Monday, March 16, 2009

China I: A Stranger in Ancestral Lands

This is the first in the long overdue installment on China.

First a quick synopsis of why I was in China. Over Spring Break, I went with 11 other students and 3 faculty from my school to visit the China CDC and the Tianjin CDC. We were to immerse ourselves in the culture and learn a different perspective on health care. We were divided into two teams: a measles vaccination group (that I was in) and a maternal-infant health group.
"How would people view someone like me - obviously Chinese on the outside but perhaps less so on the inside?"

A quote from a journal entry we had to keep while in China. Both my roommate for the trip and I are Chinese-Americans, more specifically ABCs (American-born Chinese) who've never stepped foot on to mainland China. We were "in the same boat," we were constantly curious about how the real Chinese would view the two of us. What would it be like to be a stranger in one's "ancestral lands?"

I was filled with nervous anticipation long before I endured the 14 hours on a plane before landing on another continent. What would it be like to walk in the land that my ancestors had lived and died in? Would I feel some connection? Would this trip mean something more to me than an academic inquiry into a foreign health care system?

Riding in a bus, passing the wintry brown countryside, we headed towards the mountains surrounding Beijing to visit the Great Wall - a monumental testament to human will that can be seen from space. There is a saying, 不到长城非好汉 (bu4 dao4 chang2 cheng2 fei1 hao3 han4). It means, "Until you reach the Great Wall, you're not a proper person." The Great Wall represents a major hurdle in life, and until you've scaled it, you cannot move on and grow as a person.

It was wonderful walking along the Great Wall, even when it was barely above freezing outside. The weather was surprisingly clear and sunny. There was a sense of adventure, of awe at this testament against time. It was incredible how long it stretched and snaked its way along the mountains into the horizon. Breathtaking.

We only had 2 hours at the Great Wall, not enough time to walk along its ramparts very far. On our way down, we were accosted by many vendors. I decided to bargain for a silk scroll. It was pricey, but I bargained it down to 1/4 of its original price. Later I learned that even at this price I was ripped off. -_-

After lunch, we then headed to the Forbidden City, also know as the Imperial Palace. But first, a gratuitous picture of lunch. Yes, it was like that for almost every meal while we were there. Again, as my friend said: "The food is so good, it shouldn't be this good."

Then we were off to the Forbidden City. We entered through the back into the Imperial Gardens first and exiting the front into Tiananmen Square.

Some of the trees there were hundreds to thousands of years old. There were two "lover trees" in the gardens. One pair of trees grew naturally and appeared to branch in two, and another pair were engineered to give the opposite appearance - to grow into each other.
A pair of trees that naturally grew to be joined in the lower trunk.

A pair of trees engineered to grow into each other.

Upon passing from the gardens into the Forbidden City proper, we encountered doors with the "double happiness" character (喜喜, xi3). Our tour guide (who was walking at Hong Kong speed, I swear) told us that if we rubbed our hands on the characters in a heart-shape, said some words to ourselves, and then put our hands in our pockets, we would find love within 2-3 months. Well, according to that I have until my birthday for love to fall into my lap, haha.

The Imperial Palace was full of symbolisms. From the roofs to the animal guardian statues. From the colors to the layout. There was meaning in ever aspect of creation.
Roof guardian animals grant protection. The more animals, the more protection.

A guardian lioness holds a cub in her left paw.

My favorite picture.

After we finished with the Imperial Palace, we exited into Tiananmen Square. To have learned about Tiananmen Square from a US perspective and then to see it as it currently is, was quite an experience. It wasn't what I expected it to be, though I really had no tangible expectations to begin with. Oh, by the way, there were people in military uniforms everywhere. It was a bit daunting. I think they were performing some of the police duties.

This was all day one. Yes, Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square in one day. We also went to the Pearl Market in Beijing for an hour or so. Everything was bargain-able there. EVERYTHING. In the last 5 minutes I found a vendor who was selling underwear. You could bargain underwear!! I would've bargained and bought underwear, just to say that I did, but alas I ran out of time. I'm not a particularly good bargainer. :-/
In that first day in Beijing, China, I knew what this trip meant to me. It was a means to escape the current humdrum of my life, to explore and feel alive again. Grad school immediately following undergrad with hardly a breath between summers had worn down my mind, body, and soul. I needed to escape, if only for a little while. In China, I immersed myself in an aspect within me that had always existed but suffered from disuse. I sought to connect myself to the world around me, to bridge where I was from and where I am.

Were these people "my" people? Was this land "my" land? I don't know. I've never really felt that anywhere, in the US or in China. But I felt connected. I felt like I was standing on a bridge between two worlds, alternatingly looking East and West. As to how the Chinese thought of me and my roommate? Well, that's for another post. But suffice to say here, the non-Chinese people with us were sometimes referred to as our "American friends."


