Reflections on my Fulbright-Hays Trip to China, Summer 2011
I cannot believe it has been an entire year since I returned from my trip to China last summer. Why am I writing about this now? Maybe it’s because I needed that much space and time to fully digest all that I had experienced and absorbed during my time in Asia last summer, maybe it’s because I’m in a nostalgic, reflective mood, or maybe it’s because this is the first time in the 9 months since I’ve returned from Asia that I’ve had any time to really sit and think and write about what I have learned. Or maybe it’s because I just created my blog:) Whatever the reason, I feel compelled to write about it, and write I will. Even if I am the only person reading these, in a what will undoubtedly be too long of a post, I will attempt to sum up and make sense of my incredible experience as a Fulbright scholar in China last summer and perhaps provide some insight fro anyone visiting there in the near future.
First, let me start with the statement that I could not have asked for a better group of fellow travelers to share a month of my life with. We met in San Francisco as complete strangers, but by the time we left China I felt like I had known some of these people my whole life. Everyone had such unique experiences and personalities to bring to the group, and though I know I may never see some of them again, I will always hold fond memories of all the experiences we shared together.
As if having 15 other like-minded, fun and intelligent people to travel with wasn’t enough, I was blessed with having two of the greatest guides I’ve ever experienced on a study tour. A big shout out to Dr. Richard Belsky; our scholar escort from America, and Mr. Zhai, our local expert guide. Both of these men combined humor, patience, and their life experiences to make this an amazing trip for everyone.
At the risk of sounding cliche, it is hard to put Shanghai in words. Arriving in China after a 13 hour plane ride from San Francisco, I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but I do know it was NOT Shanghai. This city is so incredibly modern, nay…futuristic, that my senses were on overload. I had not experienced that much culture shock since I first arrived in Old Delhi in India a few years back; only this was in an entirely different way. I felt as if I had stepped off the plane and onto the set of the Jetsons. We stayed in a hotel in Pedong, a part of the city that only a few short years ago was considered “developing,” now it is the epicenter of Shanghai and symbolizes all the modernization that China has experience over the last 30 years.
We spent some time in Shanghai touring the usual attractions that one would visit if traveling to the city, but we also were able to get a deeper look into the city through our lectures, and what would become a tradition throughout the trip, our early morning adventures. The first couple of mornings there, I went out running on my own and saw the people going through their early morning rituals; old people excercising in the park, men and women wallking to work, government workers keeping the city clean by sweeping the streets, and food stalls selling some of the most delectable breakfast items I’ve ever had. While it was wonderful to experience all these things, there are two early morning phenomenons that particularly stick out; the caged birds being hung in the trees throughout the park, and the early morning vegetable and fish market around the corner from our hotel where they had live eels, fish, turtles, chickens, etc.
Our lectures in Shanghai were among some of our best; Stella showing us the documentary film “Please Vote for Me” at the Shanghai International University, China’s interpretation of their recent significance on the world stage as a “peaceful rise,” and a blogger candidly discussing internet filters and restrictions on freedom of speech in China. But by far the thing that was most significant to me, and most disturbing , was our visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. This really haunted me in so many ways. Part futuristic museum that showcased human holograms, part current propaganda, I felt as if I was looking at what our world was going to become in a short time span and I did not like it. The way that old neighborhoods and buildings in China are constantly destroyed to build new, bigger, and allegedly better ones, while good for their economy, has decimated much of their history and culture. This was my instinctual reaction to the museum, which led me to question my own cultural perspective and see it for what it was, a nostalgic, keep things the way they are because they are cute or quaint, even if it hinders progress for those people, way of looking at the world. While I didn’t realize it at the time, in retrospect I think that what disturbed me the most about this museum was that it caused me to have a knee-jerk reaction that was tainted in 19th century imperialism. Though I reallize this now, the museum is no less disturbing to me, as it is a clear indication of China’s rise in the world which can’t help me think about the fate of our own country. Not that I don’t think the two nations could co-exist peacefully as world “superpowers,” it just caused me to reflect on the progress of our own economy, which of course would disturb anyone.
