looked at it from a different angle, seeing walls and mountains that I had never noticed before. 

“Wow it’s hot up here. Do you think your grandma will still have those jellies when we get back?”

I laughed, reaching out to grab her hand. 

“Yeah, I hope so.”

Jocelyn Shan is a senior from Carmel, Ind. studying Public Health and Psychology.

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