Our long day at the Forbidden City was coming to a close. On Angie’s advice, I visited one more museum: an art exhibit tucked into a less-traveled area of the sprawling complex.

Beautiful calligraphy. Evocative watercolors. I emerged inspired. And suddenly a profound sadness washed over me.

I thought of the magnificent sweep of Chinese history, and how the West’s tense modern-day relationship with China colors that for me. As I admire an ancient scroll in a museum, I can’t help but think of the repressive government that authorized its display here.

When we hear about China, it is most likely for a scary new geopolitical move (on our part or theirs) or as the butt of a joke about cheaply-made products (even as they churn out the iPads and flat-screen TVs we love).

In a world without Mao, would our relationship with the Chinese be more like the free-wheeling conversation we had with the Chinese tourists in Nepal? Or does the mighty USA need an enemy, preferably one whose citizens speak and act in ways that seem strange to us?

For the foreseeable future, for reasons good and bad, China is The Other, the one to keep at arm’s length. Yet I am grateful for the chance to step back in history and view this forbidden country through a different lens, if only for a moment.