After Words about China

Dad asked me, a while back, to actually write something about how I felt about going to China. Not just the things we saw, the history that was there, or what it was we did, but how it made me feel.

I'll admit that I've kind of avoided doing that, at first because the whole whirlwind trip was pretty overwhelming, and we've had a really busy time of it since. But there's a lot more to it than that, and a huge chunk of it is tied with the fact that when most Americans meet me, they ask me, "Where are you from?" And I always answer, "Well, I was born in Ohio."

The rest of my reluctance lies with the the fact that my feelings, my emotions mostly stem from value judgments. Mine are obviously different than theirs. And I know that that doesn't make them any better than theirs. Still, I'm so abjectly grateful for what I have here, for the values and mores and focus of the people here compared to there that it moves my most fundamental emotions, that I can't help but know that, for me, the U.S is so much better for me.

There was an American journalist of Chinese descent who went to China, and so many people asked him if he was excited to go back. He answered, rather frankly, that he'd never been there, so how in the world could he be going back? And he was relieved to find that, sure enough, when he was there, it was all foreign to him. That all those people that practiced genocide were wrong, that there wasn't some magical tie that would make all people with the same genetic basis think, feel, behave as if they all had the same ideals, goals, or values, much less acting on exactly the same social norms. That we really are individuals with our own choices on what we do and how we do it.

That anyone that equates me, in any way, with the people who are under the communist government of China has no clue. They would be ignoring the fact that many of the people I was related to were killed, imprisoned, or even tortured by people who are now in power in China. That if it came down to it, in a war, I'd want to fight against them for the ideals and values of this nation. I have even more reason than most Americans to hold a grudge against the Chinese government.

That all those adoptees from other countries are wrong, too, when they say that if they were only able to 'go back' they would finally fit in, feel as if they were at home. They're as American as I am. That when they do go back for that first trip in the country of their origin, there's ten thousand reasons why even if they don't open their mouth, the shopkeeper on the corner says, "You're American, aren't you?"

I don't fit in in China.

I never will.

And actually saying that and writing it down gives it a baldness, a reality, that not saying it was avoiding, I think. The shocking thing for me was that on the first or second day, when I asked Dad how he felt about finally 'being like everyone else again', he pretty much said the same thing. He was frank about thinking differently, having different values, and a completely different way of life, even having lived in Beijing. But he really did speak true.

One of my very well-meaning friends said that I should be prepared, going to China, that it was going to make a huge emotional impact on me.

The funny thing was that weeks later, when I was speaking with another friend who was of Irish descent, he said, "Well, here in America, we all seem to emphasize our origins, we want to be different. You wouldn't talk about being of Irish descent in Ireland, you'd talk about being American because that's what you know and they don't and want to learn about. It's like my Hispanic youth, here they talk about how amazing and wonderful Mexico was, but when they're back in Mexico, it's all about what they know here that makes them unique."

And I feel like I'm circling around the nugget of what's real in all this with what he said. In China, I was obviously the fat, big, rich American tourist to be milked of every dollar possible (which isn't to say that every tourist establishment isn't like that, it was exactly the same on the cruise ship and its ports of call in the Caribbean and also in portions of Hawaii or even Disneyland and San Diego's Balboa Park). I remember in the silk shop having one of the "helpers" talking aggrievedly with one of the cashiers about how I was too stupid to actually ask for help. He said in Mandarin right in front of me, obviously believing that I couldn't understand anything he said (which isn't to say that Americans can't be just as rude). The tea shop was a tourist travesty compared to the finest tea shops in America, even though we were able to walk in the gardens themselves and see the bushes and how they were trimmed and cared for right there. The actual teas were pale imitations of what we actually import into the US.

And yet, and yet...

There were still hundreds of small triggers over there, that reminded me of my childhood, of what experiences have made me who and what I am. The bits of the language that I could understand without being able to translate them into English, the bites of very specific foods that made emotions leap into comfort or recognition, the emblems of stories that I knew without being able to recall who had told me them the first time. Seeing the tea jar on the policeman's motorcycle, seeing the chop carvers putting blade to stone, and the cadence and fall of bargaining a price down (though that was like in Mexico).

