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Dispatches from China: After massive Shanghai, Missoula will never look the same to dance troupe
Visitors and residents take in a massive model of Shanghai at the Shanghai Urban Planning Hall.
Photo by JOE NICKELL/Missoulian

SHANGHAI, China - Shanghai was a whirlwind. From the moment that our delegation of 43 dancers and affiliates of the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre arrived in the city on Sunday, until we caught our departing flight on Thursday, we were whisked from site to site by a trio of government guides in a well-intentioned attempt to see it all.

But there was simply too much to comprehend in the sprawling, cosmopolitan port city of 20 million. The mind staggers when faced with the scale of the city.

Even when that scale is 1:1,000.

That's the scale of an enormous model of the city at the Shanghai Urban Planning Hall, our group's first stop before we even arrived at our downtown hotel last Sunday. The very name of the place bespoke a kind of tedious bureaucracy that hardly inspired our already exhausted group when we arrived there.

But then we saw that model.

Gasps of "whoa!" and "no way!" filled the large room as the teenage dancers from Montana first caught sight of the model. Though none of the tiny, detailed buildings stood more than a few inches tall, the model filled the floor of a room that measured at least 50 by 50 feet.

Our guide explained that the model represented a plan for the city as of 2020.

"One third of the buildings you see are not built yet," she noted. "But they will all be completed by then."

It was yet another "we're-not-in-Montana-anymore" moment on a trip that's been filled with such moments. Others materialized as we sped from event to event, landmark to landmark around Shanghai and its nearby little sister, Suzhou (with its paltry

6 million residents), over the course of the next four days.

In Suzhou, we visited the Humble Administrator's Garden, the most famous of the many well-known Chinese historical gardens; and the historic Number One Silk Factory, where we were treated to a tour and educational lecture on the surprisingly fascinating and work-intensive process of silk production.

In Shanghai, the RMBT dancers put on a performance for an audience of about 300 at the Shanghai Drama Academy, and visited sites including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower - a gargantuan structure that looks like a Jetsons version of Seattle's Space Needle - and the beautiful and peaceful Jade Buddha Temple.

That last stop came literally on the way to the airport on Thursday morning. Once at the airport, the group finally paused for a breath, and to contemplate this trip that was coming to a close.

"When I started this trip I had no idea what it was going to be like; people were telling me that we'd see snake on a stick in the market and we can't wear green, and all this other stuff that sounded so exotic," said Jennifer Kerber, a 21-year old dancer with the group. "But in reality, China was just more amazing than I could have imagined."

Of course, what was most amazing depends on who you ask.

Haley Bunch, a 12-year old dancer who attends Meadow Hill Middle School in Missoula, was most impressed with the visit to the Great Wall, at a spot just outside Beijing.

"Climbing the Great Wall, that was the most amazing thing I've ever done," enthused Bunch. "It was so pretty and you just look at it and are amazed at how much work it must have taken to build it."

Several dancers mentioned a bicycle ride that they took in the countryside near the steaming southern town of Yangshou as the highlight of the trip.

"I really liked that," said Hayden Murray, a dancer and the son of RMBT co-director Charlene Campbell. "We went through the small villages that were really poor, and so it really showed the life of Chinese people, with their rice paddies and all their livestock. We saw lots of pretty parts and sewage right there together, which was interesting. Also, I fell in the mud. So it was an interesting day."

Gretchen Alterowitz, a 32-year-old professional dancer from Seattle who was on the trip performing with RMBT, brought a broader perspective to the trip than some other dancers. Having traveled across Eastern Europe and in Israel as a dancer, she knows a good bit about the breadth of culture that exists outside America.

Even so, she said she was "blown away" by the realization of just how privileged she is, living in America.

"Even when I've seen people who are poor, it's not been the same as what we've seen here," said Alterowitz. "All the things we take for granted - clean water and plentiful food and reliable shelter - are just so precious here, and not everybody has those things. I felt like, with all the people selling stuff to tourists, there was an air of desperation to it that I don't see in our country; those people seem like a lot of them are truly teetering just on the brink of staying above water. So I'm really grateful for that perspective because I think it's really important to always keep in mind when we're enjoying our lives at home."

A similar sentiment was voiced by Wade Black, a trick-roping cowboy from Idaho who came along on the trip.

"China wasn't really a country I would have necessarily picked to visit," he admitted. "I just didn't know much about it before I come. But after being here, I love it so much. The culture is really, really neat; and the hospitality has just been overwhelming.