In addition to our inaugural morning adventures, our lectures, and our 2 hour lazy susan lunches that required us to fill up on beer and a capacious amount of food everyday, these are some more of my Shanghai highlights:
1. Visiting the Jade Buddha Temple in the Old City of Shanghai. The temple was a reminder of the glorious architecture and culture that existed throughout China before the 19th century. While we were there we witnessed a funeral/cremation ceremony which was one of the most powerful things I have seen. In Buddhism, when one dies, it is customary in some cultures to burn all of that person’s belongings. I know there is controversy in taking pictures of such events, and I grappled with this myself, but in the end I decided that the beauty of this simple ceremonial act was so moving and powerful to me that I wanted to share it with those I know at home who will most likely never see such an occassion.
2. Visiting the Oriental T.V. Tower. Now, we visited this right after coming out of the Urban Plannign Museum, so there were some things that I was a little skeptical of. For example, it was about 105 degrees out and not the slightest hint of a breeze, yet the giant flags outside the tower were blowing in the air, like something you would see in Vegas. Now my fellow fulbrighters will make fun of me to this day about it, but I am still convinced that the Chinese government was able to pump in fake air for effect.
3. Getting lost on the Bund and taking a river cruise down the Huangpu river. While on the boat we noticed that all the Chinese tourists were looking at the direction of Pedong (modern) and all the Western tourists were on the other side of the boat looking at Bund (Western style architecture leftover from the imperial days.) I was particularly taken back with the below picture which exhibits a Citibank building decorated in the communist flag of China. To see the hammer and sickle right below the citibank logo made my day.
4. Visiting a Silk Worm Factory in Suzhou.
5. Eating “street meat” from a vendor around the corner from our hotel; meat that was given to us for free because Cassie told them they were cute.
“Mao Zedong is 7 parts right and 3 parts wrong.”
This was the answer given to us from one of our local guides; David- a high school Chinese student in Chongqing who was simply stating what many others had told us before. While China’s fascination with Mao Zedong I find, well, fascinating, it is more the “missing years” of history that completely blew me away. Our visit to Chongqing, which is located in Sichuan provence, provided us with numerous examples of the communist party’s view of China’s history- here are some examples:
Of all the cities we visited, Chongqing was by far my favorite. Now that’s not to say that I think Chonqing was the coolest, most interesting city I’ve been too. It is just that some of my favorite memories and coolest experiences took place while we were there. The most amazing of experiences by far was visiting the middle/high school in Qijiang. We drove almost an hour into the “suburbs” of Chongqing to be greeted at the gate by cheering crowds of people, the local news media, and hundreds of screaming kids. I can honestly say for that moment, and much of the rest of the day I felt like a movie star. The royal treatment we were given upon this visit was just one of the many examples of Chinese hospitality we experienced throughout the trip.
While visiting the school, we were broken into smaller groups and given the opportunity to go observe an English lesson. Many of these students were attending school in the summer to improve their English and improve their chances of scoring well on the national exams. Every year, students throughout the country are expected to take a national exam that will greatly determine which university they will attend, which will greatly determine what career they will ultimately have. Needless to say, there is a great deal of pressure put on these students to do well on the exam, and so many of these students volunteer to take extra courses in the summer.
We were thrown into a classroom of about 60 middle school students to watch a lesson on English proverbs. Little did we know that we would be asked to participate in the lesson as well. When the teacher asked me to come up with a proverb, for some strange reason, unbeknown to me, I blurted out “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”….which was met by 61 blank stares; that’s 60 students and one very confused Chinese teacher. It didn’t help that I pronounced “thorn” as “thawn” as if I was born and raised on the streets of Brooklyn. To break the awkwardness, I then proceeded to ask these blank stares “You guys know Poison right?” trying desperately to reference the 80s hairband. WHAT?????!!!!! This had to be one of my dumbest moments ever, but it did provide all of us with many laughs throughout the trip so I suppose it was worth the embarrassment. Total “I carried a watermelon” moment.