I've also studied the history and stories. I know the Journey to the West, the War of the Three Kingdoms, and have a hint of the stories behind the history of the Empress and an impression of the strings of Emperors. I knew of the Terracotta warriors when the exhibit went to LA, and to see them in their original pits was amazing and odd, too, as it was obvious that the workers who were trying to piece them together weren't versed in all the preservation techniques that are on display at many of the museums I've gone to in LA, SD, here in Denver, Washington D.C., and Seattle.

The Chinese aren't as careful with their history or their natural resources as we are, here, which seems ironic given that I also felt that we have far more natural resources here than they do there. I remember seeing the shiny places in the caves where millions of hands had touched the stone, compared to going even into the Louis and Clark caverns and being warned to Not Touch Anything or it would make the stones stop forming. There was trash all through the River in Guilin. The workers with the terracotta warriors were manhandling the pieces barehanded, with skin touching the pieces.

The weight of multiple millennium of history was equal to the weight of the sheer density of people throughout the cities we visited. Both are huge, and so different than here in the U.S. And the lack of value for a single human life compared to the whole was so evident there, whereas here the safety of every single child is a matter of public law in helmet laws and childseat laws. The emphasis and valuation is so utterly different, most profoundly in the U.S. law that says that all hospitals must treat people even if they can't pay. In China, if you can't pay, you don't get anything.

That stirs deep, old memories of when my uncle, who was back in China, died of cancer for lack of medical care.

And there is rage at that.

That's the other reason I didn't want to go into this. *laughs* Because it ties into so much of my past and my life and my emotions about what it's been to be of Chinese descent when I'm not Chinese. One of my mother's friends wrote a book about what it was like to be a daughter of an official in the old Republic during the Japanese invasions and the first World War, of how profoundly she hate the Japanese because of all the death they're wrought, and how sickened she was when the new People's Republic of China thanked Japan for killing off most of the solders of the old Republic in those wars. It made the Communist take over so much easier.

So stepping into Tienanmen Square had layers upon layers of other emotions. Of remembering the protests, the students, the most newly dead. The long history and the draconian pasts of old Emperors really were only reprised by the Communists and, for that matter, the old Republic. It was this weird, two-way mirror thing, of doing the Touristy Thing and taking pictures, posing, noting, listening, and learning. Of taking in all these brand-new experiences around every corner; but underneath was this odd turmoil of 'oh... so this was what that really is like, what that really meant'.

Or knowing that Dad had lived, for a while, in one of the courtyards with a grandfather and grandmother in charge, dozens of servants, and then to see the reality of what that must have been like was like putting the story to the reality and seeing where all the differences were. It was like having emulated and seen the books of Chinese paintings only to see an old Uncle's desk overflowing with paintings of plum trees with pink, gold, or white blossoms. The item to be emulated suddenly seen in an every-day setting and pose. Like seeing an actual jade sword, dull and solid, hanging in a glass case of a museum, when, all along, it had only been a legend before. Or like seeing the Empress's actual living quarters within the Forbidden City.

Stories made not so much true, but everyday real.

And all the while knowing that this really was all alien to me. I remember, during the trip saying to John that I was really grateful for the luxury hotels. The days were so long, so full of things that were new, uncertain, different at every turn, that it was a real need to have some place to just curl up and be mostly surrounded by the familiar and comfortable. And even then there as the unusual thing for me of having all the water be unpotable in a luxury hotel. silkiemom noted the oddity of that. That here we're so used to even our Super 8s having unlimited drinkable water, and there the Sheraton doesn't even have quite the number of bottles of drinkable water one might desire. An example of where we in the US are wealthy in a way other countries can't imagine.

