Homesick for China


A lot of time has passed since I first stepped onto Chinese soil; and in that time I’ve gathered and picked up a part of China along the way. In that time, we’ve bussed to Suzhou and Nanjing; we’ve flown to Taiwan and Xi’an; and we’ve taken a train to Beijing. In that time I’ve discovered many of the distinct and distinguished regions of China and in my travels I augmented my acumen on the China scene. And finally, in my time I done something that most Chinese have not and cannot do – however do so vicariously vis-à-vis texts and tales – and that was truly discovering the unabating Chinese 5000 years of history and glory.

I just think to myself, “Wow. Suzhou, Nanjing, Taiwan, Beijing, just Xi’an and now Meixian,” and I am simply astounded by how numerous and great the experiences were and will be. More surprisingly is that each region possessed its own customs, dialects and accents, and (importantly) food, which ironically add significant diversity to the collectivist mentality present in China. For example, I got to enjoy 16 different types of dumplings in the shape of ducks and fish! Nonetheless, each of group outings has brought me closer to this holistic understanding of the state and supplements everything that I’ve learned in class. To be candid, the idea that this trip is coming to a close is slowly permeating and consolidating with my reality, yet it is still too undesired to truly accept.

I still have little under a month left, but I am already suffering from premature nostalgia for China, after having solidified robust friendships within Davidson and among both natives and foreigners. Two main connections come to mind and they are the ones with Woo Young (my roommate) and with the An’qing Baozi couple. Although we rarely move pass pleasantries, there is never a day that I pass them without a smile, a “hello”, and a genuine “how are you.” Of course, I have friends from all over now in BU, Singapore and South Korea. I feel like that all over East Asia I left my imprint, where people know and will remember (good things about) me after I’ve returned. I prize myself most for my commitment to the Sunflower kids, not with teaching them English, but by offering an unique chance to offset the fact that they miss out for being children of migrant families.

I know that I China will be extremely missed once I return. Even with all the trinkets and knock-offs and tailored coats, I think what I will take back with me is the knowledge and the experiences that came with not only visiting Shanghai, but also the rest of China. It’s the holistic Chinese experiences that made China (and Taiwan) enduring in my mind, even though my stay in China is in itself ephemeral. With approximately 20 days left, I look forward towards the United States for the rest of my college years, and still I’ll have pieces of the Great Wall, Terra Cotta Warriors, Suzhou silk, Taiwanese clothing, and more with me. I guess I am just saying that I am already homesick for China and I haven’t left yet.

Pumping Iron: Quest for Beauty and Sense of Self

I propose, there is development everywhere; the quest and realization of rapid and frequent haphazard progress is a reality. However, I do not limit myself to Elizabeth Economy’s and Yi-Chieh Lin’s research and observations on China’s fiscal and social development. After approximately two or three months at the H&H Gym (天行健), I have to address this yearning for personal, physical development, which in my opinion transcends this fixation on beauty… it must include muscles. Lizhu Fan and James Whitehead precisely and profoundly stated that China’s youth is attracted and “reduced to food, sex and money;” and it’s an acute observation (Chinese Religious Life, 13). Today, I concur that Chinese youth are obsessing over their bodies and remedying their imperfections – lifting daily, seeking “professional” assistance, attending classes and more. I ask myself, what does this say about Chinese individualism and what are the trends between communal and personal development.

I remember my first few visits to the gym and being utterly amazed at people doing 20 crunches followed by flexing their (nonexistent) abs in the mirror (and repeat until satisfied). It’s fascinating because this pattern is far from common in the United States, excluding our prepubescent youth’s similar obsession. There is also this display case of generic protein powder and advertisement boasting images of fit and cut men. This only advocates that if one takes this product, then that desired outcome is within reach, and maybe at an expedited rate. Of all my experiences, I’ve never seen people demand for such rapid results. However, it makes sense that people want to quickly jump into the spheres of beauty and sex; to distinguish themselves among the homogenous, zestless mass. But what happens when that agglomerate mass opts for individuality? It seems that the Chinese populace is wrought with the paradox of collectively wanting individuality and thus, the true self-made identity is utterly unrealizable.

