“Do you want to listen with me?” I asked Christina, handing her one of my earbuds.
“Thanks.” She said, sticking it into her ear.
On the train into the mountains, we stared silently out the window together. For me, traveling was like sliding into the murk of a dream. Every vehicle I rode brought me further away from any reality I ever knew. I loved listening to music when I could look out the window, headed somewhere fast. The melody flowed into the landscape passing by, the combination of music and scenery hit the electric synapses in my brain with startling clarity. I could be living in a movie; life seemed that perfect behind the glass, passing the world by at ninety miles per hour.
The sky was unnaturally blue, even to my American standards. Beijing, only hours before, had been one of the most highly polluted cities in the world; the pollution index recorded levels going off the charts.
“Wind must’ve took it.” Dr. Jay had commented absently about the pollution when we walked out of our hotel that morning, gasping at the clear sky. Apparently, this was something like his thirtieth semester teaching American students in China. He was completely over touring the Great Wall.
The rolling, mountainous greenery and the shrill, melancholic overtones of Bon Iver’s “Holocene” set me into a thoughtful trance. The train car was strangely spacious, two people could easily fit in my seat and I could barely touch the seat in front of me even with my legs fully extended. A tour guide had been erupting in long, harshly projected Chinese phrases for the past thirty minutes. I had tried to block her out with my music almost immediately. Mandarin was maddening; trying to learn it was like trying to fit my brain through a pin hole. I never thought I was ethnocentric until I left the country. Now, I suddenly loved everything Americans did, speaking in English especially. Through the window, the landscape seemed to eventually roll in on itself, repeating over and over again. My eyelids became heavy. I dozed off.
I could still remember the morning my plane was going to take off to Hong Kong, commencing my semester studying with the China Studies Program (CSP). I had laid in my bed, curled up in the fetal position, remaining motionless for a long time. My eyes were wide open, staring out the perfectly square window above me. I tried to hold onto the nostalgia of the familiar, weathered siding layering the back porch and the thin tree branches, waving in the breeze. I didn’t want to get up. Getting up commenced my journey to what was then only a concept--a design of my imagination. Everything felt so safe in that bed; it felt like my whole world.
Now, it seemed the past three months in China were leading up to this day. Finally we were going to see it. I liked the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, as well as the Summer Palace (it even snowed that day), and we all pretended to be interested in the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden Kingdom. In reality, however, they were the vegetables. The Great Wall was the dessert. I had laced up my Mizunos that morning. It wasn’t enough simply to walk along one of the greatest Medieval wonders of the world; I planned to run. I heard muffled excited noises behind me. We were getting closer. I opened my eyes in time to catch my first glimpse. The structure was falling apart in places, vines grew up between the cracks. The dull stone bricks were crumbly, like feta cheese. Christina had fallen asleep. I shook her and pointed out the window. We looked with our faces pressed against the glass like two little kids on Christmas day. When the train finally stopped, hundreds of people unloaded and started hiking up the road to buy tickets. The Wall continued snaking over the mountains into the horizon.
We had finished the first third of our classes. Now, we were in the middle of the history of China, literally. The course itself was crashing us into over two thousand years of Chinese development. Leading up to our travels into the cities of Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, we learned about the stages of culture shock. There are five:
As I walked up to one of the tourists’ entrances to the Great Wall, shooting off my camera like a machine gun, I thought perhaps I was still in the elation stage. Or, perhaps my fellow American classmates cushioned the brunt of culture shock for me, defusing the stages’ intensity. More than likely, I was still going through the counter-cultural frustrations. Earlier that week, I had gone to the Silk Market in Beijing with a group of several students from CSP. Walking up and down the isles of merchandise felt overwhelming. The building was like a Western mall, except more stimulating. Clothes and bags of every shape and color imaginable were strung all the way to the ceiling. Shoes were everywhere, encompassing entire sections of the floor. One complete level of the building was dedicated to electronics, another to jewelry. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, yet it seemed impossible to ignore the venders. I found their vigor and determination for a sale a bit unsettling.
“Hello, lady, want to buy this? Come take a look, low price for you.”
A little white and Blue dress had caught my attention at one of the booths; it looked just my niece's size. I made eye contact with the woman selling the dress. She seemed young, maybe just a little older than me.
“Duo xiao qian?” I asked, self-conscious of my poorly spoken Mandarin.
She spoke to me in English, “This? Nine hundred and ninety.”
I shook my head. It was a ridiculous price.
“My company is very prestigious company in China. You come feel the quality of my clothes, come, come, feel the quality...”