Beijing really made me aware of the sheer size and machinery of the Communist Government, the amount of time, energy, and money spent on face-saving there still boggles my mind. The size and immensity of the history and projects of China's past are a huge part of Beijing. Xi'an's history and archeological wealth is utterly awesome and in complete contrast with the fact that because of that wealth the Communists turned it all into backwater farmers. Guilin's mountains and waters are beautiful, but even more beautiful is its cultural diversity and the number of minorities that defy extinction there. Shanghai's chase of modern wealth is profound, and shows that the whole is still doing it's damnedest to keep up or surpass the rest of the world. But I think that I still love Suzhou's gardens the best, especially since they were an act of defiance against the Machine of the emperor's court of its day.

I'm glad I went to see all of them, to experience for myself the legends and history. To really get to know what I'd only heard rumored and to see for myself what it's like. I will remember to the end of my days those skyscraper apartment buildings with laundry and open windows to the top. Every apartment rented on an 80 year leases, where all the land belongs to the government and to no private person. But I'll also remember the warriors, the art in the museum from the last Emperor's collection and his signature, notes, and chop on some of the most beautiful paintings.

It's all a mix, as are my emotions about it all. But I'm very glad I went and got to see the Temple of Heaven where my father's aunt got to step on the Roof of the Sky. And the laughter and play in the parks. The music and the dancing, the paintings up on the ceiling of the walkways, and the man-made lakes and water about the Spring Palace. I'm glad I went and got to experience the place of it all, and even happier that Jet got to go with us while he can remember it all as part of his life.

And maybe that leads me to the last reason why I wasn't sure I wanted to write this. Because I still haven't 'resolved' how I feel about it all. Or the simple fact that I feel it all when I had assumed I would have no ties to anything in China. There are so many feelings, and there really isn't a central point to it. Maybe the real point is that I felt like a tourist there, and the reality is that I was, and if I go "back", now that I've really been there, I'll know that that is how it will be and I can prepare that way. That if I go just for the experience, instead of to satisfy some weird expectation on how I 'ought to feel' about it all, then maybe I'll just enjoy myself more and get more out of it.

And so that leads me back around the circle again. I think I'd like to go to China again, different places, maybe even a different way, where we could actually experience more of the local food, the regular housing, the places that aren't just set up for a good show for the visitors. It's the way we've always traveled everywhere else.
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"Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky"
Perhaps once a year on this anniversary you could write how you feel about the trip, eventually to serve as a view of the process of sorting out your feelings through the backward lens of memory?
Re: "Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky"
I love your title for this comment.

Yes. I may well have to do that. Especially if we do plan to go to China again, I'll have to think some more about it all.

It may well be that I had hoped to have no ties, or something like that, but I'm having to deal with the fact that I really do have a lot of ties, but most of them are in the negative. Or that they were legendary and were dragged into everyday. And they do define what I'm not as much as what I am, in the negative, they're still a fence on who and what I am. Even when one of the ladies on the tour called me "the Ohio girl who looks Chinese..."

And the backward lens of memory keeps getting reshaped with experience...

Edited at 2014-01-21 05:58 pm (UTC)
Re: "Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky"
Title taken from a phrase in one of S.J. Rozan's Bill & Lydia mystery novels.
Re: "Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky"
Ooo... and I now have another half dozen books that I should sit down and read.

Thank you so much!!
[Aaagh. I wrote a long reply, and something in my Firefox security eated it. Fortunately I have been able to recover it, so here it is.]

I wonder if your feelings ever will be resolved.

My wife is bicultural, US and Mexican, and her feelings are complex. Hmmm. Mexico was conquered by outsiders and is still trying to reconcile itself with its past. In Mexico, they speak of "Las Tres Culturas"—The Three Cultures—Spanish, Mexica, and Mestizo. The brutality of the Mexica Triple Alliance, one of the few cultures where mass human sacrifice is documented historically, is hard to engage, just as Mao's brutality is hard to engage, or even admit. Qin Shi Huang is safely two millennia in the past, but the lives of Itzcoatl and Tlacaelel overlapped with that of Elizabeth I.