Still, everyone desires to look and feel beautiful, whatever that entails. We already explored the contested idea of feminine beauty, but there something unique about masculine beauty. Unlike its female counterpart, masculinity is conventional and transnational; to be fit, muscular and cut is an ultimate goal, but men can expect several health benefits as byproduct. Even some of the elderly crave the same benefits. Just recently, I saw this old guy in the changing room that put my body to shame! Simply put, being situated around these “iron addicts” challenges me to work as hard, if not harder. I mean, people are developing here – not just China, but there personal self – and are creating a sense of identity. Although the quest for self is a catch-22 now, I feel that eventually the coveted individualized would eventually be realized.

Trick or Treat

With China being the West’s complete and utter opposite, I would have never expected to encounter Halloween let alone teaching its history to a bunch of ten-year-olds. Not too long ago, I was afforded my first volunteering opportunity with the Sunflower Program, which is a English teaching program designed for the children of migrant families. These children are unjustly denied access to a public school education because of the imposing Hukou (户口) registration system. I was excited for today’s lesson was, 万圣节 (which in an indirect way translates to Halloween), but to my surprise, I assigned to teach traditional words, such as pumpkin, skeleton, ghost and witch. The truth is, I am only registered as a volunteer, but I cheerfully accepted the ad hoc responsibility and (at least) attempted to inculcate these amazing little people with the chilling spirit of Halloween.

Even though my final project is geared to the rapidly emerging civil society in China, I still had no concise idea of the Sunflower program’s targeted aims, focus and primary objectives. However, I met an ABC Fudan graduate student, Amy, who clued me in on many of the struggles imposed on migrant families as a direct consequence of the Hukou system. She also explained to me that the Sunflower program is one of many initiatives stated by Grassroots Community (a local NGO), and that they have volunteers from all over, not just Fudan’s FFSVA (Fudan Foreign Students Volunteering Association). Talking with her, someone so entirely passionate about Chinese social trends and issues, both gave me direction for my project and also painted a picture for the kids that I was going to meet promptly. Normally, the classes take place in this currently unknown hotel, but because of the occasion, we gave the lessons outside where we face painted, ate candy and ran about rambunctiously.

I’ll admit that I was a little unsettled because I had no idea how to face paint and I’m Chinese challenged. However, I soon realized that it takes little to impress ten-year-old boys and girls who either tussled over vampire fangs or flaunted the pretty flowers on their faces. However, the experience intensified as soon as the program’s director assembled the kids for the day’s lesson. Toby, a volunteering teacher (and Lincoln’s roommate) gave me a packet, saying “I am entrusting you with this.” I assured him with a Professor Wei’s infamous nod and waited for his return. I personally thought that he was hurrying for a bathroom break before he taught his group… but then I realized that the other groups began and I was the only one in my group with the lesson plan. Plus, Toby was in a different group! Someone had to teach the lesson. My survival instincts must have kicked in because I started spitting Chinese, more than I imagined possible, and I really think that they learned a few things.

Although I do feel that the content was a little shallow because it really didn’t explain the true Halloween of Halloween. In popular culture, Halloween in primarily known for candy, catchy and cliché rhymes and insidious costumes, but I feel that China misses out on the traditions of Halloween that make it the best holiday. Walking around in Walmart and other major commercial areas, I saw the same superficiality in everything that represented Halloween. Although I was surprised to see the promotion of Halloween through billboards, posters and decorations, I still concluded that it lacked that genuine touch. I wish I could have showed the students an authentic Halloween feeling.

I really enjoyed my time with the students, and seeing their beaming ear-to-ear grins. However, there was one kid, Keller, who refused to participate the entire class. I eventually got him to join the group but his mom eventually told me that he is half American (and she is Taiwanese) and he spoke impeccable English. (He was also the one who painted the pumpkin on my face!). Keller made the trip the memorable because aiding him with solitude taught me something about myself: I have the power and desire to connect with anyone and everyone, to include them, and to befriend them. It was a self-empowering epiphany. If these are characteristic outcomes from volunteering, then I am excited for any and all of my remaining experiences.

Trailing the Great Wall 长城!

