Today’s entry was written in two parts by Noelle and Tara.

While friends and family began to dig into their dinner, across the Pacific we were pulling ourselves out of bed. Some dragged their feet while lugging suitcases, while some of us who got ten hours of sleep energetically raced to the lobby to begin our day of volunteering.

Day four began with a two-hour trip to Jingshan Park, the only place that gives an overhead view of the Forbidden City, where we were given an opportunity to pick up litter around the park. Our tour guide had heard we wanted to see baby pandas and happily showed them to us … on our volunteer vests (yes, we even got to keep them). He passed out our bags and pick-up sticks and sent us on our way. Like kids searching for Easter eggs, we found all sorts of colorful and interesting trash anywhere we could. This opportunity to give back to the Chinese for their generous hospitality and kindness made me personally feel good. While the volunteer work was a phenomenal experience, we also got to take photos and enjoy the amazing scenery around us.

Describing the bamboo, flower gardens, and Chinese locals exercising and playing cards would only be scratching the surface of the wonders we found around this park. During our adventure, Seth and I encountered a woman doing exercise by twirling long, colorful ribbons to music. After several minutes of admiring and taking photos, the lady invited Seth and I to join her. We danced to the music and swished the ribbon randomly through the air. It was the best time I have had so far on this trip. The local women were so kind and held in their giggles as Seth and I failed to work the ribbon without creating a hot mess of tangles. The atmosphere was just so welcoming and supportive. After a half hour of fun fitness, the women turned to us and kindly said, “Workout over, go home now.” We kindly thanked them for everything and as a result one woman gave us each our own ribbon as a gift. Seth replied with, “That’s it, I’m moving here.” –– Noelle

Arriving at the airport, we were pleased to find that the Chinese airline check-in was a lot more “group-friendly” than back in the States. Our tour guide, Bruce, had already checked us in and gotten our boarding passes, so we just had to toss our suitcases onto a moving belt and make our way to security. Security had its own obstacles, as many of us set the alarm off and had to be wanded and/or frisked. Luckily, we all survived with our cameras and dignities intact.

Many of us chose to use the two-hour flight to Xi’an as a chance to recharge our running-on-empty batteries. Jakob was fast asleep before the plane even took off, and most of us soon followed.

After what felt like an hour-long taxi into the terminal, we were finally off the plane and officially on Xi’an soil, where we would learn about China’s roots. We piled our oversized American suitcases onto the street corner to be delivered to the hotel, while we followed our new local tour guide, Johnny, to our new bus, which seemed like a red carbon copy of our blue Beijing bus.

As the bus traveled to our first Xi’an site, the Dong Zhou Children’s Village, we listened to Johnny tell us a brief history of the village (in his near-perfect English accent, might I add). The Dong Zhou Children’s Village is a home for kids whose parents, for some reason or another, are in prison. The home feeds, clothes, and generally provides for the children until their parents are released, or until the child reaches sixteen.

ToTo the dogToto the dog enjoys the affection we showed him.

As we arrived at the village we were greeted by a crowd of eager looking school kids and a honey-colored Pomeranian dog named Toto. While being guided into what appeared to be a classroom, many of our students stopped to pet and photograph Toto. Nothing gets a group of kids from Manual excited like a friendly animal.

After listening to Johnny translate information about the village we were taken on a tour. Jakob and I met a young boy by the name of Liu Shi Lin, whom we called Sha-Leon. It started with us teaching him how to high-five, then low-five, and finally the infamous exploding fist bump. He then grabbed both Jakob and I and led us on our own personal tour of the village.

He led us first to his room and showed us his bed, which consisted of a wooden frame, small mattress and what looked to be an over-sized bamboo placemat.

Shi Lin with Noelle and JakobShi Lin takes Tara and Jakob on a personalized tour.

It was impossible to turn down Shi Lin’s bright face as he led Jakob and I from one side of the building to the other and back. While peering out a window at two long-eared bunnies he showed us, Kate walked in. After showing her our hand shake, Kate wanted in on the action. We proceeded to teach him the “wink-and-nod”, how to “Bernie,” and “Soulja-Boy-Tell’em.”

We joined the rest of the group, and were led into the classroom. Shi Lin, Kate, Jakob and I showed the rest of the students and children what all we had taught him. Even as we sang “This Land is Your Land” for the village, Shi Lin stood holding my and Jakob’s hand and bouncing his knees along with the beat.
As the time came for good-byes I ask Johnny to translate our last words. Like an adoptive mother, I told him that he was smart and to stay in school, and that I will never forget him and I wish him the best.

As we were boarding the bus, waving one last good-bye to the children, it all of a sudden didn’t feel right to leave without giving him something to show, that no matter what language barriers there might be, he truly did touch my heart. In my all-too-Hollywood fashion, I turned and quickly exited the bus, and ran to Shi Lin. When I reached him, I outstretched my hand and offered one of my ever-present bracelets. It said “What You Do Matters.” I know that although he doesn’t speak any English, I hope it gives him encouragement in his future. We performed our special handshake one last time, and finally parted our ways.

As our bus departed the village and made its way into the city of Xi’an, the group of students at the back of the bus started a conversation about what we missed in the US. What seemed to be on the top of everyone’s list was a blue sky. While we have been in China, we have yet to see a single speck of blue above us. Even a rare glimpse of the sun could be mistaken for a bleary moon. As we stared out at the endless blanket of bright gray above us, we noticed something we hadn’t seen in a long time: an individual cloud. It was faint, and barely noticeable against the stark sky, but it was unmistakably there. And as we continued to stare, we caught a glimpse of a tint of blue. It was a small patch visible on the left side of the bus, light enough that at first glance it might blend in with the rest of the colorless sky, but it was there.

Still reeling from our cloud-sighting, we pulled into Han Tang Tian, the restaurant where we’d eat dinner. Lucky for the vegetarians, who because of China’s traditional everyone-shares-all-the-food style had to sit at separate tables for the past few meals, tonight’s meal was a buffet and everyone got to sit where they wanted. As we approached the line-up of Chinese cuisine, we were pleasantly surprised to see a comfort food we had all but forgotten: French fries! While some of us passed over them on our initial trip through, by the end of our meal almost all of us had shamelessly eaten a few, or more with ketchup.

When we arrived at our hotel we were surprised to find that the lobby was on the fourth floor, but that became less important when we learned that the lobby had free WiFi. Many people wound down our day of service and travel by updating their social networking sites. Tomorrow we’ll see the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Muslim Quarter. Until then!  —Tara