Shane said...

Need more pictures of cute Asian guys in my opinion :)!

mstpbound said...

wheeeeeeee i just caught up on your blog! hahahahah white wine is NOT white wine, right? that shit is PURE EtOH and not even in a good way. what did you have? maotai? wulanye? blech, when I was there i could NOT get that shit down it was so terrible! and omgggg how did you go to the great wall with so few people there!! it looks beautiful. man, every time i go it's usually during the summer, and there is a CRUSH of people like 1000000000000000000 and you're just like STRUGGLING to not get thrown off the wall or something. ooooh, did you have as much trouble climbing the steps as i did? isn't it totally weird how the steps aren't even? i used to trip all the time when one of the steps were higher than i thought it looked. haha did you eat enough food for me and you? more importantly, did you bring some back for meeeeeeeee!!! i think i will be going back maybe this winter, so i'm excited!! did you walk a straight line through the forbidden city? it is SO LONG just to walk along the north-south axis; i have never been able to fully explore all the side alley-ways. oh oh and did you go to the summer palace??? exciting!! post more more! :) :)

naturgesetz said...

Quite the first day. Looking forward to hearing more about how you felt and how you were received.

charlie said...

Great post! :) very interesting, and great pictures! Thanks for sharing!

E said...

Great photos. Though I didn't get the white wine comment, it made me laugh.

It is interesting that you should mention how your being an American born Chinese man would be received. Did you feel a sense of "arrival" when you got there? I keep hearing this sense of oneness with one's ancestor's native land.

I had a friend who's parents are from Columbia and he said he felt a sense of familiarity when he visited the country. I often hear a similar experience with Black Americans visiting Africa.

Hish said...

I am (still?) insanely jealous that you got to visit such amazing places!

Well, speaking of being not quite Chinese, well, Chinese, I'm only half Chinese ethnically... and all my Chinese relations were born in Malaysia anyway :P I'd probably feel even less a part of China than you would. At least you LOOK the part (no one can really tell my ethnicity -_- a lot of people think I'm Central Asian, e.g. from Kyrgyztan or Kazakhstan).

Mike said...

That's pretty cool you went to China for your first time. I thought you had been. That's cool you felt that connection being in China.

I'm catching up on blogs, just like emails... hehe

Anonymous said...

I love the bargaining. Yep, same thing in Mongolia. The key to getting the price you want is to be prepared to walk away. Also, call the people on their sales, tell them you know they're ripping you off and that you won't be treated like an outsider. lol. I used to tell the Mongolians: "türist bish"..."I'm not a tourist"...always made them think twice about the price they were stating.

And what do you mean FIND love? *looks hurt*

E said...

Ok, Now I feel silly. I just realized that there were more words under the pictures that kinda answered my question....not my brightest moment.

Aek said...

Shane: I didn't really find any, but then again I wasn't looking. Sorry.

mstpbound: Omg, I know right?! About the white wine, that is. I don't actually remember what it was. It was winter, so not that many people at the Great Wall. :D The steps were weird in places, and I don't like heights, but I didn't trip up. I was being super-careful due to the presence of ice in some parts. And yes, I ate TONS of food (but surprisingly I didn't gain weight, though it sure felt like I did). I brought back presents, yup!! You'll have to come find me to get yours. :P The Forbidden City didn't take THAT long to walk through, about 2 hours maybe. We kind of did just walk straight through. No, we didn't go to the Summer Palace. :(

naturgesetz, charlie: Thanks!

Hish: I'm going to try to go back this summer for a month, and explore around a bit more. XD You've been to a lot of cool places (more than I have), so China's mine. :P

Mike: Nah, I had been to Hong Kong once, like over a decade ago, lol. But never to mainland China. Hey, please read carefully my last 2 emails to you and really consider it, okay?

James: Yeah, bargaining. Thing was, I had no idea how much things were "supposed" to cost until later that afternoon. That was the first and last time I was so egregiously ripped off.

E: That's okay. Just keep reading to the end. :P White wine is not actually wine. It's some kind of alcohol that's stronger than vodka. Seriously, what we has was "low" percentage alcohol content at 32%. They usually drink 38-50% alcohol content. That stuff will mess you up. But to reiterate, I didn't feel a sense of "belonging" or "oneness" per se, but rather a sense of "completion" in a sense. It's hard to describe, I'll blog about it later. :)

Anonymous said...

I also meant to say, the Great Wall...hmm, the Mongolians think of it as the Great Joke. They just went around it lol!

tracy said...

Hi Aek,
Thank you so much for a most wonderful post...and the pictures are amazing! i have this fantasy of being able to visit the Great Wall, etc someday...(Hee, whenever i think of it though, i am reminded of Dr. Ruth scampering along it!). i am very happy you felt connected...that is so great.
Hands in pockets! :)