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Calls from the future

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The first call came in at 5 a.m. on a dark, cold Friday morning in North Carolina. I was dreaming of bubble tea.

"Hi, Dad!" It was our oldest daughter calling from China. She was excited, ready for the weekend. Her classes were over for the week. While I was groggily pushing the coffeemaker button, the sunrise still two hours away, she was making dinner plans. It was 6 p.m. the same day in Beijing.

That was the first of many wonderful time-warping conversations. I always have to remind myself what time it is on her end. When we talk on Sunday mornings, she's already done with the weekend. If we talk Sunday night, she's running around getting ready for "today's" classes. It's her Monday morning. That last full moon, while she saw it setting in the west, we were just seeing it rising in the east.

Even more mind-bending at first was the ability to see her in real time, 13 hours ahead of us, on her computer. Skype lets us basically talk for free across all the time zones. The "phone ring" on Skype sounds like bloop-bloop-bloop. (That explains my bubble tea dream.)

Semester abroad was never like this when I went to college. When she first mentioned spring in China a few years ago, I went "Yeah, yeah, yeah." My parental list of concerns spun wildly. What about the cold, the pollution, the language, figuring out the money, censorship, safety, phones/ computers, health ... I was Mr. Doubt. It was a commendable goal, but what about the effort and risks?

When she was in high school four blocks away, she would call and ask, "Hey, Dad, I have a long day. Can you bring me over a hot tea and a muffin?" Now, Beijing? She practically flew over the North Pole to get there.

All the hard stuff was easy. China is mostly a cash economy; ATMs are everywhere. The streets are very safe. There are food carts on every corner. It was cold at first, but one day last week it was colder in Hillsborough than Beijing. People are very friendly and helpful. ("Hey, Dad, there are four ways to say 'wen!'") She loves to shop and explore, and everything she needs is already in China.

Some of her favorite Web sites are blocked. But we can cut and paste BBC text into e-mails. Facebook is still huge, a valuable tool for sharing all kinds of information.

Her friends call her by her Chinese name, Tingting. Her anecdotal stories about life in China have a college-age perspective.

"We had National Line Day today," she'll mention. To prepare for the Olympics, the whole country practiced lining up that day. Beijing really celebrates the Lunar New Year. Fireworks exploded 24 hours a day. "Remember those fireworks at Wallace Wade Stadium, when we had to sit 50 yards away? You can buy those in the local store. Eight-year-old kids are setting them off outside our dorm!"

The school sets up travel weekends, so while I remember the National Geographic articles, she's talking about going to see the Harbin ice sculptures or the Terracotta Warriors.

She ended one recent phone call with, "Hey, Dad, want to go to Tibet?"

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