I think official China would never speak of three cultures. But it is perhaps not such a bad way to think of China as it is: traditional Chinese, modern Chinese, and a blended Chinese. But then, the world struggles with modernity; Western Europe and the USA where it was invented as well. Modern Western history is a history of revolution, and I do not see how this can continue indefinitely; indeed, the modern world is encountering physical limits to its expansion, and these necessitate a response.
Yay for recovery!!

I don't think they ever will be, honestly.

You point at some of it with your thoughtful comments about your wife's background. Yes. That. There is a lot that's hard to engage with the callous carelessness of individual lives, but it's not like that doesn't happen here as well as there... just on a different axis. And, yes, if my confusion is a reflection of the overall cultural confusion over how much of the past need affect the future... then yes.

*hugs* Thank you so much for your thoughts!
Thank you for writing on it. *cannot say much to add, but only read and absorb*
I loved your trip report, and I love your reflections now. It makes me wonder on how I would react to visiting China. It's more remote for me, more culturally distant. I know more Japanese than any kind of Chinese, and the Japanese is mostly from having to take a foreign language in high school. :) But I still wonder if there would be bits that I would recognize.

I also didn't grow up with people asking where I was from. That didn't happen until I got married and moved to California. It's not something that happened all my life, so I find it more amusing than annoying or alienating.

I do hope that if you visit China again you will get to enjoy it for what it is, and not what it ought to be. Your write-ups made me feel like I was enjoying it for what it is.

It would be an interesting thing to find out! I think it surprised me how much was echoed...

Yeah, that was one thing I talked over with John, was the fact that I think I might have been looking in China for something I'd found in Hawaii when we visited there. The odd sort of ease that comes of knowing that my race wasn't "different" when I was there, that I could just blend in with John and be mistaken for locals when we were there. I remember walking into a fish restaurant with John and having the waiter asking us what we were doing there because if we really were local, we would be getting fresh, free fish from our families, not going to a restaurant... But as John pointed out last night, to me, Hawaii is a part of the U.S., and it was like the combination of being in a mostly familiar culture (and language) and having my race not stand out anymore. In Indiana, my sister used to call us "the raisins in the rice pudding".

And I'll have to admit that a good deal of that alienation or annoyance is actually sourced from *me*, not necessarily from the person asking. I still remember being in a grocery store and an elderly lady asking, "Pardon me, if you don't mind me asking, but are you Chinese?" And she was obviously trying very hard NOT to annoy me, because she wanted to just talk to me. Her daughter had just adopted two girls from China and she was wondering how to treat them... and while some part of my mind flashed to annoyance about the idea that they'd have to be somehow different... the rest of me recognized that she really wanted to know and she was asking from a position of really wanting to love those girls the way she "ought to". So I just said, "Love them. I'm about as American as I can get, and they'll just be like that. I'm not adopted, though, and they'll be like any other adopted little girl, there will be some wounds about having been abandoned, but if you love them as their grandmother, they'll know it and love you back."

It was... I dunno... sometimes I can take those questions with compassion, but sometimes I think it's my own issues that get in the way.

Oh! Good!! I'm very glad that you enjoyed the original writeups that way, as that's part of why I left out a lot of the emotional stuff. *laughs* I deliberately tried to write is as I write up most of my trips, with all the wonder and excitement of discovering things I hadn't known or experienced, yet. It's kind of cool to know that those things definitely did come across to someone else.
I think it's interesting how it seems like other people expect you to identify with your race rather than your culture. Just being around other people who look like you isn't as comfortable and familiar as being around people who are your own culture. I think that the "where are you from?" and "what are you?" questions not usually meant to other and alienate, but the cumulative effect of being asked those questions does become othering and alienating. I think the issues with those questions are an understandable reaction after a while.
Yes... I think you have it on the nose.

Especially the "Just being around other people who look like you isn't as comfortable and familiar as being around people who are your own culture." It's soooooo true...

Thank you!
You write about this very well, as you do with most things. Damn you are an articulate person! Anyway, thank you for writing.

