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Friday, January 27, 2012

Our Love/Hate Relationship With Living In China

Among anyone who has spent an extended length of time in China exists a strange love/hate relationship with the country they're living in.

After the initial adjustment, you begin to get comfortable, and once you're comfortable where you're living, you completely forget that you're living in a foreign country and your family is thousands of miles away, but every once in a while, something happens that makes you completely want to erase all trace of China (or whatever country) for the day or however long.

I was reading this book a couple of nights ago, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks,

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and Polly was talking about the difficulties of travelling in non-touristy China with virtually no knowledge of Chinese, and upon arriving at her hotel, she says something to the effect of, "For one wonderful moment, everything Chinese beyond my hotel window disappeared and all was forgotten."

Before then, she was talking about some wonderful experiences she was having, and that although she was having some difficulties, it was obvious that she was having a great time.

So, why was it so wonderful that everything Chinese was forgotten? Weren't you having a great time until just then?

Well, yeah, but sometimes you just have to get away from all that Chinese stuff. China is a big, wonderful, diverse, and fantastically fun place to live and travel in, and it is wonderful to see so many new things, but you can only handle so much new stuff at a time. Sometimes you have to sit alone and take a break. It definitely happened to me - when you're in a totally new place with a new language, your whole brain has to kick in to absorb and keep pace with everything you're seeing, and it's exhausting. 


That's one part of it - the less important part, I think. Another part of it is that sometimes you can't help but get really mad at China - every once in a while, you'll really, really want a sandwich, and then, upon not being able to have one, burst out with remarkable intensity: 

"I HATE THIS F**KING COUNTRY!!  

and then want to blockade yourself in your room to escape the Chinese-y, non-sandwich-y world around you. It happens to many China people, I've noticed, but I'm sure it happens to everyone who's been abroad, I'm sure. It happened to me every now and then, but I didn't really think about it at length until I read that part of the book.

It happens with more serious things too. We learn about all the injustice that happens to the people around us in China - the homes are seized by the government without consent with little or no compensation to the owners, the Hukou system's unfairness that makes it really hard/impossible for people to be able to legally move and work in another city or province, the consequences of the One Child Policy, and many other things that make us think:

"How can I love a country so much, when it is capable of such terrible things?"

This is a question that bothers a lot of "old China hands", and some of them end up washing their hands of China, saying they've "lost their respect" of China after seeing it close up and being part of....less than savory circumstances. There are a lot of others who see the same inadequacies and faults, but in spite of all of it, still persist in their love for China. 

 Here is an interview with a guy that has some pretty harsh things to say about China after living there. 

Here is a link to a blog that I frequent that reflects the continuing love for China after leaving. 


China seems to bring out the best and worst in people who go there - it's a great, big, and very foreign country that forces people to look poverty, excess, consumerism, tradition and the loss of tradition, and much more right in the face, and it changes people forever, for better or for worse. 

(Left - this looks like one of the slums in northern Beijing, but I'm not sure. Below - 上下九路 - “Up Down 9 Road" in Guangzhou. I've been to both places, and they both reflect China's multiple cultural personalities)
America has the same kinds of problems - a growing disparity between the rich and poor, an education system that doesn't work well, and more, but the problems are much more obvious and much more pressing in China, and I think that some foreigners get so turned off by China is having to face these harsh realities every day, but not having the means to do anything about it beyond helping a few of their friends. It may not be the reason they split with China, but I'm sure it might be a factor. 

On the one hand, old "China Hands" love China and its people, but on the other hand, sometimes we hate China and its people. The Chinese can be wonderful and open and hospitable, but on the other hand, they can be closed off, arrogant, racist, and aggressively ignorant of many things. The Chinese government makes life for foreigners pretty easy, but lets its people fall through the cracks, particularly in the rural areas.

Why do people who've lived in China get these sharply divergent feelings about China and its people when the situations are not terribly different from their own country? People and governments everywhere can be hypocrites, right? It's just that they're more evident in China, right? We went to a place that we thought would be great, but it turns out that not all that glimmers is gold. 


(You're seeing the word "China" a lot in this post, but it can probably be replaced with any country you yourself may have spent time in. I'm not picking on China's government or anything, I'm really not. I guess I am still giving China the benefit of the doubt, when others more experienced than me have had it.)

Did the traveler think moving and living a few thousand miles from home might help make a difference in the world? Would (s)he confront and tackle all the world’s societal problems, put their personal demons to rest, and find their own little paradise?

Who knows? But I think it's all part of an even more profound longing, a greater journey: How can I get away from pain, from hypocrisy, from inequality? Where can I find a place of happiness, of true rest, of peace?

I guess we’re all looking for that perfect place - that place where we can live out a fulfilling life that has its challenges, but not too many or too difficult. Where we can be appreciated and loved by all we meet. Where there is true rest and peace. That disappointment that comes is born by not finding it where we thought it had to be. If we cared enough and wanted to find it bad enough, then it had to exist where we were going, right?

