Thursday, June 07, 2007

Reflections on China

My trip to China has changed my life in ways both inconsequential (yes, I am much more proficient with chopsticks) and profound (read on). While I struggle to write a report that captures my views, I find some common themes and ideas emerging. Here are some of the thoughts that now fill me as a result of this amazing adventure.
  • Halfway around the world I was struck not by the "foreignness" of the places I came to know, but rather by the familiarity of my surroundings. How strange to find myself feeling at home in lands where life is at once so different, yet very much the same.
  • I will never again feel small and insignificant when I visit NYC. Beijing, with its population of 16 million, and Shanghai with more than 20 million people, both demonstrated what life is like when millions of people come together in one place.
  • I will appreciate every breath of fresh air I take, having spent time in a city where the pollution is a constant haze over all you see, and assaults your eyes, nose and lungs in ways unimaginable. I suppose the transition from Beijing to Lhasa was made even more stark by this contrast. Though thin, the air in Lhasa was crisp and clean. I only hope that the encroachment of continued development does not change this.
  • I rarely drive north on 95 anymore, as the traffic from D.C. northward is always constant and unnerving for me. After sitting for hours in Beijing traffic, I will think twice before complaining again about our traffic situation. There is simply no comparison. I'll add to this a new appreciation for American "rules of the road." In China it appears that traffic is governed only by the rule of "gross tonnage, " better stated as "I'm bigger than you so you'd better get out of my way."
  • While I grow weary at times by the door-to-door visits from Jehovah's witnesses and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the evangelism that dominates late night and weekend television, and the influence of the religious right in matters political, I now appreciate and feel extremely grateful that I live in a society that that gives voice and rights to the wide range of religious groups in America. As a practicing Catholic who cantors at 8:30 mass on Sunday mornings, I found Sundays to be a very strange day in China. The lack of practical faith was something I had a hard time grasping. For myself, I felt a strange void in the absence of this traditional routine.
  • William keeps asking when we are going to get him a baby brother or sister. My response is not any time soon (and probably not likely). I have never really thought much about the freedom I have to make this kind of choice in my life, but after spending time with many people who talked about the impact China's one-child policy has had on their lives, I feel incredibly lucky to know that my government does not place restrictions on the number of children women and/or families may have.
  • My colleagues and I spent a great deal of time preparing for our trip. We read both popular and academic literature, watched videos and made presentations on our areas of interest. As much as I learned in this pre-travel period, it all paled in comparison to actually being in Taiwan, China and Tibet. There simply is no substitute for immersing yourself in another world, getting your hands dirty, and exploring, to the extent possible, the worlds of others. No amount of study could ever have taught me all that I learned on this trip.
  • I have been away from home before, but never for more than 4 or 5 days. The void that filled my heart was enormous, and it grew every time I saw a child. I could never have imagined that I would miss William as much as I did. Do all mothers feel this way? Will I ever choose to be away from him this long again? Because I missed him so much, I found myself stealing glances at all the children we came across. I was particularly moved by the faces of Tibetan children.
  • I left China with a new empathy for children who struggle to read and adults who remain illiterate. I found the illiteracy rates in Tibet to be staggering. The number we were quoted was an adult illiteracy rate of 60-70%. Looking at signs in Chinese and Tibetan, where nothing even looked remotely familiar or decodable, made me recognize in myself the panic I see on the faces of youngsters who cannot read the words on the page before them. I will never again take for granted this wonderful gift that is the ability to read.
  • There were times abroad when I truly felt like the “ugly American.” Though I have five long years of Latin study under my belt, I speak no other language. This gaping hole in my personal knowledge often made me think about how poorly we prepare students in the U.S. for the world we live in. Speaking English is simply not enough anymore. Our students need to learn a second and third language in their lifetime, and they need to start sooner than middle school. Why do public schools still not recognize this need? And what can I do to help encourage language study that truly leads to fluency, not just the ability to translate the written word?
  • Can one be appreciative of something as simple as a toilet facility? I think so. God bless western style toilets. Enough said on this point.
  • Traveling in this part of the world was a feast for the senses. Almost everything around me afforded a new taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Perhaps I should be grateful for breaking my camera. How much did I miss, or fail to see, because I was looking through the lens of the camera? I can close my eyes now and still smell the air, feel the stones beneath my feet, and taste and smell some of the most incredible foods. These are memories I will treasure.
  • Ethnic minorities in western China have seen many changes in the way they live their daily lives. One major change in recent years is the abandonment of hunting and shift to agrarian forms of subsistence as a result of gun control laws. I've thought a lot about this. I never once felt unsafe walking the city streets in any of the areas we visited. I cannot say the same for my country. Have we taken the second amendment too far? After all, haven't times changed significantly since the Bill of Rights was written? Why don't we take the safety and security of our communities more seriously? In some respects, I envy the Chinese for their commitment to this policy.
  • On the ground, the Chinese people we met looked and acted an awful lot like us. Why does the U.S. continue with the policy of China as neither friend nor foe? Can we really continue to to let ideological differences rule our policies toward this growing giant? There are no easy answers where our foreign policy is concerned, but at the local level, Chinese people seem to want many of these same things we do. Will they ever reach these aspirations?
  • I was moved by the guarded optimism of the Chinese people regarding the future of their country. The young people in particular believe their lives are better than their parents were, feel they can speak their minds (or at least said they felt this way), and eagerly look forward to full and productive futures.
  • I am as confused as ever on the issue of Taiwan. How will Taiwan deal with the fact that it is geographically, politically, socially and culturally close to China? How can we respect and support the fledgling democracy in Taiwan without stepping on the toes of the Chinese?
I suppose I now have more questions than answers. I still have much to think about. Overall, I return ever grateful for the freedoms afforded me as an American citizen. I can certainly understand the frustration with China over human rights and lack of personal freedoms, but I do believe that democratization lies ahead, though perhaps not in the very near future. I too am optimistic and believe that change will come, even if it is not at the pace we outsiders would prefer to see. I believe that this wave of economic reform will (someday) usher in both social and political reform. I only hope it happens in my lifetime. I would love to see it, both from afar and on the ground.


  1. I'm so glad you were able to go, and I hope you're settling into life back in Richmond okay. Take care

  2. We lived in China for six months in 2003. My conclusions are very similar to yours. My young Chinese women friends worried about their complexions, obsessed about putting on weight, and wondered if they would ever find Mr Right. Our teenage students rebelled discretely and had a profound respect for law and order. I had no clue as to the similarities in our lives, and came back to Australia enlightened, grateful and with a huge appreciation of Western plumbing.