China Series

A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.

The Value of a Compass

Of the things Sara and I brought to Beijing, none have been more valuable than the compass. For example, during our second weekend, we agreed to meet LiLu, the woman from Xian, at Tian'anman Square to tour the Imperial Palace. Our students were concerned about us taking the subway given our inabilities with the Chinese language. But, we had no need to speak or read any Chinese. We simply used the compass to determine which train was going south.

Once on the train all we needed to do was to count the stops. However the stops were clearly labeled in English, as well as Chinese and the stops were announced in both languages. So, we made the trip to the square with no problem.

After we toured the Forbidden City, LiLu took us, by bus, to SciTech Plaza in a ritzy part of town where we could buy hard-to-find food items. We also ate at a Pizza Hut. When LiLu escorted us back to the subway to catch the train, she, not being from Beijing, was uncertain at to the right train. Again, the compass provided reassurance that her choice was correct.

We had a delightful day and evening with LiLu and were in a good mood as we departed the subway station at a different exit than the one we had entered 14 hours earlier. Still, we thought we knew where we were and started walking home, continuing our merriment. A long block later, we both thought we might not be going in the right direction. All around us, the Chinese were walking, eating and enjoying themselves on the lovely autumn evening. We were not afraid, but, after another block, we had to admit to each other that we might be going in the wrong direction. The compass confirmed this conclusion.

However, the best example of the value of our compass came when we visited the bamboo gardens. It is about a hundred acres, much of it is a lake, in northwest Beijing. The park has many lovely spots, lots of trails, a stream with wonderful Asian bridges with massive arching walkways, pagodas in different places and flowers, of course, among the giant and thick bamboo trees.

Sara did her exercise walking around the lake, along the wide concrete and block walkway, while I sat on a bench and studied Chinese. By the time we enjoyed the park and she did her walk, it was getting dark. Still, there was a spot that she really wanted me to see. It was a peaceful, large pond. I probably would not have gone with her if we had not taken our compass.

It was very near dark by the time we finished enjoying the pond. We headed out of the park. I said to Sara, we should be able to go this way, south and then turn east toward the gate.

She asked, "but what does the compass say?"

I said, "just a minute."

We were going north at that point! We turned around. Ahead of us the bamboo was thick and the path was dark and narrowing. At one point, we needed to walk across rocks to ford the stream to go east. Things do look different at night. Nothing looked familiar to me. I thought north was east at one point. Sara, good with landmarks, identified the path to the entrance after only a couple of dead ends.

It was an enjoyable afternoon and even evening. It had a good ending since we had a compass. If only there were a concrete compass for life, we could verify, with more certainty, that we are on the correct course.