"I love our country, and this trip makes you appreciate what we've got - the open spaces, the blue skies, the cleanliness. It gives you a better appreciation of your own country and of this country, too."

Numerous dancers admitted they were ready for home - for familiar beds and comfort foods and normal routines.

"I'm looking forward to hot dogs from Ole's (Country Store)," joked Salish-Kootenai fancy dancer Louie Plant. "I'm going to kick back and just watch some movies at home in St. Ignatius. That sounds like fun at this point. I'm all about relaxing."

But then again, all of them knew that in coming home, Missoula wouldn't seem the same.

"I can't believe I have to go back to school on Monday," mused Sentinel High School sophomore Kelsey Foshag. "That just seems so far away from here."

Amazing what a couple of weeks in China can do to flip your perspective.

Editor's note: Suhan Chen is a UM graduate student in journalism who traveled with the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre on its trip to China. She remained in China for a few days after the RMBT trip, and filed this report from Suzhou.

Student finds more meaning than expected in China

By SUHAN CHEN for the Missoulian

SUZHOU, China - After a two-week stay in China, members of the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre reached the new Number 2 building of Pu Dong International Airport in Shanghai at 1 p.m. on Thursday. Hugging, waving hands and taking photos with everybody, I know it's time for me to say goodbye.

As the interpreter and university representative in this group, I came expecting to be kept busy; I did not expect that it would be such a fun and personally meaningful trip. As much as anything, watching the young dancers as they encountered the culture and landscape of my native country helped me see China through their wide eyes.

I still remember that first week in Beijing: Nina Gamell asked me if she could eat the vegetable salad and drink the coke with ice cubes on the table; Paige Jones told me that one of the group member thought she needed to sit on the stand-up toilet to use it; Catlin Warr asked me if it was really bad (as she had read before the trip) to wear green shoes in China; Jeni Comstock asked me why she did not see monkey brains and snakes because she heard that everybody in China eats them.

Two weeks ago, these teenage dancers came to China with those colorful images of China and Chinese people. Two weeks later, as they depart from Shanghai, they are bringing what they have experienced in China back to Missoula.

Jeni may show her friends the panda she painted in a traditional Chinese ink-painting workshop to her friends in Missoula. Paige will never forget the delicious grilled chicken hearts she sampled in the Brazilian barbeque restaurant in Shanghai. Jennifer Kerber may miss the stand up toilets in China, which she seems to have gotten used to; Allison Sawyer, who became addicted to collecting the bracelets in China, may miss the rainbow of pretty bracelets in the silk markets of Beijing; Nina Gamell may tell how delicious the vegetable salad is and miss the tasty steamed dumplings in China. Our little baby Julian Nickell may miss those black-haired "free babysitters" in almost every restaurant in Beijing.

"I don't want to come back home," said Natalie Zimmer at Burger King, where the group had its last meal in China. "I like it here."

"Before I came here, I did not know that people here are so friendly," said Jennifer Kerber. "I am also surprised about the English skills of people here - I mean, compared with the foreign language skills of Americans. If (Chinese people) came to America, they probably would not get the same treatment."

Paige's mom, Cassie Jones, also showed her love of this trip. "It has been a trip full of surprises," she said. "It has exceeded my expectation and I would like to come back with my family again."

Not everything was perfect; sometimes we can also learn hard lessons from personal experiences. Amanda McNulty will check her money more carefully after a deceitful salesman in Shanghai exchanged her 100 Yuan bill with a fake one. Allison may never forget what a 20 Yuan bill looks like, after she got a Peruvian bill back as change instead of Yuan when she bought something in Shanghai. Pablo Sanchez may try to bargain harder next time in China, after he was talked into buying a tee-shirt for 60 Yuan at the Great Wall - a shirt which usually cost only 25 Yuan.

But the most important result of this trip is that RMBT brought Montana culture to China.

"It has been a great culture exchange," said Zhu Jing, the national escort of RMBT in China. "People who didn't know Montana before now begin to know the cultures of Montana after watching the performances by RMBT. I think they really like those performances."

And last, I need to say something to Joe Nickell. I am sorry for your loss of your father. I really admire your professional spirit during this trip. I am glad that we got to pray for your father at the Jade Buddha temple this morning in Shanghai. We all love you.

As I write this, RMBT members are on their way back to Missoula. I hope they will have a good trip back home; now the next journey begins.

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