After the lesson, we all met up again outside and were given free time to talk with the students, them asking us questions and vice-versa. Their enthusiasm for American culture was abundant as so many of their questions were like “What do American students do for fun?” I was able to talk with some students for about half an hour, and gave them all “I LOVE NY” pencils that I picked up, ironically, in China town before I left. After this scheduled “free-time” we were treated to another presentation of local teachers and administrators, then wisked away to a local restuarant that specialized in organic mushrooms. After a huge lunch of hotpot with mushrooms and chicken (see picture below) we were taken to the local Peasant’s Woodprints Academy where we were shown how traditonal peasant wood carvings were made. As a gift from the schools’ principal, we were all given our print to take home. Again, amazing hospitality.
That evening, we were scheduled to visit a traditional village to observe first hand how efficient communism works. When we pulled into the village, every man, woman, and child was lined up on the road cheering, waiting to greet us. It was one of the most amazing things I have yet to experience. There were seats set up in front of a stage, and we were treated to a live show of local village music. Apparently, the village specialized in traditional percussion instruments.
After the “concert,” we got the chance to meet some of the villagers before we were swept down into their fields where we were given baskets and asked to pick the vegetables we would like to eat for dinner. That evening, we had the most amazing meal of locally grown vegetables sititng outside in the village, eating with the teacher from the middle school lesson mentioned earlier. This entire day was hands down one of the best days I’ve ever had, traveling or not traveling.
So if I had to choose one highlight from Chongqing, this was clearly it. That said however, there were many other highpoints that took place in those few short days we spent in Chongqing. Here are some more of my favorites:
1. Dumpling Luncheon: Every type of dumpling you could think of was made readily available to us. Bonus- we were able to see how they were made!
2. Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party:- Signs, Banners, and Public Displays like the one below were abundant throughout China, not just in Chongqing.
3. Haggling in the Old City of Chongqing: It was here that I finally found my $700 housewarming gift to myself; a wood carved statue of the Boddhisatva. Trying to negotiate the price, I realied on Rick. Trying to communicate that I would need it shipped, I relied on Charades and Pictionary of sorts. Eventually though, thanks to the help of Rick and Courtney, I was able to purshase it and have it shipped. It arrived safely at my house 7 days later. I will always have fond memories of Chongqing, so I am glad that this was the city I bought my Boddhisavta in.
4. Taking a Dinner Cruise Down the Yantze: Food was good, company was good, views were good, and this was one of the only times wine was available….enough said.
5. Visiting the Dazu Rock Carvings at Baoding Shan:…. Who had ever heard of this place? Most of us hadn’t hear of these temples but were more familiar with the Giant Buddha that’s closer to Chengdu, so when I saw the itinerary I initially thought this will be neat. “Neat” That is actually the word I used. In retrospect, the Dazu Rock Carving are well beyond anything you would describe as “neat.” The Carvings, which can be dated back to the 7th century, are made detailed depictions of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. Some of my favorites included:
6. After the visit to the middle school and visiting the Dazu Carvings, my other favorite exprience in Chongqing was spending the day/evening with my homestay. Lifelong friends, as well as new have told me that I have the tendency to be a “little” akward in certain social situations; like meeting people for the first time lets say. You can imagine my trepidation the morning we all sat in the hotel lobby waiting for our families to come pick us up, one by one, as if I was waiting for a ride home from Kindegarten. For me, it was a young family that arrived to pick me up. Deng Xiao Gang was a college professor at the University of Chongqing who was working on learning English in preparation of studying in Canada the following year; his wife and daughter spoke no English. Being I don’t speak very much (i.e. any) Mandarin, I thought to myself this is going to be a long and interesting day. The day was fantastic. Even though his daughter only could say “hello” in English, she was very expressive and fun, not to mention adorable. The wife too was really sweet, and the Deng managed to converse with me about such topics as politics and catholicism. I had a most enjoyable day. We ate Mao Xue Wang for lunch, which I found out as I was eating it, pig’s blood! For dinner we had Chuan Chuan Xiang which was a variation of the typical Sichuan Hotpot- only you payed for the sticks of meat, vegetables, eggs a la carte. When Deng first picked me up he asked if I could speak any Chinese…I foolishly responded that I knew the word Pijiu (beer). At every meal he kept ordering me more and more beer when I could see that even he couldn’t drink that much. At one point even his daughter (who was 5) told him in Chinese that he could not drive. When one of thinks of a “homestay” one often conjurs up images of staying in villages among peasants, drinking tea in canvas tents of some sorts, not staying in a high rise apartment in a residential section of the city. Yet this was what everyday life was like for many middle class, urban Chinese professionals, and I am fortunate that I was able to experience it, if only for a day.
