Trekking the Wall

Climbing the Great Wall was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I learned about the Great Wall as a small child, but I never imagined that I would actually hike the ancient stairs. It was an amazing experience, and the hike flew by like a fleeting dream.

The Great Wall is usually packed with so many tourists that visitors often say there is a second “wall” of people blocking the hike. Fortunately, our thoughtful tour guide Erik took us to Jinshanling Park, which had far fewer visitors. In fact, at most parts of the day, we were the only people walking along the Wall. The Wall was steeper and rougher on our walk, too, which made the hike more exciting. It was incredible to walk along a path with so much history. I thought about all the people that must have worked or walked along the Wall throughout time. Hiking along the Wall made me feel like a player (albeit extremely minor) in China’s grand history.

Although we were alone for a portion of the hike, one woman hocking souvenirs did actually walk most of the hike with us. She couldn’t speak much English, but her reasoning was clear. If she hiked along with us throughout the afternoon, we would share a special bond and buy souvenirs from her. Her tactics did not work on some of us, but it definitely worked on me. I bought some souvenirs at a higher price than necessary just because I appreciated her presence. She had hiked alongside us, and she even encouraged Michael, Fuji’s young son, at some steep points. If that effort does not warrant a few extra kuai, then I’m not sure what does.

I have actually become aware that I am pretty mediocre at bargaining. I bargain half-heartedly, but I don’t have the necessary competitive or hard-nosed edge for serious bargaining. Others have the eagle-eye skill and desire to fight for a good price, but I usually just don’t feel the need to bargain passionately. Everything is so cheap in China that I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks if it helps the merchant. Unlike in the United States, I don’t feel like I’m being ripped off by corporate greed; I feel like normal people are just trying to make a living. So I buy a package of chopsticks for 20 kuai, and I figure that both of us are happy. The merchant made a profit, and I got a great cheap gift for my grandma.

The Great Wall hike took about three hours, and it was enjoyable the entire way. The next morning we did a sunrise hike on the Great Wall, and the sky was beautiful. At a certain point, Nicky had the brilliant idea of using his international cell phone to call his mom. In turn, each of us called our moms on the Great Wall. It was amazing and truly bizarre to call my mom while watching the sunrise on the Great Wall. Information and communication flows so easily nowadays, but it’s a wonderful and disheartening fact. Of course, most of me loved the opportunity to call my mom from the Great Wall. It’s fun, and she obviously loved the gesture. But another part of me recognized how completely strange the experience was. I can go around the world, but I’m still never more than $.50/a minute from home. Such advanced technology feels almost inappropriate on such an ancient structure. That sentiment relates to the whole argument of globalization, though. Culture changes, and the symbolic meanings around these ancient structures change, too.

Hiking the Great Wall was my favorite part of our trip to Beijing. The hike was unbelievable, and I am so happy that I had that opportunity.

Breathing Shanghai

In a city of 23 million people, staying healthy takes militant self-protection. For me, staying healthy in China is a conscious daily struggle.

In a city of pollution and overcrowding, chances for illness are ubiquitous. Public health crises are growing all over China. As Elizabeth Economy discusses in her book The River Runs Black, people throughout China are facing water scarcity, higher rates of birth defects and cancer, and poor air quality because of environmental degradation. Respiratory problems are rampant because of the poor air quality. Tap water can cause days of diarrhea and stomach pain. Viruses transmit rapidly because of urbanization and overcrowding. An infamous example is the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS in southern China. After failing to control the outbreak and failing to cooperate with the international community, China was criticized for its public health management. As the population grows and environmental destruction continues, the public health problems only increase.

From the beginning, I noticed a difference in Shanghai’s treatment of health. Near our apartment complex, there is a large hospital. Whenever I walk by the hospital, I see at least ten patients milling around, smoking cigarettes, or eating at local restaurants. Sometimes the patients are wearing facemasks, but sometimes they aren’t. They wear hospital pajamas, but they can easily walk around the block and do what they please. Even if I am not near the hospital, I usually see at least one person wearing a facemask each day. I often wonder what they are afraid of breathing in. Although it is socially acceptable to wear a facemask, other Chinese habits seem less conducive to public health. It is not uncommon to hear someone spit or blow their nose loudly onto the sidewalk. Parents hold their babies go to the bathroom on the road. Squat toilets are often dirty on and around the toilet. Trash piles up throughout the city. For the squeamish or germophobic, Shanghai would be a hard place to live.

