Their great American adventure was off to a rough start.
In June, Chen Aiwu, 64, and her husband, Wang Dongsheng, 66, landed in Los Angeles. It was nearly midnight. They could barely communicate. And they were faced with a classic holiday conundrum: a rental car up-sell.
No, they did not want more insurance. No, they did not need a bigger car.
“I just kept saying ‘No,’ “ Chen remembered, “the only English word I know.”
More than four hours later, with help from a Chinese speaker who popped by, the pensioners set off on a 19-day, 4,850-mile drive.
The journey took them from coastal California to Las Vegas, Yosemite, Yellowstone and back, testing their patience and teaching them about a people and place that once felt infinitely distant.
They were frustrated by U.S. infrastructure, intrigued by American families, and touched, again and again, by the kindness of people they met.
Upon their return - to their surprise - they were greeted as heroes, profiled in state media and lauded online. “Couple prove age no barrier to globe-trotting,” a China Daily headline said.
“What a great couple!” wrote a user on Weibo, the Chinese social media site. “I wish I could be like them when I’m old!”
In China, where rising incomes are fueling an extraordinary travel boom, tales of Chinese tourists behaving badly overseas are a fixture.
There was the teen who scrawled his name on a 3,500-year-old Egyptian relic, the passenger who threw hot water on a flight attendant, and countless airport and in-flight brawls.
The vast majority of China’s more than 100 million outbound tourists are not like this. There are over-privileged plutocrats, sure. But there are many more weary office workers and well-meaning first-timers taking a chance on something new.
Having survived the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, raised a family, struggled and saved, Chen and Wang set out, on their own, to discover America.
To the delight of many, they did.
Before she landed, Chen was not sure what to think about the United States. The parks looked nice in pictures. But did everyone have a gun?
Chen comes from a different world. Born in 1952, she came of age with the People’s Republic, leaving school after the seventh grade and toiling in the countryside as one of Mao Zedong’s “sent-down youth.”
She spent two years pulling a night-soil cart before being assigned to drive a factory bus. Later, she drove a U.S.-made vehicle and tried to imagine what a nation “on wheels” was like.
“Back then I said to myself, ‘One day I’m going to travel to your country,’ “ she said.
Chen and Wang raised two children and saved as much as possible. In 2012, they bought their first car, and the next year, despite serious health problems, took a not-so-rookie road-trip across mountainous Tibet.
The United States would be tougher. For Chen and Wang, like many Chinese tourists, traveling abroad requires logistical prowess.
Rental contracts and street signs are only the beginning. (English speakers: Imagine filling out a customs form written entirely in Chinese.)
Chen and Wang started planning months in advance, scouring travel blogs for tips and booking their flights, rental car, SIM cards and navigation system online.
Wang, who cannot drive, was put in charge of directions. With the help of an online dictionary, he translated the names of all the places they hoped to visit -- “Page, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bay” - and wrote the English and Chinese words side-by-side on a sheet of paper. (It’s Horseshoe Bend, but they got there anyway.)
“How much?” he wrote below. “Where is the bathroom?”
They wanted to keep their costs down and were worried about unfamiliar food, so they decided to pack their own rice cooker - and a hearty side of pickled vegetables - to be safe.
With water from supermarkets and regular fast food stops, they got by. “In China, I never go to McDonald’s, because it’s foreign food, but once I was actually abroad, of course I wanted to try,” Chen said. (Plus, you can charge your phone there.)
Eating went OK, most of the time, but finding hotels proved tough - so tough that they started sleeping in the car.
The morning they arrived in Las Vegas, it took them five hours to find the motel they had booked online. Later, driving from Vegas to Flagstaff, they found themselves at a dead end deep in the mountains as night settled in and their navigation system faltered.
They were saved, in the end, by two 60-something Americans in a Chevy. Chen pointed to the GPS, closed her eyes, and gestured to show that the navigation system was blind.
The Americans tried offering directions in English but quickly saw that the couple could not follow and led the way by car.
“They took us to the gate of the hotel, but then they just waved and left. We didn’t even have a chance to say ‘Thank you,’ “ she said.
“Our only regret on the journey was not having the opportunity to say ‘Thank you’ and take a photo with those who helped us. We were afraid we might offend them by asking to take a picture together.”
As surprising as helpful strangers was the fact that Americans did not treat the couple as strangers at all.
“If we spot a foreigner in China, people surround them and look. But people treated us normally,” Chen said.
“One morning, I went to a supermarket, a stranger smiled and said ‘Good morning’ to me. Only later did I learn what it means.”
Other oddities, per Chen: child care. In China, grandparents spend a lot of time caring for grandchildren. In the United States, Chen observed, it was parents chasing children around.
And the children are quite independent, she observed. One day at McDonald’s, she saw a toddler spill his juice and proceed, unprompted and unassisted, to clean it up. “No adult told him to do that. He just did it himself.”
Chen was wowed by U.S. rule-following - “They stop for pedestrians!” - but unimpressed by lackluster in-car navigation and the lack of fast, reliable cellphone service.
In Yellowstone Park, she struggled to post pictures to WeChat, the Chinese messaging service. “The U.S. is such a superpower, how can they not have good networks?” she asked.
It struck her that what Chinese and U.S. tourists shared was an appreciation for what wildness remains.
At Monument Valley, Utah, they joined U.S. tourists snapping pictures of the Colorado Plateau’s landmark buttes. Wang took so many photographs that his fingers hurt. “It was a fairy tale,” Chen said.
On the coast, they watched squirrels beg for food and giggled at portly sea lions.
“They were making sounds like ‘goo, goo, goo.’ Some were playing with sand. I saw their chubby bodies worming about on the beach,” she said.
Standing at the edge of the Pacific, looking toward home, Chen was glad she had made the trip.
“I didn’t know where the U.S. was before. I thought it is a far away place,” she was thinking.
“Now that I’m here, I feel we are actually very close.”