My First Time

Do you remember your first time? Or were you one of the lucky ones who was jet-setting before you could walk?

I remember my first time. I was 17 and lucky enough to go to China on a school trip. I was nervous and excited all rolled into one. I hadn’t even been on a plane for a domestic flight and here I was about to embark on an 11 hour plus flight to a foreign country.

How much do you think a school trip to China would cost? This was back in 1996 (and if you can do the maths I’ve told you how old I am now!) and I’m sure things would have been all around more expensive back then.

$500. Each student only had to pay $500 thanks to amazing efforts of family and friends and the school in doing fundraising.

I should stop here and explain a little about how the trip came about. I was a band nerd (still am I guess). The high school I went to had an awesome music program. We were so fortunate to have the legendary Don Burrows come to our school three times a year to do workshops with us. His first year of doing this coincided with my first year at high school so I was fortunate enough to be there for the whole program.

Over the next six years we toured country Victoria, played numerous concerts, made a CD and eventually got to go to China, where Don was very well known. We scrimped, we saved, we fundraised. Before long it was all a reality and we were headed overseas. I look back now and admire the teachers and parent volunteers who had to keep 30 plus students in line in a foreign country. Kudos to them.

We left Portland at midnight, on the bus to Melbourne. We got to the airport about 6am and I don’t look all that pleased. Guess I’ve never been a morning person.


I remember feeling petrified on the plane. My first time flying and it was with Air China. The plane felt old and rickety and I was holding onto the armrests at the slightest bump. They seated us alphabetically and just my luck, I ended up between two teachers. We ended up wandering around the plane quite a bit, much to the consternation of the flight attendants. 

Our main destination was Shanghai, which is where we landed. However, the first couple of days of the trip would be spent in Zhangjiagang (no idea of correct spelling but that is phonetically close enough), which was our town’s newly declared sister city (fun fact: my father used to do calligraphy on the side and wrote the scrolls that declared the union – one which hangs in the council offices in town and one which hangs in Zhangjiagang…well, it used to anyway). Because we were a large group we got through customs the quickest I’ve ever been through! We did have to wait a while for our bags though and I was busting to go to the loo. We found the toilets and the stalls were the kind where the doors are always shut. I opened a door to enter a stall and encountered a little old Chinese lady doing her business. I guess they’re not too fussed about using locks! 

The bus trip from Shanghai to Zhangjiagang was interesting. We were escorted by officials (most likely from Zhangjiagang – my memory of this is a bit fuzzy) and felt all important to have cars with flashing lights leading our bus. 

It was quite late when we arrived at our hotel so it was pretty much straight to bed. The next couple of days were full on – tours of the local schools, music workshops with the local students (an interesting blend of Western and Eastern music).


We had a 15 course banquet put on in our honour. That was…interesting. Fish served with their heads and eyes intact. Turtle soup with the turtle shell still floating in it (and our hosts sucking the marrow out of the bones). I’m a fussy eater at the best of times so not a lot of food was consumed for me that day.

We had a concert one night, which I can not even remember but I’m sure it went well. We were almost treated like royalty the whole time we were in Zhangjiagang. Everywhere we went there signs welcoming the “friendly delegation from Portland”. The one in the concert hall was strung across the top of the stage like a banner.

After a couple of successful days in Zhangjiagang it was back to Shanghai for the remainder of the trip. Our time in Shanghai coincided with some of the worst floods in recent history and parts of our trip had to be cancelled, which was a shame. One of our concerts got cancelled because the venue got flooded out. This left us with a bit more time to explore (and we were even let loose on the city on our own at one point).


Highlights of Shanghai included going to see the acrobatic circus, seeing the Oriental Pearl Radio Tower (ah…the days before digital cameras and panoramic features!), the boat trip on the Yangtze River in which arm wrestle matches were had with local children, Shanghai Zoo (we saw a panda from a distance – a bit disappointing really).

The hotel in Shanghai was down the road from a McDonalds. The first night there some of the parents went out and loaded up on fries knowing that some of us were struggling with the local cuisine (the tanks of snakes and eels at the front of the hotel restaurant changed nearly daily…). 

Our time here flew by quickly. We only ended up playing one concert in Shanghai, which was at our hotel. It was well received (from memory). 

Before we knew it our time in China was coming to an end. It was an experience I will never forget (although 17 years later some of it is all a haze now – good thing I’ve got photos and souvenirs to look back on).


The trip home was a bit of an anti-climax. The only good thing was the anticipation of waiting to see how your photos would turn out. I took tons of photos (that doesn’t sound like me at all) but unfortunately only a small handful were decent. Still, that was part of the fun!

It certainly was a wonderful way to dip my toes into the wonder that is travel. Not many people would have the opportunity to say they have toured overseas with a legend and it’s certainly something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

So, that was my first time. What was yours?

ImageDon Burrows, Me, Kevin Hunt (Don’s pianist)

ImageDifferent views of Shanghai

ImageOriental Pearl Radio Tower – Note the old school panoramic shot!

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