Liralen Li (liralen) wrote,
Liralen Li

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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.
Tags: china, me, travel

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