I ended up walking away. The interaction with the lady was not unlike several others I had in Xi’an. She talked rhythmically, even in her broken English. Her words flowed smoothly, as if reciting a work of poetry. Yet behind her eyes I sensed subdued hostility. Even though I was dressed like a scrub (worn jeans and a baggy sweatshirt) I was foreign and to her I equalled potential profit, nothing more. I didn’t like the Silk Market. The majority of the consumers there were foreigners. Tall, Western middle-aged men dressed in perfectly pressed black suit coats and pants with shiny black shoes sauntered around in small groups. Western women of all shapes and sizes lined the tables, trying on the jewelry, bargaining for the best price, annoyed by the loud, dogged temperament of the vendors. The vendors themselves were relentless, leaning over their tables of merchandise, beckoning me over with the same forced, poetic diction, the same subtle aversion. I didn’t know who the consumers were. I felt like we were all trying to consume each other.
We were now touring a section of the Wall in Badaling, just outside of Beijing. Taking in the clean air and the dragon-like structure twisting and oscillating through the mountain peaks, I had fallen in love with China again. From our crash course in Chinese history, I learned that this section was built during the Ming Dynasty. According to the information plack nailed to the entrance, it was the first section of the wall to open to tourists in 1957. Exhilarated by the crisp air, I left my coat and camera with the group and started running. The wall was more like a twenty-five foot high, five thousand five hundred mile-long erratic staircase. Even with the twenty foot breadth from one side of the wall to the other, I found it hard to navigate around people. The uneven layers of stairs eventually began messing with my head, particularly going downhill, as it was difficult to judge depth. Some of the tourists laughed and pointed as I passed them, my face flushed and lungs heaving. As I looked around me at the never-ending trail of bricks and mortar disappearing into the distance, and the panorama of green mountains bubbling up along the horizon like a wrinkled bed sheet, I felt an overwhelming feeling larger than life. I was a stranger in a strange place. I looked into the faces of the people as I passed them. I understood I was the strange one, not them. In the States I was a stranger among familiar people. I knew the strangers there; I knew their language and their culture. On a very basic level, we understand each other. Here, on the Wall, not only were the faces unfamiliar, but the people themselves. I was gripped by their mystery. I thought the people were beautiful, even as they glanced over at me, showing a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and annoyance.
I couldn’t know it then, but my feelings on the Wall of transcendence and benevolence toward humankind were underdeveloped. A couple weeks after touring Beijing, I did an internship with the local newspaper in Xiamen, the city where the university hosted the CSP students. Being forced to attend and write on campus and community events, I discovered more about life in Xiamen. The editor asked me to attended a Toastmasters meeting: a learning-by-doing workshop where participants make speeches to practice English. Later, while typing up the article, I learned the toastmasters enrollment was going 280,000 members strong and the individuals improve their English speaking and leadership skills by attending one of the 13,500 clubs in 116 countries that make up a global network of meeting locations. The goal of these meetings was primarily to becoming better English speakers. The weekly events encompassed impromptu talks and feedback afterwards on the quality of grammar use and pronunciation. I was welcomed into the group, and even asked to give a personal introduction. It was pointed out more than once how privileged I was to be a native English speaker. The Toastmaster or MC of the evening was Brian Huang: a dynamic, clean shaven, bald enthusiast in his mid-thirties. To begin the “warm up,” he bounced to the front of the room and wrote on the board: Heart Followers Create. He turned around dramatically and asked several participants in the group to stand and explain a positive experience when they created an opportunity by “following their heart,” including a twenty-something year-old girl, born outside the Fujian province, who confessed going against her parents’ will and moving to the city of Xiamen. Her confession was praised with nodding heads and vigorous clapping.
Eventually, Brian made eye-contact with me, “Please, you look like you have something to share with us, too.”
I stood up slowly. The eruption of clapping from the previous speech had died down so suddenly the room felt unnaturally quiet, especially considering the number of people present. “I followed my heart by…coming here…to China, to Xiamen.” I said, feeling childish. “I’ve been able to see and experience so many things, enjoying so many opportunities I never would’ve had in the States.” My statement was greeted with silence. I laughed nervously, pulling my thoughts together (I couldn’t imagine doing it in a second language), “I’ve met so many great people here, and although I was scared to leave at first, especially because I can’t speak Chinese, I’m glad I did. I’m just…really glad. Thanks.” I sat down quickly as the clapping began. I felt completely at a loss. I couldn’t express why I wanted to come to China.
A couple days before I left China for good, Brian invited me to dinner at a Western hotel. When I asked him what he meant by “Western,” He explained, “It’s a buffet style, with every kind of Western food.” I had been on a steady, four-month-long diet of fried broccoli and white rice with tofu. I couldn’t say no. Amanda, another newspaper intern, was invited too. Brian picked us up in one of the nicest, newest cars I had ever seen; it was a Rolls Royce I think. The inside was lined with black leather and smelled like wet chemicals straight from the assembly line. When we arrived at the hotel, I couldn’t find the door handle to let myself out.
