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Itchy Toes

by Karen Langley

Like many toddlers, I wore those one-piece pajamas with the slipper feet. Those brightly colored, fuzzy, cozy, comfy PJs.

I hated them.

My mother says I “freaked my brains out” whenever she put them on me. I don’t know about my brains, but I do remember my feet freaking out. Within minutes after Mom stuffed me into one of the sleepers, my chubby toes began to sweat and itch and scream for release from that fluffy prison.

I guess I freaked out enough to make Mom realize my toes couldn’t be contained. She still made me wear the PJs, but she mercifully chopped off the footies. And my toes shouted, “Freedom!”

I don’t wear those one-piece PJs anymore, but my feet still itch. They want to climb mountains, swim in oceans and tromp through jungles. My toes know that a big world awaits—with people to meet, languages to speak, foods to taste and dance steps to learn.

Two years ago, I made my toes very happy by spending a semester at Beijing Foreign Studies University in China. I loved everything about Beijing—the noisy markets that sold everything from silk scarves to Chairman Mao wristwatches to Tupperware; the intricate characters that turn writing a basic sentence into an art class; the dan chao fan (egg fried rice) that I’d seen waitresses recycle from unfinished plates of previous customers, but was so tasty that I didn’t care. I felt a rush of exhilaration from the bustling bike lanes, packed-to-the-max subways and taxis that followed their own mysterious set of traffic laws. I loved the hair salons that gave neck massages along with a haircut. I can still feel the crunch of fried insects between my molars, and I’m proud to include grasshopper on the list of exotic foods I’ve eaten (along with cow tongue and a fish eyeball).

I’ll never forget how my Chinese friends were intrigued by my culture as much as I was by theirs; that they encouraged my pathetic attempts at speaking their language; that they valued our time together enough to share five-hour dinners with me, refilling my teacup whenever it dwindled near empty.

Most of all, I loved learning new things every day. I learned how to use chopsticks and bargain and ride double on a single-person bicycle. I learned to politely refuse a first offer for tea or coffee—and always offer beverages to my guests at least three times. A former member of the Beijing national Wu Shu team (or Kung Fu, as we call it) taught me four moves—three of which I remember and enjoy using from time to time against my brothers. A bus driver graciously taught me a lesson in flexibility and patience by waiting 30 extra minutes in order to pack his bus to maximum capacity.

An almost-engaged Chinese girl told me with dancing eyes that many young women frustrate their parents by choosing to wear a Western style white wedding dress instead of the traditional red dress. Another friend said she envies the freedom American women have—freedom to divorce their husbands whenever they wish. She didn’t seem to understand when I told her about my friends whose families have been devastated by ugly divorces. Thus I learned one way in which television shapes a skewed perception of American culture. Other friends told me of their search for new employment since China’s entry to the World Trade Organization would endanger their current occupation—selling bootlegged CDs on the street for a dollar.

You learn something new every day, or so the saying goes. During the three months I spent in China, I feel as if I learned 100 new things every day. And that is why I must go back. There is so much more to learn, to see, to experience … and besides, that darn travel bug is scratching around in my shoes and tickling my toes.