Friday, February 10, 2012

January in Review

1.       Visiting Sara and celebrating Tet in Hanoi (Such a fantastic time, gonna need an entire post of its own)


2.       Sapa, Vietnam (hiking, hill tribes, motor biking, so many awesome things!)


3.       Lijiang (minority groups, houses built of mud bricks, tasty street food, etc.)

4.       Dali (Couch surfing at awesome artsy house, beautiful skies, chill atmosphere and so much more)

5.       Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

6.       Visiting the Stone Forest and making new friends

7.       Kunming (sunshine, markets, relaxing and getting ready for Vietnam!)

8.       Xi’an, the sights and my first time being a couch surfer with an excellent host, Eitan

9.       Scenery of the long bus rides, and night bus to the border

10.   Seeing blue skies and sunshine

1.       New years at home
2.       Top ten countdowns on TV and radio stations
3.       Chai tea
4.       Sitting by the fireplace at the cabin
5.       Making new year’s resolutions and attempting to stick to them
6.       Not knowing when I’ll be able to skype or be in touch again
7.       Sleeping in my own bed
8.       Having a home and not living out of a suitcase
9.       Being able to do laundry and know it will be dry in a day
10.   My friends and family

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

China In Review

A Year and Four Months Later

Goodbyes are always tricky. Coming to the end of something profound and life-defining is difficult to process. It’s hard enough to say goodbye to a person, but how do I say it to an experience? How do I begin to tell others of what my time in China has meant to me when I really don’t have it figured out yet myself? How can I write about China in the past tense when it still feels like I’ll be going back there tomorrow, or next week?

I left home with a particular agenda. I wanted to gain teaching experience, I wanted to see as much of China as I could, and I wanted to come back fluent in Mandarin. Though I failed miserably on the last goal, I managed to accomplish the other two with flying colors. But the funny thing about when you make plans and set goals is that they change over time, and they evolve. And on this particular trip, I know that in many ways I’ve probably changed and evolved as well, but I’ll have to wait until I’m back home to really see if that’s true and to what extent. I didn’t know what to expect in coming to China, but this is a rambling commentary of the things I’ve observed, the things I’ve learned, and what will leave a lasting impression on my mind.

First and foremost, China is a great nation. Not only is it a huge landmass (only Russia, Canada and the U.S. are larger) but it is also the oldest continual civilization in the world, with its history dating back more than 4,000 years. It is the most populous nation on earth, and is home to some of the most impressive and iconic wonders of the world. It is the land of the Great Wall and the Giant Panda. It is the land of the Forbidden City and a land where most citizens are forbidden to have more than one child. It is the land of gunpowder, calligraphy and Confucius. It is a land rich in symbolism and superstition. Fireworks are still lit to scare away evil spirits, large stone sculptures of lions, elephants, dragons and other animals still stand silent guard in front of both old and new buildings. It is a nation in balance, always practicing the principles of Yin and Yang, always making note of the Feng Shui.

In art classes I learned about scale and perspective. Coming to China was like being dropped into the middle of one of those lessons until the concepts were burned into my memory. Everything in China is done on a much larger scale than what I am used to at home. Apartment buildings are nearly all high rises, and they can make the skyline of a city go on seemingly forever. Billboards are much bigger here, and they are nearly always lit up and capable of showing flashy video. In fact, everything is lit up here all the time. Including men’s cigarettes, incense, and fireworks. From my perspective, China lacks finesse and often overlooks adding the finishing touches on the things they build, wear or produce. If they are painting a wall, they won’t add a drop cloth or worry about the drips that remain on the floor. At home in America when something breaks we typically joke that it was probably made in China, and are smugly satisfied when we are proven right by checking the tag. In China, everything breaks all the time, and it’s pretty much all made in China. It’s the really crappy grade stuff they would never even think of sending to America. But they seem to take it as a matter of course that you just keep fixing it over and over again, or buy a new crappy product that’s going to break over and over again. But in spite of all the shortcomings or differences, China is still great.

Some of us fear it because we don’t know or understand it. But while other countries are busy with debating, debt and diplomacy, China is busy doing, doing, doing. True, it’s a terrifying prospect to think about what will happen if their economic bubble bursts, but for the time being they don’t seem to be worried about it and instead are focused on building the latest and the greatest. They tear apart big roads to build bigger ones. They demolish high rise buildings to erect higher ones. They are masters at imitating or copying things that other people have invented and created, and are constantly busy trying to improve upon all of the things they have recently mastered. While other countries are busy trying to just stay afloat, China is busy trying to be Number One.