Despite the differences in public hygiene, Chinese superstitions about personal health are often surprisingly similar to my own habits. I burn incense because it relaxes me, and every temple has countless incense offerings. Incense actually helps to reduce anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that religious temples have incense to ease their visitors. My Chinese teacher also says that air conditioners and travelling make her sick because her body has trouble adjusting to the changes in environment. I am not sure why, but both of these are true for me as well. Finally, my Chinese teacher always suggests cups and cups of hot tea to cure illness. I drink hot tea endlessly when I am sick. Like drinking chicken soup in the States, we know our at-home treatments are helpful, even if we can’t explain why.

Shanghai is an interesting place to think about public health because every person lives the public health problem. No one needs to tell me there is poor air quality; I can simply feel it in my lungs. I do not know how public health will continue in China, but it is obvious that there is real potential for a crisis.

An Ode to Taipei’s Youth

The allure of Taiwan is immediate and powerful. When we left Shanghai, we were leaving behind a city of global attention and economic power, but we were also leaving behind a city of pungent smells, smoggy air, and honking cars with no intention of braking. Simply smelling Taipei’s clean air brought a smile to my face. However, what I really found and loved most in Taipei was its blossoming culture of youth and creativity.

Call us hipsters, coffeehouse addicts, or pretentious idealists, but the conscientious youth generation is powerful in both the United States and Taiwan. In the U.S., we are the creative force behind trendy green movements, grassroots political campaigns, and countless coffeehouse businesses. In the U.S., so many college-educated twenty-somethings want to move to a big city, “live their truth” (read: find yourself through an indefinite time of self-exploration), and change the world. It is no mistake that many of us chose the Davidson in Shanghai program because we were attracted to the big city. We wanted an opportunity to be at the heart of the action, at the crossroads of international culture and economy. In Shanghai, I certainly found the center of international economy; it is impossible to travel twenty minutes in Shanghai without seeing an endless array of skyscrapers and glittering billboards. While the international economy thrives in Shanghai, the youth culture seems to flounder.

In Taipei, the twenty-somethings are truly at the cultural heart of Taiwan. They run the night markets, which churn out an endless supply of fashion and food. They listen to “World Music” from the U.S., Japan, Korea, and more, but they also create their own Taiwanese pop. College students from the National Taiwan University are political participants and sometimes even political shapers and activists. The walls of the city are full of bulletins for poetry readings, film screenings, and educational lectures. Creative graffiti lines the walls of the Old Town, as if proclaiming that the youth are firmly Taiwanese, not pawns of colonization. The youth are dynamic, active, and highly visible.

On the other end, the youth generation of Shanghai is at the center of business and economic growth. To prepare for a future of economic success, most of the high school and college-aged students in Shanghai study as much as possible. Education is truly a full-time job in China. So, instead of seeing young adults traveling around Shanghai, gathering together, promoting fashion, and creating culture, many are preparing for their futures. I am always weary of stereotypes, but in this case the stereotype is partially true: Chinese students simply study more than American students in general.

In the U.S., we value experience more than academic learning. Mark Twain’s famous quote summarizes this view: “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” Fuji would call this phenomenon anti-intellectualism, but I think it is also related to a love of pragmatism and the self-made person. In Taipei, I felt the same sort of phenomenon. The college students were out trying new things, making mistakes, and learning through experience. They seemed to care more about creativity and experiential learning than money. Taipei was so comfortable to me because my age group in Taiwan felt just like my peers back home.

The youth generation can tell so much about a country: where the country is coming from, where the country is now, and where the country is going. In Shanghai, the youth generation emphasizes China’s economic development. In the United States, the youth generation emphasizes experience or anti-intellectualism (depending on your perception). In Taipei, the youth generation emphasizes Taiwan’s blossoming creativity and cultural growth.

