“Are you digging to China?” is like the ultimate dad joke. You’ve heard the expression before, probably when a kid is shoveling sand on the beach or even picking their nose. Where exactly does this phrase come from?
The first known use of the expression was in the book Walden by David Henry Thoreau in 1854. The book states: “As for your high towers and monuments, there was a crazy fellow in town who undertook to dig through to China, and he got so far that, as he said, he heard the Chinese pots and kettles rattle; but I think that I shall not go out of my way to admire the hole which he made.”
References to “The Big Dig” have also flecked in pop culture throughout the 20th and 21st century — there’s even a 1997 movie with Kevin Bacon called Digging to China (spoiler alert: The movie has nothing to do with digging or China).
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In the event that it was remotely possible, it would only make sense that if you kept digging straight into the round Earth’s floor, you’d end up on the opposite side of the world. But while the “digging to China” trope is frequently used in the United States, China’s antipode (polar opposite) is more South America.
We tested it out on Antipodes Map and determined where we would end up if we dug straight into the ground in Kansas City center and kept going. Turns out, Kansas City’s antipode is the Indian Ocean, which is the case for most of the U.S. There is, however, a tiny island nearby called Île Amsterdam. There’s not much going on there — the French-owned volcanic island is just 21 square miles of vegetation and tropical birds. The only settlement there is a research station that’s popular with amateur radio enthusiasts.
If you’re planning on digging your way down, we suggest you pack your snorkel mask.