“Where’s the...?” I trailed off, studying the car door and running my hands over its side in vain.
“It is underneath.” Brian indicated with his hand. I located the latch and laughed as I swung the door open, nearly ramming it into another 2013 Rolls Royce parked next to us.
I was tragically underdressed. Brian wore a cotton navy blue button-up with pressed black slacks and shiny black shoes. Amanda wore dress pants too, and an elegant off-white blouse. I hadn’t packed nice clothes and my budget didn’t permit much shopping. I wore my defaulted plain shirt and jeans. The lobby of the hotel looked like a royal ballroom, complete with a hanging crystal chandelier (at least twelve feet in diameter). We ascended the enormous spiral staircase to the food.
As we entered the restaurant, my senses were vanquished by the smells and the futuristic design of the food displayed literally everywhere. Going from the adventurous, hole-in-the-wall food escapades I had made in the past, I felt like I had just skipped ahead a century. I passed the salad bar and went straight to the meat. I found whole, twelve ounce slabs of sirloin steak, cooked medium rare, simmering in little pools of blood and A1 sauce, and grilled boneless chicken breasts sauteed in oily garlic marinade, sprinkled with italian seasoning. It was real A1 sauce. There was pizza, bread, and seafood of every shape and color imaginable displayed on clear plastic shelving units like pieces in a modern art exhibit. Brian seemed nervous. He pulled out the chair for me, and bowed his head just slightly. His courtesy made me uncomfortable; the Japanese bow, not the Chinese. When we all had our plates of food and sat at the table, Brian leaned in eagerly and asked more questions about America than I had answers. Somehow the whole night felt off, starting with the drive in the Rolls Royce, to walking into the incredible hotel with the best food I could remember tasting. He was successfully impressing me, but throughout the night I couldn’t help feeling saddened and confused by it. In the same way I viewed the people on the Great Wall as a grand, mysterious, Chinese ideal, Brian saw me through a Hollywood lense, an Americanized paragon. It seemed to me the Open Door Policy had admitted more than international trade. China was searching for something. I could see the pursuit in the attitudes of its people, in Brian’s face as he sat across from me at the table, even in his preference of a knife and fork over chopsticks. He was so eager to hear my thoughts and gain insight about my country. Perhaps rapid development and success had become China’s religion, I thought. Brian wasn’t the only one who seemed to cling to the hope of prosperity seen in the West. The American Dream was quickly becoming China’s.
After forty-five minutes of running up and down the Great Wall’s never-ending staircase, I was ready to stop. I rejoined the group at a section of the Wall. We laugh, smiled, and took so many pictures. We asked to have our picture taken with random strangers and other strangers asked to have their picture taken with us. Then, after a few hours, we were ready to leave. Just that quickly, the day was over. Sitting in the train packed with people (somehow there was more people on the way back) felt terribly anticlimactic. This was the place that, during its construction, was called “the longest cemetery on earth” because so many people died building it. At one time, family members of those who died working on the Great Wall would carry a coffin on top of which was a caged white rooster. The rooster's crowing was supposed to keep the spirit of the dead person awake until they crossed the Wall; otherwise, the family feared the spirit would escape and wander forever along the Wall. Reportedly, it cost the lives of more than one million people. It was common to hear that the mortar used to bind the stones was made from human bones and that men are buried within the Great Wall to make it stronger. Even though it was later proven the mortar was actually made from rice flour—and no bones, human or otherwise, have ever been found in the Wall—the fact that the rumor continues to spread is a detail worth acknowledging. There was so much history, so much death and suffering poured into the construction of the lengthy historical monument, and, within a few hour’s time, we were completely over it. We had consumed it, like any other marketable product the country had to offer, and were ready to move on to the next thing.
As the train steadily gained speed, I stared out the window again, catching the last glimpses of the crumbling bricks and mortar. I put my earphones back in and allowed the rolling landscape to mesmerize my senses into the melodies of my playlist again. It already felt like I was worlds away from the Great Wall. The feeling after leaving the ancient ruins wasn’t what I was expecting. I suddenly felt overwhelmingly small. Back in the States, I used to think I was complicated; I was just riddled with layers of finely woven mystery. In China, I felt none of that. In the train, everyone was tired and solitary, plugged up with their own thoughts and music devices. The view of the Great Wall eventually disappeared behind us. I continued staring out the window, along with everyone else.
In honor of the Best Semester crew of the China Studies Program, Spring 2013
Miss you guys.