While everyone’s highlight of a visit to Xian is unquestionably seeing the Terracotta Warriors, my four short days in this city showed me that there was so much more to this city than the clay soldiers.
After our late arrival and a delayed flight, we knew we would have our first full day free to ourselves to do what we liked. There were a few options thrown around but ultimately me, Graham, and Courtney decided to visit Hua Shan; one of China’s 5 holy mountains. I remember reading about it in China Road and the guide book said it was definitely worth the 2 hour trip there and 2 hours back. We got nervous when we heard we would have to then wait another 2 hours on line just to go up the gondola, but thought that if it the wait was that long it must be something to see…and we were right. Hua Shan is my #1 highlight from my time in Xian, even though it is not really in the city. The mountain was unlike anything I had seen before. One, I had never been to a holy mountain, so it was interesting to see the different Taoist temples scattered on different peaks. Two, I had never been to a mountain in China; thousands upon thousands of tourists, hiking in decked out clothes and dressy shoes! Three, I have been to few mountains that rivaled the beauty and grace of Hua Shan. There were certain moments, when we were able to escape the herds of people and enjoy a moment of solitude and reflection. It was in these moments that I truly felt connected to China, its people, its history, and its landscape.
Not the whole trip to the mountain was spiritual reflection. For starters, the gondola ride up to the first peak was one of the scariest moments of the whole trip for me. As a person who does not appreciate heights, it comforted me a wee bit when I found out that cable car was built and designed by German engineers. In addition to the trepidation I felt on the way up, getting back onto the gondola was perhaps one of the most unholy experiences I have ever had. Picture thousands of people, all trying to get off the mountain at the same time, pushing and shoving and vying for space. I forgot where I was for a moment or two and began to shove my “NY” elbows around to claim my spot on-line. Graham’s quote of the day=”Dear China, please learn how to que!”
Of course, in addition to our day trip to Hua Shan, there were many other highlights from our time in Xian:
1. Terracotta Warriors:- Okay, so even with all the hype, seeing these guys for the first time is still pretty cool. We were somewhat rushed with our time while we were at the site, but matter it did not once we walked into the first pit. The warriors were created in around 210 BC by the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang, with the intent that they would protect him in his afterlife. They were only recently discovered in 1974 by local farmers who accidentally came upon them. Since then, the warriors have put Xian on the map as a tourist destination.
2. Visiting the Muslim Quarter: I love walking around older sections of cities, and so the Muslim quarter was one of my favorite little areas to explore. Located behind the Drum Tower, the Muslim Quarter is an ancient part of the city that prospered during the heyday of the Silk Road. The streets are filled with vendors selling all types of delicious food, souvenirs, and everyday necessities such as haircuts and dental work. We wound up going to the quarter more than once, each time was a different experience, but all were fantastic. The pictures below are just a handful of my favorite memories.
3. A visit to the Buddha lamasery: Tucked away, behind Xian’s City Walls lies this Tibetan Buddhist lamasery. When we first arrived we were personally greeted by the Vice Abbot, who thanked us for coming and personally welcomed each one of us with a khatag, a long white scarf that is traditionally used to welcome and farewell people in Tibetan Buddhism. We were given time to walk around, spin the prayer wheels, light a prayer in the main chamber, and afterwards, he invited us for salty tea. He gave each one of us a prayer bead from the lamasery, as well as a prayer flag and a book. Moved by his generosity, I once again had a moment of spiritual connectedness to the people of China.