Yeye and Nainai


As the saying goes, life is all about “seeing and being seen.” There are plenty of people to see in Shanghai: the rich, the young, and the fashionable. They are the up-and-coming stars of Shanghai’s future. Chairman Mao is a distant memory to them, and communism has always meant “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls it in China in the 21st Century (97). When I am out and about, though, it is not my youthful peers that catch my eye; it is their parents and grandparents.

The aging generations of China have experienced a great deal in their lifetimes. Many experienced the Cultural Revolution. Some were part of the Great Leap Forward. Some even saw the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. In a city with so much emphasis on the future, the aging generation is living proof of the city’s tumultuous history.

Families are ever important in Chinese culture, and children traditionally support their parents as they age. Adult children will often send home weekly paychecks in gratitude for all their parents did for them. However, with the aging group of One-Child Policy babies, sometimes called “Little Emperors,” it will be harder and harder to support the aging generation of Chinese grandparents. For each only child, there are four grandparents to support. The pressure to succeed monetarily ever increases on the “Little Emperor,” or grandparents are left without a retirement plan.

Besides age and money, the digital age also separates the age cohorts. In most countries with internet access, there is a distinct divide between those with internet and those without. The internet can offer a wealth of information, but the elderly generation is often the slowest to adopt new technologies (as makes sense). In China, the divide is even wider because of the “Great Firewall,” a term referring to the Chinese government’s internet censorship (Wasserstrom 86). VPNs and other proxy servers can go around the firewall, but that technology is limited to the savvy. So, in such a futuristic, technologic city, the elderly are often left without the internet’s information.

Before coming to Shanghai, I thought that aging in China must be pleasant. In conjunction with Confucian principles, the ancestral line is cherished and respected; however, in a city that adapts so quickly to the waves of the future, it seems that the attitude towards the elderly is changing as well. I rarely see a younger person move to give their seat to an older person. People push past each other roughly, regardless of age. Maybe these examples are just cultural differences in manners, but they could also be signs of deeper cultural changes. As Wei Laoshi told me, adult children still send their parents money, but it is often out of duty and obligation, not necessarily love. With the tide of Western culture infiltrating Shanghai, I wonder how the aging generation will fare. Will the younger generation still hold onto their Confucian reverence, or will the aging generation be left behind as the youthful generation embraces their individuality?


Good, Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

When I’m feeling blue, there’s nothing as bittersweet as remembering (and recreating) my rosy, perfect childhood. In my memories, life is never so sweet and perfect as it was then. A similar dose of nostalgia seems to permeate throughout Chinese culture. Although the future is embraced, the past is lived in many ways. A past that is idealized and glorified. Beyond a simple Confucian ancestral reverence, there is a living appreciation and regeneration of China’s long history.

Since the Cultural Revolution’s end, values on history have shifted. There is a return to traditional beliefs and morality, albeit often with a twist or relabeling. Chinese historical-esque knickknacks are commodified and sold to tourists. Traditional Chinese philosophies are back on the rise. One prime example of a shift in perception is Kongzi. The Chinese Communist Party now hails Confucian principles as eternally valuable, even though Confucius was previously condemned as an obstacle to the Marxist ideas of equity. History is cool again. The concept of ancient China is still very much present in modern Chinese culture.

The generalization of China’s long history is problematic, though. As Jeff Wasserstrom describes in his book China in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know, the presentation of a continuous 5000-year Chinese civilization is a myth. Chinese culture has frequently changed and adapted throughout history, but performances and attractions simply play on a basic nostalgia for old China.

The distinct dress of these opera characters is a tribute to the past. Even the  Tongli boats serve to romanticize an older, simpler time.

Parks imbue the environment with the same sense of longing for the past. Visitors are drawn to remember the days before urbanization when China’s air was cleaner and unpolluted water was plentiful. There’s a strong feeling of finiteness. The rose-colored past is gone. The environment is fleeting, but the park is a preservation of the precious past. During Golden Week at Park, preservation of nature mixes with preservation of Chinese culture.

Of course, preservation and nostalgia is performed throughout the U.S., too. I live an hour from Williamsburg, so I’m no stranger to the historical myths we generate and believe. Still, there’s something unique about Chinese preservation. China is very much on the fence between the past and the present. China is both futuristic and nostalgic, often even at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see which wins out as the country grows.