Friday, August 6, 2010
The most intriguing aspect of visiting China was the people. Although I did not speak the language, I did not really feel out of place. The people were usually very welcoming and friendly. Some of us wondered about the ‘real’ Chinese life. In Beijing, all one had to do was venture outside of the immediate hotel vicinity, to see and experience some of the 'real' China. Those who stepped outside of these boundaries experienced a different culture, whether it was soldiers exercising in the early morning hours, or street vendors making Chinese breakfast pancakes, or ordinary people at the beginning of their day, trying to catch the bus on their way to work, or store vendors getting ready to open shop, or some grandparents practicing Tai Chi in a catholic church's courtyard.
Two of my colleagues and I went to Xi'an hoping to get a glimpse into the true Chinese culture. Superficially, things were not much different in Xi'an. Xi'an is a walled city which affords visitors a bird's eye view of the complex life that goes on both within and outside the wall. The wall is 14 km, which roughly equals 8.6 miles. We only walked about half way around, which was enough to give us a glimpse of the disparate conditions that exist between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', in China and in many parts of the world, including here in America. Seeing the desperate conditions that some people live in, is not only disheartening, but makes one feel quite guilty about much of what we have and take for granted. For many of us, visiting the textile factory in Beijing was an unsettling experience. Those of us who had never been in a factory before were taken aback by the process and conditions of work, even though the facility we visited appeared to be well operated, clean and organized. Some students were overwhelmed with feelings of guilt especially after viewing the living quarters for these workers, which were very basic rooms with bunk beds, accommodating eight people-too many people per room, according to our standards - with one commonly shared bathroom. However, some of the sites in Xi'an made these humble quarters appear like a 'four star hotel', to quote my traveling partner, Maria Elena. These poor, destitute quarters were only a few blocks away from what appeared to be clean, nice, middle class areas with paved roads and modern cars parked outside the dwellings.
Whether walking by the poorer areas or more developed ones, the greeting was the same - a friendly smile and wave, eagerness and willingness to pose for our photos, whether in the streets below or on the rooftops. Observing some of these 'less fortunate', by our western standards, made me feel desperate to help them and provide for them, until I looked a little closer and realized that they have something we all strive for: contentment. On our first walk in Xi'an, there was an elderly gentleman riding his bicycle and posing for pictures, proud to show me his friends and point for me to also take their picture, with their little pot on the street corner; or a group of senior citizens sitting on the side walk, playing games, socializing, laughing and enjoying each other's company. Yet, when you look outside of the wall, on the other side, it appeared to be uniformly well developed with elaborate canals and parks. While the surroundings may have been more modern, the human element was similar. People gathered with families and friends, singing songs, playing instruments or games, ping pong, or just strolling in the park.
Chinese society has a reputation of being centered around the family. This became quite evident from visiting both Beijing and Xi'an. China has an impressive abundance of well groomed parks that are family friendly (all ages from grandchildren to grandparents), with plenty to do for everyone.
Lastly, I would like to note how humbling it was to be in the presence of people who did not expect, want or know anything about tipping. It was refreshing to observe the innocence of the people about something that has been around probably since the beginning of time. These moments exposed the true reality of how much this society had been sheltered from the outside world, yet, in spite of that, how far it has come in such a short period, and how much further it will go in the future. One can only hope the Chinese society will be able to balance the inevitable winds of change with the traditional family and Confucius values and therefore be able to have the best of both worlds.