Climbing China’s Great Wall (长城) is both a exceptional and extraordinary experience; having done it twice within 24 hours is seemingly unheard of, and I am glad to say that I’ve done it. Trailing up and down the undulating path was breathtaking, yet it kept me eager to see what more the Wall had to offer me. On the hand, straddling the Wall’s dips and nooks along the edge gave me time to be pensive, which made me nostalgic of my hiking days on the beaten Andean paths to Macchu Pichu in Perú. I remember descending the Wall with Fuji and Justin and I immediately flashbacked to a specific moment to my Incan Trail experience. Climbing the Great Wall was the connecting point – the moment of overlap – that united my Peruvian and Chinese experiences.

I started to notice the similarities as soon as I began to loose buttons. For me, the loss of those buttons, the degradation of my prized and coveted pea coat, made me barren to the elements. Quite frankly, I was not expecting to sweat while climbing and still freeze while I remained idle. Truth be told, trailing up this massive construction in the dead of winter was just as miserable, as well as enticing as the Incan Trail. I honestly feel that up until the point, China has been a cakewalk compared to all of the hiking I’ve endured due to the Peruvian unforgiving terrain. Thus, I love seeing the overlap between the two unique experiences. I’ve been unjustly comparing the two experiences for some time, but the Great Wall finally gave me the excuse I needed.

The greatest link, as I mentioned earlier, was my hike down of the Great Wall with Fuji and Justin. It was so reminiscent of the day that President Quillen and I walked down the hills of the Peruvian salt flats. We talked about everything from the mundane to extreme topics in Marxism (which I couldn’t fully grasp). However, it was really a moment to connect to my social and intellectual superior. I felt a similar bonding experience with Fuji, who (I feel) that many ca attest to the fact that he is somewhat absentee… Nevertheless, both of these are key moments that added sustenance to my traveling experiences – humanizing the distant Davidson intellectuals. They alike have given me something to look forward to when I return to Davidson that I thought never existed before I left.

And Still The Wheel Turns

My bike is… fixed, thankfully. I figured that a 250 元 ($38) vehicle, made from thin aluminum and depended on for constant transportation would experience its fair share of booms and busts; and let’s just say that the latter has become the more salient of the two. All other previous fallacies were easily disregarded – the unstable seat, the lost reflector and the falling chain – but breaking my handlebar off cleanly is far from ignorable. So I decided to go to the local bike repair “stand” (not shop) to check it out. Within a few moments, they quickly installed a black handlebar for a mere 35 元,  and that’s how my bike came about being fixed. However this entire fiasco had me reflecting on how common people visit these stands, the obvious, and how fixing my bike metaphorically connects to my life, the abstract.

Moments after fixing my bike I rode off feeling concrete, complete and proud enough to finish my other errands. Of course, I questioned the black lacquered bar, slightly marred by rust, as to whether it could truly replace the shinny and silver handlebar, but I reassured myself that it was a matter of efficiency, not perfection. When I finally stopped at the ginormous electronic store (ironically, to replace my broken headphones), I saw all the neighboring bikes with the same black lacquered handlebar juxtaposed to yellow, silver and blue bodies.

Perhaps the saying “misery loves company” is applicable, but I was suddenly relieved to see commonality of bike malfunctions in Shanghai. Clearly these forms of transportation are far from expendable, and with a little work and elbow grease these wheels will still turn. As we have learned, the Chinese don’t play with their efficiency.

Recently, I’ve been granted plenty of time to be pensive and I find the timing of my bike breaking divine. Metaphorically, I am the bike and in order for me to function as a whole, to churn the wheels and move through life, I need functioning parts that suit my needs. But recently I’ve seen that many parts of my life are obsolete and they are my expendables, ready to be casted away to make room for something new. The truth is, my wheels must continue to spin and will do so long as I desire for them to.

I am not naïve enough to assume that these replacements will trump the replaced – the black handlebar and life changes – but there is always something mystical about doing things anew. I’ve been watching plenty of True Blood and one particular quote come to mind: “It’s all about casting off the empty shell of what’s dead and embracing the mysteries of what is yet to come!” These reparations and novelties in my life may not outdo the previous defaults but within that ambiguity lays the beauty – the beauty of difference. To me, it’s like embracing a new cycle, and after doing such, it will be like churning the wheel all over again. Likewise, I may not know what is yet to come but I am sure that it’s better than the half handlebar or the flawed ties from before.