Will we ever find it? Who knows.....

"It's very beautiful over there." - the last words of Thomas Edison

"I go to seek a Great Perhaps." - the last words of François Rabelais

“Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” - the (debated) last words of Simon Bolivar

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor...such is my idea of happiness.” Leo Tolstoy - Family Happiness and Other Stories

(The above art is from underscorefive.deviantart.com)



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Monday, January 9, 2012

"The world has moved on," said the gunslinger.


“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” 
Napoleon's assessment of China’s capabilities has proven to be quite astute. Since China’s (forced) opening to the West, it has truly begun to emerge onto the world stage. 

The world's #2 economy, annual double-digit economic growth, holder of a lot of the world's debt, and now #1 foreign investor in America, it is safe to say that China has awakened.

Most think of Chinese culture in ancient terms. "The Sixth Patriarch Cutting Bamboo" by Liang Kai is a good example.

Ancient paintings, Confucian scholars, the queue of the Qing Dynasty - all of these are part of China's traditional culture and are part of the reason that China is able to accomplish what it is accomplishing today.

It is the world's longest surviving culture - 5,000 years of it. And little fundamental change took place in China's culture until its opening to the West. Even after its opening to the West, modernization was never really a huge national priority until Chairman Mao founded China. After his consolidation of power, modernization and development took precedent in the Chinese government. Their view was and is that China will become a world power. Period.

But at what cost? 
Are China’s people better off?
I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a friend of mine, Sulam, who asked me if I believed modernization has done any good in China. 

At first, I thought, “How can she even ask? Of course China is better off now!!” 
My response was something along the lines of, “Well, I think that a lot of China’s people are a lot better off and happier than they were before….” and then I trailed off and she said, “Who’s to say our version of better is actually better?”
Yes, modernization has helped lift some people out of poverty, given some people means to "improve" their life, but it seems to come at the expense of community, tradition, and indigenous Chinese values

The argument goes that because tradition and community shrinks as modernization grows, and community and tradition are vital to a country's welfare, modernization is bad. This an old argument that was highlighted a few years ago during India's industrial boom and has been revived in discussions about China. 

(Right: Traditional hutong neighborhood in Beijing. Many have been cleared out for high rises/ Below: Me with a family in Huan County, Gansu)

(Just hear me out on this, okay?) 

When I was in China, I spent much of my time in the undeveloped and developing Northwest, specifically Gansu Province. 

In the Gansu, people are fairly reserved and traditional, very much in touch with their history and local community. Families in the villages are large and generally poor, but rich in life and love. The lines between neighbors, friends, and family are blurred. Life is hard, but good.

When I visited Guangzhou, also known as Canton, a port city in south China, I was completely blown away by just how westernized it was. 

People on the subway and on the street were all iZombies - just bodies listening to their music and doing their makeup and all plastered with that look of weary indifference that so characterizes people who live in big cities like DC, LA, or NYC. Girls were obsessing over their makeup, guys were shamelessly checking them out - it was just like a subway or street anywhere else in the world.

Except for the street signs, Guangzhou had become just another big city, very un-Chinese (at least in my opinion at the time).

Now, to be fair, all of Guangzhou is not filled with iZombies and blatantly westernized people - they were just far easier to find. It was too much like home for me, and I didn't like it. 

I had seen so many wonderful examples of how traditional China lived on in Lanzhou, Tianshui, Jinchang, and other places in the Northwest, but it seemed to have taken a backseat in Guangzhou, a developed city that the government considers well-off and a desirable model for the rest of China to follow. I developed this idea of what I thought China should be, and the developed areas of China I had been to (Beijing, Guangzhou, and Xi'an) did not fit all that well within it. 

When I was in China, developed China scared me because it seemed like the China that I was falling in love with was capable of turning in America, which I was less than infatuated with at the time. I discussed the idea of it with some of my Chinese friends, and a fair few them did share my fear, but they were not as scared as I was.

Now that I've had time to think about it, I realize that China can't stay the same way forever - time goes on. It's just the way life happens.

Just as Europe didn't remain in the feudal system for the rest of time, just like America moved on from the days of the Wild West and the frontier towns, China is moving on. 

As romantic and pleasant as it is to think of China in the tradition-filled, poetry and calligraphy espousing, self-strengthening and self-sustaining way of its past, that limits and waters down what China really is now. 

Just because China is building skyscrapers and makes mp3 players doesn't mean it will forget its rich cultural history. People of all countries (some more than others, of course) have an understanding of where they came from and wish to leave their little corner of the world better than they found it.

At least, I hope so.


Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately - I know it's been a very long time since I posted anything on here, but I'm glad I got to get on share stuff with you all. I always reply to comments and would love to talk to anybody who wants to engage in a dialogue!

Bye!

**By the way, the title was lifted from the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, which describes a post-apocalyptic earth in a universe that has "moved on" as the center of existence has been wrought by some sort of cancer that threatens the existence of everything as we know it.
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