It was going to be hard to top Chonging and Xian, but if our time in Beijing was anywhere near as fun as the night train we took to get there was, then Beijing was going to be a great time too. Though I love the idea of night trains, I have only been on one once in Europe, so I was extremely excited to take the night train from Xian to Beijing. We had stocked up on supplies earlier that day, rummaging the supermarket in Xian for wine, cheese, and other snacks to hold us over. Rick mentioned that we might not have a meal and so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of goodies to last us the ride. Some people dosed off to be early, but a bunch of us decided to cram into one of the berths and write song lyrics for a parody of Living on Prayer that would wind up being a tribute to Rick. Be it a combination of the wine, the people, or the experience itself, this was one of the funnest nights of the trip for me. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep without a little alcohol to knock me out, I drank…and I drank a lot. When the wine ran out, I ordered beer from the mobile dining cart. I drank so much that when they came around with coffee in the morning, I did not wake up, nor had I noticed that all my berthmates were awake and dressed. This was how I arrived in Berlin, tired and hung over, but filled with high expectations.
My expectations of Beijing were well surpassed. The city was incredibly user-friendly for Americans thanks to the Olympics just a few short years before. With the obvious first choice being the Great Wall, here are some of my Beijing highlights:
1. The Great Wall: I know this seems obvious (and perhaps obnoxious), but in many of my prior travels, the “main tourist attraction” usually let me down just a little. For example, while visiting India, the Taj Mahal was great, but it didn’t turn out to be the highlight of my trip. On the contrary, the Great Wall actually exceeded my expectations. We unexpectedly had a change of plans that morning and before I even had time to wrap my mind around it, we were off to visit the Great Wall of China. There are actually multiple places to visit the Great Wall, we chose to drive about an hour outside of Beijing to the Mutianya section of the wall; it is slightly less crowded than the Badaling section, which is right outside Beijing. Now we arrived on a Saturday in the middle of the summer, so like many of the other main tourist spots we saw in China, I expected the wall to be jam-packed with tourists. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. I mean there were plenty of tourists everywhere, but we managed to hike up the wall in one direction far enough where a few of us staked out a section on top of a look out, and had lunch. There I was, sitting on the Great Wall of China eating a subway sandwich and drinking a beer. (The beer was bought halfway up the wall by a local vendor (there are many of them on the main section of the wall.) I usually eat the local food when traveling, but it seemed that buying a subway sandwich would allow us more time on the wall, so we opted for that. It was gloomy and muggy out, I don’t think I have ever experienced that sort of humidity before (if you looked at my shorts it looked like I had an accident….gross!), but the weather mattered not because this was hands-down one the best experiences of my life. Surrounded by people who I now considered good friends, listening to Rick’s immense knowledge of the wall and China in general, and not being clobbered by a thousand tourists, visiting the Great Wall was, well…great!
Oh yeah, and to top of the whole experience, we took a toboggan to get back down!!!
2. Visiting a Hutong: On the same day we visited the Great Wall, we were treated to an afternoon visiting a Hutong, an old Beijing neighborhood that if it were not for tourism at this point, would probably be torn down. The Hutongs are made up of narrow roads and alleyways that connect a series of courtyard homes. After taking a ride through the streets in a cycle rickshaw, we had dinner in a hutong family’s home. We never saw the wife after we first met her, (presumably she was cooking the whole time), but the father enthusiastically shared with us his love of Kung Fu, showing us some moves and a video of his son who made the news in the U.S. for giving lessons.
3. Visiting the Night Market: After our visit to the Hutong, in the last event of what is surely one of the best travel days I’ll ever have, a bunch of us decided to jump off the bus that was heading back to the hotel and check out one of Beijing’s night markets. I love street food and I love markets so I was extremely excited when we decided to set of on foot and explore all the stalls filled with trinkets and strange eats. After a few beers, we made our way into the market where there was an abundant buffet of all sorts of weird things you could try, most abundant of all were the variety of bugs. Bugs on sticks, bugs that were deep-fried, bugs that you can pick out when they were still alive to make sure you had a good one. Now I know that some of this is pure tourist spectacle, but there were not too many westerners around and Mr. Zhai did confirm that he did eat a scorpion on occasion as a snack, so when in Rome (or China)….
4. The Imperial Palace: Even though it was hotter than hell out the day we visited, I still very much enjoyed visiting the palace grounds, in all their imperial glory.
