What I learned traveling China

Working in journalism and researching my own articles taught me a lot about the political climate, current events, and pop culture of China, but I learned the most about people during my time travelling. I was fortunate to have a part-time work schedule, that allowed me to travel on the weekends with my roommates.

We travelled first to Beijing, to experience the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and other sights filled with tourists from around the world. Since our tour guide to these places spoke Chinese, I could only catch some of the historical facts, but this was one of the first times I really challenged myself to hold conversations in Chinese and learn about the people around me.

We met a 70 year old woman who beat us at several games of Chinese hacky sack while her family cheered her on, and a six year old girl who we called 妹妹 (little sister), who followed us around the Great Wall and made sure to get in every picture we took. Many of the conversations that I had with children shaped my understanding of the language more than conversations with adults. The children didn’t hesitate to correct us — one boy would even copy what we said in an American accent.

After Beijing, we travelled to the Southeastern Guangxi province of China, where we stayed in Guilin and Yangshuo. These places provided a beautiful contrast from the busy city streets of Shanghai and Beijing, and also gave us an opportunity to be fully immersed in Mandarin. Since Shanghai is a highly diverse and international city, people often know a little English and English translations are all over the city.

In Yangshuo, most people we met only knew a few words, and our language skills grew as we paid attention to their conversation. We stayed in hostels, went on hikes, took bamboo boats down the Yulong River, and climbed rice terraces, all while trying to better understand what it means to be in China.

I didn’t learn the answer to all of my questions about China, and if anything I left knowing that it is a far more diverse and nuanced place than most Americans understand. I learned to correct some of the lingering stereotypes I was taught in my childhood. Stories and remarks from relatives and teachers painted it as a country plagued by overpopulation and pollution, whose government brainwashes its people through news and law.

Although these things do exist, these rumors are dangerously oversimplified and don’t give the people of China the credit they deserve. Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was with the old man sitting next to me on the three-hour flight to Guilin.

 

We spoke in a mixture of limited Chinese and English, and he told me about all the books he has read (over 5,000, he counted). He told me about his daughter, and said that someday he wants to take his family to America, where he can pursue his dream of becoming a teacher. When he talked about China, he didn’t talk like someone who had been brainwashed. He thought that in the next few decades, he would live to see China become a democracy.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but I admired his hope for the future of his country. In fact, it made me feel guilty because I’d just complained about the state of the American government when China doesn’t even have the privilege to choose their leaders.

The man told me not to apologize. We have the privilege of democracy, he said, but that also means we have the duty to stand up when that democracy fails us. It’s something he hopes his daughter will see in China someday.

My time in China taught me that people are not their governments. People are ultimately resourceful enough to find the truth for themselves, smart enough to see the problem with the systems around them, and hopeful enough to work for change. I hope someday that I can continue exploring and learning about China, because I know there are many perspectives and stories I have yet to hear.

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