In China, the concept of Face is a big deal. It’s similar to the Western notion of image and status and reputation. In recent history China was repeatedly losing face. First when the British introduced Opium and the Chinese were essentially doped and duped. More foreigners followed and set up shop in a country that had historically been closed. After the Boxer Rebellion failed and they couldn’t manage to kick out the “foreign devils," things kept getting worse, perhaps worst of all when the Japanese invaded and used the Chinese’s last emperor as a puppet for their own benefit. Unable to do anything themselves, China relied on foreign powers to save them. At this point they pretty much had no face left, so they turned their backs on the world, once again closed their doors and began the difficult task of rebuilding. They survived horrors at their own hands during the Cultural Revolution, and in a shockingly short amount of time have managed to regain a sense of self, reclaim their lost sense of power and pride and have rejoined the global scene as a nation with plenty of Face and a booming voice not to be ignored.

Because I want to be a teacher when I return the U.S., I am constantly looking at things from the perspective of a potential educator. This experience has made several things clear to me. We learn what we think is relevant to us. History is subjective. There is so much worth knowing in the world that nobody could ever possibly learn it all. Perhaps most pertinent to me is that as the world shrinks due to technology, it is becoming increasingly important to be familiar with other cultures and histories. Maybe China and other Asian countries had a limited relevance in my life prior to this experience, but they will always be important to me now.

Interestingly, in my time traveling the Orient I’ve learned that American culture is the global ideal. Many Chinese people would ask me where I was from and when I told them I was American they would say things like, “America, very good. China no good.” “America number one!” They always had big smiles and were genuinely thrilled to be speaking to an American. I would tell them that China was very good too, and sometimes they would shake their heads, then give a thumbs up and reemphasize “America, very good.” My friend in living in Vietnam noticed the same odd phenomenon. When the people I spoke to indicated that China was not good, it always boiled down to the idea of freedom. American’s have it and the Chinese don’t. Many countries don’t. But when I left the U.S. it was partly because I needed to get away from our excessive freedoms and the growing sense of entitlement. I always knew overpopulation was a global problem, but in China’s congested and claustrophobia inducing streets it’s blaringly obvious, and China is one of the few nations I have heard of that is actually doing anything about it. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating a one child policy world-wide, but it seems somehow wrong that nearly a quarter of the worlds’ population is limited to one child, and in America one family is allowed to have 19. And what’s worse is that this family gets rewarded with fame and a TV show. And don’t get me started on Octomom.

Clearly, being abroad has opened my eyes to how other people live. It has shown me the extravagances and embarrassing cultural excesses that are dragging America down in the eyes of the world, but it has also made me see clearly and acutely just how lucky each U.S. citizen is to live in that beautiful nation. Sometimes I thought I would go crazy from all the chaos, the odors, and from the lack of respect or regard one encounters with strangers wherever you go in China. I was able to make it through knowing I would be able to go home. Home where people are polite to one another, because that’s our culture. They’re not intentionally rude in China; they’ve just never had the custom to be aware of others. But going back to Mei Guo, literally meaning Beautiful Land, would also mean that after I wash my clothes I would be able to dry them with a dryer. That one day I would live in a house with a yard, not have my entire family crammed in some tiny apartment on the 20th floor. In America I’ll be able to have a garden and a dog. If my neighbors are loud at random hours of the night, I have the right to make them respect my wish to be quiet.  The things you take for granted at home jump out at you when you are away. Things like schedules and orderly lines. Things like customer service, traffic laws being enforced, and a general regard for public safety. Or the simple luxury of being able to buy anything you could possibly want. Whether it’s a rare ingredient at the grocery store or something you have to search for online; if you have the money you will be able to get what you desire. In China it was a battle for me just to find cheese that tasted like rubber, forget about gorgonzola or Gouda.

But in spite of the trouble China sometimes threw at me, I know it was a valid and invaluable experience. I’ve learned so much about myself, about the Chinese culture and about life in general. I’ve learned that people may look different, speak different languages and have different customs, but generosity, kindness and friendship are universal. The feeling you get from being around people who care about you and care about others will always warm you on cold days. The world is filled with wonderful, kind hearted people. There will always be some bad apples no matter where you go, but it’s comforting to realize that certain outlooks and philosophies exist everywhere but that they may just go by different names in different lands.

When I saw a rainbow in Dali, it gave me the same sense of hope as it would if I had seen it back home. When I saw the sun rise over misty peaks of Huangshan, it gave me the same sense of serenity and awe that I would get if I saw it rise from behind the jagged Cascades in Seattle’s backyard. And so, though I find it difficult to say goodbye to China and the people who touched my life and the experiences I had there, in the words of Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan from Annie, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”