5. Tiananmen Square: As a history teacher and someone who cares deeply about individual liberty and human rights, going to Tiananmen Square was a very surreal experience. It was packed with Chinese tourists who, if under the age of 30, most likely have no idea of the events that took place there in 1989. For the Chinese visiting the square, I would imagine it is very similar to when Americans visit the Mall in D.C. But for Westerners, one cannot help but conjure up images of tanks rolling over protestors on that June 4th day. In the West, we call it “a massacre”, in China they refer to that day as “the incident.” Rick, who happened to be there when “the incident” started in 1989, also told us of a similar protest in 1987, one that few of us had ever heard about. Apparently, two years before the well-known massacre, there were massive student protests throughout the square, but the government iced over the entire square and then the police came in with spike shoes; the square was clear in 10 minutes. Two years later, what started out as a tribute to a reform leader’s death turned into a mass protest, though Rick averred that it was more about corruption than pro-democracy. He explained that at one point, even the newspapers “went over” to the side of the student, but when the union workers joined the protest, the government decided they had enough and that is when they decided to send in the tanks. Unfortunately, for Americans and most Westerners, Tiananmen square will always be synonymous with the massacre that took place that fateful day in 1989. While I was trying to wrap my mind around all that Rick was sharing, I noticed that in the middle of the square lied a giant statue medallion commemorating the 90th anniversary of the CCP. Along side the medallion was a giant, electric mural celebrating all the minorities that exist in China. (Most of whom are oppressed).
6. Going to the Beijing Opera: Even though the opera in Beijing has become somewhat appropriated to modern culture, there are still a few that exist in the traditional form. We were fortunate enough to go to one of these old opera houses, which actually also served as the meeting place for the KMT Nationalist Part in the early 20th century. It somewhat reminded me of a cabaret in Berlin; add to that a thunder and lightning storm going on outside and one can say the ambiance was perfect. We were treated to two shows; the first was about a woman trying to find her lover on the river, the second; “Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Hell” was one of the most entertaining live performances I have enjoyed.
7. Eating at “Mao’s Red Bay restaurant”: This was a Cultural Revolution themed restaurant! It was decorated with cultural revolution posters and served all of Mao’s favorite dishes, enough said.
8. Catholic Church in China: Visiting Catholic churches in Europe is one thing, visiting a Catholic Church in China, a place where their Catholicism was only recently rejected by the Vatican was absolutely fascinating. Courtney and I set out at 5:30 in the morning to get to the Northern Cathedral early enough to attend 6am Mass. We managed to catch the end of the 6:00 Mass which was conducted in Latin and made it in time to partake in the 6:30 mass which would be held in Chinese. It was fascinating to experience Mass as an outsider who did not speak the language at all. Yet the rhythms of the Mass were familiar enough that we could follow along; we knew when to make the sign of the cross and we knew at one point to say “peace be with you.” This actually was my favorite part as all the older women who were sitting towards the altar turned to the back to face us and then proceeded to bow to us. Amen and hallelujah are universal.
9. The Temple of Heaven: It was Cassie’s birthday and it was a free day, but most everyone wanted to get up early and visit the park which was located a short walk up the road from our hotel. A few of us got up even earlier and went to the park to just kind of walk around and take in all the morning activities, again one of my favorite parts of visiting Asia.
10. The Summer Palace: After visiting the Temple of Heaven, everyone kind of broke off to do their own thing. A bunch of us took the subway to the Summer Palace which is just far enough outside of the city to help cool you off on a hot summer day in Beijing. We explored the beautiful grounds on foot and by boat, treated ourselves to some ice cream and beer, and couldn’t be happier.
Beijing, along with Shanghai, Chongqing, and Xian, were amazing, enormous, mind-boggling cities that only provided small glimpses into the massive entity that is China. It is a year later and I am still completely fascinated and enthralled with everything China; food, politics, culture, history. Anyone who is genuinely interested in the multifaceted issues that our world faces today would benefit from a deeper understanding of China. My Fulbright trip helped me to gain a better perspective of issues such as economic freedom, human rights, and democracy, but I am certain I barely touched the surface, and very much look forward to going back.