A Memorable Place Far away from home, beating the blues...


July 21, 2002|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Far away from home, beating the blues

By Laura Beck


In the spring of 1991, I moved to Hong Kong from Baltimore at the age of 22. I labored through a hot summer with few friends, and then experienced my first Christmas alone in a foreign country.

There were none of the familiar Christmas preparations, such as buying a tree, going to parties and bundling up against the increasingly cold weather. Instead, on the big day I had dinner with a few friends and exchanged small gifts, making do with only talking to my family on the telephone.

The next year, my growing circle of friends -- many of whom were expatriates from Australia -- decided that if we were going to be away from family on Christmas, we should make our own traditions and go away as a group. So six of us boarded a plane to Beijing to stay at the historic Peace Hotel.

We checked into the gloriously decaying hotel, wandered down the cavernous and empty hallways and listened to the Jazz Band, whose members had an average age of about 85. There was a pine tree in the lobby decorated with several cotton balls, and staff members were told to say "Merry Christmas" in English to the Western guests. We later learned that these words were among the only English words they knew. We appreciated the effort.

Christmas morning was cold, with a gray sky that threatened snow. I tiptoed from my room around dawn and decided to take a walk around what I thought was a still-sleeping city. As I rounded the corner of the hotel and headed toward the river, I could hear music playing. As I got closer, I could hear that it was swing music, reminiscent of the big-band albums I grew up listening to with my father.

Then I saw a beautiful sight: In a large common area next to the river, there were dozens of Chinese couples ballroom-dancing to the music. There were no instructors or shouted directions. Each couple seemed to float above the concrete in time with the joyful music.

I saw a similar sight numerous other times during my stay in Beijing and other Asian cities -- ballroom dancing is a popular form of exercise -- but none was as powerful as the first moment I saw the dancing couples on Christmas morning.

As corny as it may sound, I was moved to tears by that sight. In a place so far from home, I heard the sounds of my youth and saw happy people celebrating life. I went back to my room rejoicing at what I had seen and heard. My friends and I went on to have a wonderful day exploring a magnificent city.

Because of the dancers by the river, I will never forget that Christmas.

Laura Beck lives in Westminster.

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