I feel like I want to share a bit about my experience of heritage, but I don't want to seem as though I'm diminishing your experience. I guess I want to relate and contextualize as much as the next person.

Being white/Caucasian, I don't get the big "Where are you from?" question with its YOU ARE OTHER overtones, but the establishing of heritage particulars does frequently happen, albeit in a more subtle way. Many people listen to the name of a person and make assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are verbalized, and then we have the back and forth of "not English, but Scottish by way of Ireland, actually" and "Mom's family is Polish and a little German because the borders were different when they left" and the Ellis Island talk and the "actually my name stems from being the only 2 in the book of baby names that my parents could agree on" explanation.

Traveling around Ireland and learning way more about the potato famine than covered in my entire 18 years of formal education was interesting; it made more concrete for me the resentment and misery with which I was more familiar, the stuff we all heard about and lived through when there were bombs and riots and clashes. I didn't make me more sympathetic, per se, because killing is killing and I want no part of it. But it did create a certain amount of continuity from the "ancient" history/middle ages and Renaissance to modern history.

Many people seem to be sorting others, trying to figure out where they fit. "I am thinner than she is, but she is prettier than I" and "they are 3rd generation immigrants and I am 4th generation" and "they still speak with an accent and I have shed mine." I'm not sure where this urge originates, but it seems pretty common.

And you're so good at relating and contextualizing...

That was one of those things I was thinking... that the "Where are you from?" question feels oddly different to me when someone asks John where his surname name came from or when someone asks about John's Scottish heritage. Still thinking over why that is and what it means to me, really.

Yes! On learning the Irish history making more sense of what was going on and why, even if one doesn't condone it, but yeah, knowing far more of the history of China and Japan, I now have a far far clearer understanding of my parents' early reflexive dislike of anything Japanese. There's a lot there, and yes, just like that.

And, yes, the need to sort is very common, and I think it stems from the ability and need to generalize to a certain point on a lot of things just to make sense of the world. It's just easier to know where you stand if you can sort someone into a category that works and sometimes safer. I think I just get grumpy when I get sorted into the wrong bin. *laughs*
Thank you
This was deeper than pleasure to read.

I dipped into the life of China in 1986 as a student, and it was a different world then... so much change, so much change.

I'm guessing you've read "The Girl from Purple Mountain" (perhaps that's the book you refer to, but probably not)... and have you seen the film "A Great Wall"? Both are works by people trying to understand what it means to be American with 20th Century Chinese roots. (Along with so many others!)

I cannot imagine, really, what it is like... but I appreciate being evocatively shown a little bit.



Re: Thank you
You're so very welcome. Now I shall have to explore that book and movie, too! It might lend me more perspective.

Yes. So much change, and I'll say that it's probably been for the better. That sense of fear I had as a child for how utterly arbitrary and cruel communism could be is now lessened.

There are so many cultures I am not a part of which I study and enjoy, and yet the one which I'm born from is the one that holds the most surprises and the most emotions for me.
Great read!
..and as I posted back on Facebook, your piece was good for many humorous thoughts as I read through it all. I suppose that reaction comes from some of the similarity in our perspectives - being a Detroit-born Boulderite (hah!) with parents and grandparents who were essentially chased out of China.

My mom and I took Nathaniel to give him his first glimpse of China over this past Thanksgiving and I'm very glad no one tried to give him any notion of what he should think or feel about the whole experience. I'm hoping he just soaked it in for what it was. Most of our time was spent in Hong Kong but we did spend a bit of time on a quick trip inside China seeing the villages where my parents spent their youth before their families decided HK (and eventually the US) might be slightly better for their general well being.
Re: Great read!
Yeah... and you probably were in some of those situations when you were there...

And I think Jet was able to really get into the trip for its own sake, which I'm really grateful for. He doesn't have the baggage I have, I think, and yeah... about the 'going away' being a healthier alternative than staying. He was also really fascinated with my father's stories while we were there, which was really fun and gave Jet more to work with while we were there.