I was in a paddleboat on the lake in Changsha, China. I had been extreme traveling, Amazing Race-style, for two days. After the sleeper bus had unceremoniously dropped we three students on the side of the highway at two in the morning, I was ready for a relaxing day. We had no idea what to expect from Changsha, located in the dead middle of China, with factories and rice paddies for miles in every direction. We had asked a local in Hong Kong about Changsha two days earlier. She replied, “Big city. Nothing there for you.”
It turns out, Changsha has one of the ten largest national parks in China, and the second biggest man-made lake. On a beautiful Sunday in November, Changsha mirrored New England fall. Orange and yellow leaves fell on pagodas and pavilions instead of colonial saltboxes. The endless lake sparkled in the afternoon sun. We rented a paddleboat for an hour (the boys paddled) and I soaked up a bit of fall on the opposite side of the world. Boats with children, boats with adults, boats of all colors, shapes, and sizes sailed along the lake.
“Hello! How are you?” A group of little girls and an older woman called from their racecar-shaped boat. They waved to us as we passed each other under a bridge.
“Ni men hao! I’m good, how are you?” I responded.
“We are good!” The girls paddled away, around the side of the island.
We pulled up to the island and bought lamb kebabs and fried tofu from a vendor. Chewing contentedly, we paddled around the lake, waving to the other boats and passers-by. The warm sun caressed our faces. Our hour was up, so we started rowing back to the docks.
“Hey! What’s your name?” The girls had found us again, paddling a short distance away.
We were too far away to yell back, so we continued on our way.
“What’s your name?” They yelled in unison, louder, and started following us back to shore.
But whose name did they want? There were three of us. We couldn’t tell.
We docked, paid, and started walking down the path next to the shore. I shook my head. They’ll leave us alone eventually, I thought.
“Hey! What’s your name?” he girls called, together. They were following us, parallel to shore in their boat. We looked at each other, nonplussed. “My name is Chris,” my friend said.
“No! What’s her name?” ne girl with pigtails smiled and pointed at me.
“My name is Veronica,” I called back.
They paddled away but the feeling, like hot chocolate and mittens, like jumping in a pile of leaves, like the heat from a wood-burning stove, stayed with me all day.